How to Breathe When Smelling, Tasting & Drinking Whiskey


We all know that you’re supposed to drink whiskey by taking your time to smell and taste it but what’s less clear is how to breathe when drinking whiskey so you can do that properly. Here’s what I’ve learnt.

The way to breathe when drinking whiskey is by exhaling after both smelling and tasting it. This reduces the impact of the alcohol and leaves you able to smell and taste the whiskey. The way to breathe when nosing whiskey, so that you pick up all its aromas, is by inhaling deeply but gently, using one nostril and then the other and varying your rate of inhalation.

There are actually two reasons why it’s important to breathe properly when drinking whiskey and we’ll go into detail of how to do so for both smelling and tasting whiskey.

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Man breathing while drinking a glass of whiskey

Why It’s Important to Breathe Properly When Drinking Whiskey

There are two reasons why it’s important to breathe properly when drinking whiskey.

The first is because whiskey is anywhere between 40%ABV – 68%ABV. That means it’s very strong indeed. For contrast, wine is on average 11.6%ABV and beer 4.5%ABV.

A high ABV means the smell and taste of the alcohol will overpower the smell and taste of the whiskey itself. For further contrast, you probably won’t want to smell and taste the alcohol, which is not that pleasant, but you will want to smell and taste the aromas and flavors of the whiskey, which can be numerous and delicious.

To make matters worse, if you simply nose or taste your whiskey without taking any precautions, the high ABV can burn you numbing your smell and taste receptors – temporarily of course we’re not talking permanent damage here. It will then be difficult or even impossible for you to smell or taste the flavors of your whiskey until your nosing and tasting equipment recover.

Proper breathing when drinking whiskey stops the smell and taste of the alcohol overpowering the smell and taste of the whiskey or numbing your smell and taste receptors by reducing the amount of alcohol you take in and increase the amount of alcohol you let out.

The second reason why it’s important to breathe properly when drinking whiskey is because it helps you detect all the aromas. It’s true that once you reduce the impact of the alcohol, it’s much easier to pick up a whiskey’s aromas, but breathing properly while nosing will help you pick up all of them.

Detecting all a whiskey’s aromas is important because flavor is a combination of both smell and taste. The more of the aromas you detect, the more of a whiskey’s flavors you’ll taste. This is why whiskey drinkers spend so much time nosing their drink.

Without all a whiskey’s aromas you won’t get all it’s flavors. And if you don’t breathe properly when drinking whiskey, you won’t get all its aromas.

How to Breathe When Smelling Whiskey

To ensure that the smell of the alcohol doesn’t overpower the smell of the whiskey or numb your smell receptors you need to breathe in slowly and gently and keep your mouth open slightly, so that the alcohol fumes can escape.

You’ll probably still get an overpowering sense of alcohol as it takes two, three or even four sniffs before your nostrils get used to it, but if you’re smelling slowly and gently and keeping your mouth open to let the alcohol fumes escape, you won’t be burnt by the alcohol and your smell receptors will remain operational.

Now you need to breathe in a way that allows you pick up all the aromas of the whiskey and get all its flavors.

First you need to ensure that you’re breathing in deeply – though still gently. This is because different aromas concentrate at different parts of the glass. At the bottom you’ll find the heavier compounds with earthy, smoky, woody, aromas and higher up you’ll detect the spicy, malty and winey aromas. Towards the rim will be the lighter fruity and floral aromas. Therefore, if you want to ensure that you pick up anything more than the lighter aromas, you’ll need to breathe in deeply.

Next, you’ll need to breathe in using one nostril and then the other. This is because usually, one nostril is responsible for 80% of an inhalation while the other is obstructed. You won’t know which one is which because it alternates every two to three hours. Without breathing in using one nostril at a time you could end up trying to smell a whiskey’s aromas using an obstructed nostril and only picking up 20% of what’s there.

Finally, vary your rate of inhalation because some aromas are easier to detect when the flow of air is rapid while others are easier to detect when the flow of air is slow. Breathing in both slowly and fast will ensure you don’t miss any of them.

Make sure you’re keeping your mouth slightly open the whole time, so that not only can the alcohol fumes escape as mentioned, but the whiskey aromas can circulate round, making it easier to detect them.

How to Breathe When Tasting Whiskey

A man drinking whiskey

When it comes to breathing and tasting whiskey it’s less a matter of how to breathe and more a matter of when to breathe.

If you breathe in just before drinking your whiskey, you’ll draw the alcohol vapors to the back of your throat and the delicate mucus membrane that lines it and get the burning sensation that’s ruined many whiskey drinking sessions and cost us countless whiskey enthusiasts.

Yes, it’s as simple as not putting a glass of whiskey to your lips, opening your mouth and breathing in high levels of alcohol fumes.

Instead, before you drink, inhale or exhale partially – it depends on where you are in your breathing rhythm, but the point is to have some breath in your lungs. Your lungs shouldn’t be completely full or completely empty. That way when you drink the whiskey you won’t be breathing in and it won’t burn.

Take a sip of whiskey, chew your drink (meaning hold it in your mouth and swirl it around so that it spreads throughout your mouth and you can taste it) and then swallow. Open your mouth and exhale in a long smooth breath to drive the alcohol vapors from your throat and prevent them from building up and burning you.

The air moving across your palate as you do this will also activate some of your taste buds helping you pick up the flavors of your whiskey.

How to Breathe When Tasting Whiskey – Alternative Versions

Some people find that exhaling through their nose after swallowing their whiskey is better than exhaling through their mouth. This is because when you exhale through your nose the aromatic molecules in your mouth go to the back of your throat and rise up into your sinuses, allowing you to smell more of the whiskey’s aromas.

Some people like to have the best of both worlds and exhale through both their nose and their mouth, although that can be a bit tricky. However important it is to breath properly when drinking whiskey, it’s also important not to choke.

Either way, as with many whiskey issues, a bit of experimentation will be necessary to see which method of breathing you find drives more alcohol vapors from your mouth and makes your whiskey taste better.

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Josh Mitchell

I'm Josh Mitchell. I love whiskey and am working on increasing my whiskey tasting abilities and my collection.

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