Monday, July 5, 2010

Don't Judge A Whisky by its First Taste!

Just as you should not judge a book by its cover, neither should you judge a scotch or whisky by a single tasting of a freshly opened bottle.  I have found that when you first open a new bottle the initial dram may taste a little hot, tart and a little sharp.  The flavors will meld and sometimes improve after the bottle has been left for a week or two.  The reason why? 

Air.  Once that seal is broken on that bottle and the cork is pulled air will get in and affect the flavors offered up.  Certainly, some whiskies change very little from the first opening to the last drop, but there are many that do change.  Some improve and some decline.  Recently, I acquired a bottle of Woodford Reserve.  The first week of my sampling it was met by a lot of burn and raw alcohol on the finish.  Give it two weeks and the air in the bottle has tamed it considerably.  It's still a little wild and I stand by my review, but that awful burn has subsided considerably.

Highland Park 18 is another example.  Upon first opening, it seemed perfect to my tastes.  Flavors were very well defined.  Come back to it a week later and the sherry flavors had become a lot bigger, in fact a little unwieldly.  I prefered it upon first opening.

Ever notice how you pull that bottle out one night and it tastes fantastic, but when you reach for it on another, it is not the same?  It could have a lot to do with what you ate for dinner.  Did you scarf up your tongue with spicy Thai food?  Couple of tacos?  Wings with suicide sauce?  Guess what?  Your palate may be in less than optimal sensory function for the task of tasting the multi-stellar splendor of flavors that only whisky can deliver.  Same goes for that Cohiba cigar you just had to have after dinner.  Or maybe it was her mint jelly lipstick . . . ok, ok you get the picture.

Here's a suggestion.  If you intend to drink a fine single malt or merely your favorite good ol' stand-by,  have a bland supper and wait three or four hours before having a drink.  Give that palate of yours time to recuperate.  Nothing other than water should pass your lips between dins and drinking time.  And of course it goes without saying that you should not eat anything with your scotch/whisky.  If you think some dark chocolate would be a nice compliment to your scotch, make your selection an affordable blended scotch (ie. Johnnie Walker Black, etc.).  Chocolate and a host of other appetizers will only serve to marr your ability to taste.  Just say 'no.'  I know this is all the rage at whisky tastings in hotels where fellow whisky nuts walk around in tuxes or kilts that should only be worn at a Scottish Highland dancing competition, but trust me, it's a mistake if you are really trying to formulate an opinion on a given dram.

In between sips of your chosen malt or whisky, drink water and plenty of it.  Drink water at room temperature.  Ice water chills the palate and desensitizes the palate.  Not something we want.

Now my opinion here is totally irrational but I find that whisky of any kind simply tastes better from fine crystal.  Whether it be a tumbler, a brandy snifter or the Glen Cairn glass, so long as it is crystal, you'll be all right.  Sample your whisky from cheap old regular drinking glasses and I think there is a difference.  I offer no rational basis for this opinion, just experience.  Try it out.


Jason Debly

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2010. All rights reserved.


  1. I enjoy your blog very much because your reviews are VERY consistent with my experience with many of these spirits. Your reviews of Woodford Reserve, Wild Turkey 101, and Dewar’s 12 year old are exactly what I experienced - I thought I was the only one who was so disappointed by the Dewar’s.

    Too many other blogs are just overflowing with praise (like they were written by the company). Full bottles are expensive, but I think too many reviews are done based on 50ml samples which don’t represent the entire experience very well.

    When I opened a 750ml bottle of Evan Williams Black Label Bourbon, it was like gasoline. I was going to throw it away but decided to revisit it. Over time it got smoother and had some very good flavors. At $12 locally it is not as premium as some other bourbons, but I would try it again.

    I read such praises for the Balvenie Doublewood 12 ($42 locally) that I had to try it. Initially it was as they described it and enjoyable. Over time and further down the bottle I was getting this metal ore bite that was very unpleasant. Won’t be visiting that one again.

    Kevin – Milwaukee WI

  2. Hi! Kevin. Thanks for taking the time to comment. Yes, I totally agree with you that many scotch blogs seem to declare that every scotch whisky is terrific, which of course is simply not true. But why do they do that? Simple, many bloggers are not objective in their opinions. Their judgment can hardly be regarded as impartial when the distillery supplies them with the samples and maybe more (ie. invitation to a restaurant for a tasting etc.). It's kinda hard to bite the hand that feeds you.

    If you look carefully at some websites, the content is actually press releases from the distilleries. Anyway, that is part of the reason I started this blog was simply out of frustration that the websites and blogs were unreliable and basically web savy marketing sites. I'm not a scotch expert, I'm not selling you anything, I don't work in the spirits industry and I sure as hell won't take their free samples.

    You are also correct that many reviews on some sites are based on little 50ml bottles and this type of review will have limitations you have pointed out.

    In any event, glad you like what you are reading here.


  3. I see bottles of Jack Daniel's Single Barrel and Buffalo Trace on the shelf. When will we see reviews of them?

  4. Oh shortly Kevin. I just bought those in New Hampshire last week. I look to open a bottle and sample it over a couple of weeks to make sure I know it well. No reviews based on 50ml bottles here!

    Come back in a couple of weeks for the reviews. I am especially looking forward to trying the Buffalo Trace. Everything I read is very positive and apparently a great value at its price.

  5. Hi Jason,

    As always, I enjoy reading your blog, but would like to take exception to two statements.

    Your statement about eating with scotch being a definite no-no. I agree with you on that if you are trying a dram for the first time and really want to taste and explore it. However, this should not be discouraged in its entirety. Chocolate, cheese, smoked salmon, etc., with a properly paired dram will most definitely add to the experience and present the whisky to your palate differently. I understand that you (used to) write about wine. I think the same concepts prevail with wine tasting as well. Don't mar your palate with food if you're trying to tease the flavours and aromas from a wine. But again, properly pair a food item and wine and the experience can only be enhanced.

    Glassware, on the other hand, I will have to disagree with. Glass or crystal, a proper glass for whisky should have a larger bowl and a closed top.. think tulip shaped. If the intention is to "formulate an opinion" of a dram, it cannot be done with a tumbler-style glass. I understand that the Glencairn glass is supposed to be a "true" whisky glass, however a cognac or brandy, or even a red wine glass, will work much better. I can understand though that the "feel" of a crystal glass can raise the experience because it just FEELS better on the lips.. more dignified. used to have a nice little "University" on tasting whisky which would complement your post, however I am presented with a "login required" page.. too bad.

    Keep up the good work!

  6. Hello! Mike. Interesting comments. Food and whisky is really tricky. I know at tastings there are interesting pairings with food, but for me it becomes more about a nice night out than actually tasting a single malt and gaining a clear understanding of its flavors.

    Glassware? All that a tulip shaped glass will afford is a better reception of the aromas or nose of the whisky. That is a fair statement. I am just a creature of habit and generally prefer the tumbler. This makes nosing more difficult as I literally have to stick my nose deep in the glass and inhale (don't do this in public). With respect to taste, I don't think the shape of the glass will affect the flavor profile one way or the other.

  7. Hi Jason, I'd like you to reconsider your thoughts on how our nose affects what we taste. If you've ever had a bad sinus cold, you'll know what I mean -- everything tastes flat and bland. In fact, our olfactory system plays a major role in how we taste (see here: When sitting down to properly taste a whisky, why wouldn't you want to give your senses every opportunity? I find that taking a small breath while taking a sip can greatly enhance the main flavours as well as promote the more nuanced ones.

    However, after a long week I'll reach for a tumbler to enjoy a few drams with out on the deck. I don't want to have to think when I'm unwinding, just looking for enjoyment. Which is what it comes down to when you reach for that bottle. Am I looking to do a tasting, or do I just want to sip?

  8. Have you tried this whiskey, Jason?

    Japanese, impressive bottle. I happened upon it in a small, Japanese coffee shop in Fuzhou, China and bought a shot. I found it to be really good. Try as I might, I couldn't figure out how to describe its flavors. My "whiskey language" is still just mimicry of what I'm told to look for, and I can't read flavors for myself.

  9. Hey Jason - yes, you are absolutely right! Let it breathe and get back to it. That has surely made a difference in most of the bottles I've had. I think you are 1/2 and 1/2 on the food issue. I do agree that tasting on an empty stomach does work far better that tasting after a big dinner. For me though, a piece of rye bread and provolone cheese - no condiments - one bite some swishing and drinking of H2O and the stomach is settled for the next sip. I get a bit queasy on an empty stomach and like the cleansing of the palate the bread, cheese and water provide. However - this has got to be a very personal preference. Keep up the great articles and reviews dude, and bring up these points for discussion - you are also a breath of fresh air and a great source for us starting on the whisky road!