A bottle of whiskey is the culmination of a years-if-not-decades-long precise and detailed, taste-focused-process, so it’s only natural to assume that the final product is the best it can be. Every sip of exalted deliciousness will appear to confirm this – as does the price – but the truth is that if you know how to make whiskey taste better you can improve on perfection.
Now some of the ways to make whiskey taste better are a must because without them the flavors of the whiskey are somewhat inhibited, others just bring out some of the more subtle flavors you might have otherwise missed, and some will add even more flavor to your whiskey.
This doesn’t mean the distillers have done a bad job. Far from it, they’ve done the best they can to create a whiskey full of delicious flavors. Our job as whiskey drinkers is to know how to let those flavors out which we can only do if we know how to make whiskey taste better.
How to Make Whiskey Taste Better: An Overview
There are five ways to make whiskey taste better:
- Use a proper whiskey glass
- Add water to a glass of whiskey
- Improve your whiskey tasting abilities
- Add bitters to give it more flavors
- Age or finish (meaning secondary maturation not drinking) your whiskey
1. Use a Proper Whiskey Glass
The glass you use to drink whiskey has a profound effect on its taste and if you want to pick up all the flavors, you’re going to need to use a proper whiskey glass. This means some type of nosing glass that allows you to … nose your whiskey. Nosing your whiskey is important because flavor is not just about taste but smell too. You need to pick up a whiskey’s aromas in order to appreciate all its flavors.
Nosing glasses are tall-ish glasses with a wide bowl, long narrow neck, thin stem and broad pedestal.
Glencairn Whisky Glass
These glasses have room in the bowl for air to get to the whiskey so it can breathe, and the ethanol can evaporate. The bowl shape of the nosing glass concentrates the whiskeys aromas towards the narrow rim and allows them to accumulate. With less alcohol in the way, you’ll be able to pick up all the whiskey aromas and then, its flavors, so of course your whiskey will taste better.
However, if you use another type of glass to drink whiskey the opposite happens. Less ethanol evaporates and more whiskey aromas dissipate. With the whiskey aromas gone, the flavors will be different, were you able to taste them through the nose and palate numbing alcohol.
While using a nosing glass is a must if you want to make whiskey taste better by getting as many of its aromas and flavors as possible, sometimes, you can’t be bothered with the whole nosing and tasting palaver. Or perhaps you just want a cool and refreshing whiskey chilled with ice cubes or a get-alcohol-inside-you-as-quickly-as-possible shot of whiskey.
At those times expertly nosing and tasting your whiskey in a specialized glass will probably just annoy you and going with your present whim will be the best way to make your whiskey taste better.
2. Add Water to a Glass of Whiskey
Adding water to a glass of whiskey does two things.
First, it dilutes the alcohol content of your whiskey. Most whiskeys are 40% ABV or more which (unless they’re very smooth) can be too much as they overpower the actual taste of the whiskey and numb your nose and palate ruining your ability to pick up the flavors in the first place.
If you dilute a whiskey to 35% ABV it will soften the punch of the alcohol, prevent the numbing of your nosing and tasting equipment and let the whiskey flavors come through. Yes, actually tasting the whiskey is a very good way to making it taste better.
Second, adding water to whiskey opens up new and more subtle flavors which you would otherwise miss. In fact, since every drop of water changes the taste of your whiskey, adding one drop at a time will allow you to taste many different flavors and decide which you like best.
You’ll just need to remember the number of drops of water you added to each of your whiskeys to get the precise taste you like.
You’re going to need a notebook. No, that’s not too obsessive.
The water you add should be neutral and slightly cool, so it won’t affect the whiskey’s flavors. Be careful if your tap water is hard or contains fluoride. You may want to filter your water or buy spring water specifically for your whiskey drinking. Still not too obsessive.
Be careful when adding water because you don’t want to add that drop too much as your whiskey will become too diluted and completely ruined. It’s not an impossible problem to fix – simply add more whiskey – but it will force you to drink a larger amount of whiskey than you originally intended.
I had this problem all the time until my wife bought me a water dropper.
Angels’ Share Glass Whiskey Water Dropper
Worst. Present. Ever.
3. Improve Your Whiskey Tasting Abilities
Whiskey is a complex drink and there’s more to drinking it than simply … well drinking it.
You’ll need to practice detecting the aromas and flavors of the whiskey.
To detect the aromas of your whiskey you’ll need to put your nose into the glass and breathe in deeply but gently – your olfactory system is delicate so don’t breathe in over aggressively as you might get singed by the alcohol. Open your mouth slightly as you inhale to let the alcohol fumes escape and the whiskey aromas to circulate round so you can better discern them.
You’ll probably get an overpowering sense of alcohol the first time, but the second, third and fourth sniff – take your nose out of the glass and swirl before each one – will reveal more of your whiskey as your nostrils get used to the strength of the alcohol.
Sniff using one nostril then the other. Generally, 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. So each nostril will perceive the aromas differently.
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 slower.
Examine every part of the glass because different aromas concentrate at different points. 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.
To pick up all the flavors, drink a small sip first because just like the nose needs to get used to the alcohol so does the mouth. It will taste overwhelmingly of alcohol but with the second sip the whiskey will reveal its true characteristics.
Take the second small sip but this time don’t swallow it yet. You need to chew your drink. This means, holding it in your mouth and swirling it around, making sure it spreads throughout your mouth and covers all the surfaces of your tongue – the middle, the sides, the tip and the back – because different parts of your tongue respond to different flavors.
Assess how your whiskey feels in your mouth and swallow.
Take a deep breath and exhale deeply through your nose so that the aromatic molecules in your mouth go to the back of your throat and rise up into your sinuses. Do not take another sip yet. Wait a moment so that the taste can come back up.
For more details see here, but if you’re worried that this method will take longer to accomplish than the time your whiskey spent in the barrel in the first place, then you need to go back and read the sub-heading again. Yes, it may take a long time to become adept enough to appreciate all the complex aromas and flavors of a whiskey but as long as you’re improving your abilities, your whiskey will taste that much better. And if you practice every time, your abilities should improve with every glass of whiskey. That could mean that simply drinking your whiskey will make it taste better.
You’re not going to get a better return on investment than that.
4. Add Bitters to Give It More Flavors
Bitters are alcohol-based flavoring agents. They’re made by infusing a neutral spirit with any number of aromatics including herbs, spices, tree bark, roots, seeds, fruits to name … these.
There are lots of bitters with a variety of different flavors, from the more traditional Angostura bitters that have a spicy flavor with hints of clove and cinnamon or Peychaud’s bitters that taste slightly more sweet with fruity notes, to new and unusual flavors like chocolate, coffee and cherry. This makes the number of flavor profiles for bitters nearly endless.
Now what makes a whiskey great is its myriad of delicious flavors. It therefore stands to reason that adding even more great flavors would make whiskey taste better.
WoodfordReserve Bitters Bundle
5. Age or Finish (Secondary Maturation Not Drinking) Your Whiskey
A whiskey acquires 80% of its flavor during the aging / maturation process. This is when whiskey is stored in barrels for years or even decades so that changes in temperature and humidity will cause the whiskey to seep into the wood of the barrel and then back out again picking up all sorts of chemicals in the process (wood sugars, vanillin, lactones, tannins and other compounds). At the same time the chemicals remove some of the unpleasant sulphury notes and some of the lighter and more volatile compounds evaporate through the barrel walls.
The upshot of all this is that some of the whiskey’s harshness is removed making it smoother, while plenty of flavor is added giving it much of its … well flavor.
Of course, the longer the aging / maturation process, the more flavor a whiskey will acquire. Which is why 15-year-old whiskeys taste better than their 12-year-old versions and 18-year-old whiskeys … well I’m sure you can work the rest out for yourself.
That means to make whiskey taste better, all you need to do is continue the aging / maturation process yourself. Don’t worry you won’t need a 53-gallon barrel, commercial storage facilities or the amount of time that’s the difference between the age of the whiskey you have and the age of the whiskey you couldn’t afford.
This is because you’re going to be aging / maturing your whiskey on a much smaller scale. With smaller barrels the amount of wood touching the whiskey will be four or five times higher than when whiskey is aged in greater quantities and more flavor will be imparted at one time, so of course your aging / maturation process will be quicker. A one liter barrel will take no more than a few weeks to age and a ten liter barrel will only take a few months.
Oak Aging Barrel
Of course, you need to be careful you don’t over oak your whiskey. This is when whiskey takes too much flavor from the wood and tastes too … well woody and bitter. So you’ll need to monitor your whiskey and test it every week or two. Yes, making whiskey taste better is a very difficult job – if you don’t like drinking whiskey.
Not only can you make whiskey taste better by continue the ageing / maturation process yourself, you can also make whiskey taste better by adding the flavors of other wines and spirits through barrel finishing or secondary maturation.
This is something professional distillers do. They take their fully mature whiskey and give it some extra time in a different barrel, one that has previously held something else, for example sherry or port, so that some of the flavor of the previously stored liquid that has been absorbed into the walls of the barrel will, like flavor from the wood itself, seep into the whiskey and improve it.
All you need to do is store whatever wine or spirit you think will go well with your whiskey in your barrel and let it condition the wood for a few weeks. Pour out the wine or spirit (into another storage container – I don’t mean throw it away) and fill up the barrel with your whiskey. Leave it for five to ten days, monitor and allow the miracle of improving perfection to occur.
A whiskey is full of delicious flavors and our job as whiskey drinkers is to let them all out. Knowing how to make whiskey taste better will ensure that none of the flavors are inhibited, the subtle flavors are detected and that you can take advantage of adding even more flavors to your whiskey.
The five ways to make whiskey taste better are by using a proper whiskey glass, adding water, improving whiskey tasting abilities, adding bitters and continuing the aging / maturation process.
As for how to make other drinks taste better, that’s much easier. Simply replace them with whiskey.