Some people take their time when drinking whiskey while others knock theirs back in one gulp or swallow. So which is best? Should whiskey be sipped and savored or not? The answer of course is – it depends.
You should sip your whiskey if it’s of high quality and you’re drinking it neat because it helps you detect and savor all the delicious flavors and get the most out of your whiskey. However, you should drink your whiskey as quickly as possible or even in one gulp if it’s cheap or low-quality whiskey that you’re just drinking to become intoxicated.
Once a person appreciates that a high-quality whiskey can be packed with many delicious flavors, then they won’t want to do anything but sip it. But it’s important to find out exactly how to sip whiskey properly so that we actually do end up tasting all the delicious flavors.
Why Whiskey Should Be Sipped
If you have a high-quality whiskey and you’re planning on drinking it neat – meaning by itself and without adding any mixer, then it should be sipped. The reason for this is because whiskey contains a lot of delicious flavors. And when I say a lot of delicious flavors, I mean more flavors and more delicious than what you had in mind when I just said, ‘a lot of delicious flavors’.
To really understand what I mean when I say, ‘a lot of delicious flavors’ you have to bear in mind the following.
Whiskey gets its flavors from a number of sources including its ingredients and all sorts of factors to do with the way it’s distilled but 80% of its flavor comes from being matured / aged in whiskey barrels. Whiskeys are stored in their flavor-imparting barrels for anywhere from years to decades, so when I say, ‘a lot of delicious flavors’ I mean the ‘lot’ and ‘delicious’ of something that’s spent years acquiring flavors, which is completely different to the ‘lot’ and ‘delicious’ of a meal that took an hour to make, however delicious that may be.
With all that in mind it’s now clear why high-quality whiskeys should be sipped and savored and not drunk as quickly as a glass of water when thirsty because that would mean missing out on many if not most of its flavors.
How to Sip Whiskey
While drinking whiskey quickly will certainly mean that you’ll miss out on many of its flavors, merely sipping it does not guarantee you’ll detect them. Here’s how to sip whiskey properly so that you’ll pick up all its flavors:
Pour 2 fl oz of Whiskey Into a Whiskey Glass
It’s important to use a proper whiskey glass because they’re designed to prepare your whiskey for tasting.
This is necessary because whiskey can be anywhere between 40%ABV and 68%ABV. This means if you merely sip your whiskey, the only thing you’ll taste is the alcohol which is not that pleasant. Worse, the alcohol can burn you and temporarily numb your taste receptors making you unable to taste your whiskey until they recover.
Also, since flavor is smell as well as taste, you’re going to want to smell or nose your whiskey before tasting it. If too much of a whiskey’s aromas dissipate from the glass, then you won’t be able to get the full flavor of the whiskey because no amount of sipping can make up for the fact that part of what makes up a whiskey’s flavor has been lost.
A proper whiskey glass helps with these things due to its special design – a wide bowl, a long narrow neck, a thin stem and a broad pedestal. A popular whiskey glass is the Glencairn which you can find on Amazon here. The way the design of the glass helps with the above problems is as follows:
If you’re drinking whiskey neat the standard amount to pour is 2 fl oz. In a proper whiskey glass this leaves plenty of room for air to get to the whiskey allowing it to breathe. This makes more of the ethanol evaporate, while the bowl shape will concentrate the whiskey’s aromas towards the narrow rim where they can accumulate. With less alcohol around, a sip won’t be as alcoholic or burn you. With the whiskey’s aromas accumulated you’ll be able to smell them and get all the flavors of the whiskey when you taste it.
Using other types of glasses to drink whiskey causes the exact opposite to happen. Less ethanol evaporates and more whiskey aromas dissipate. With the whiskey’s aromas gone, you won’t get the full flavors of the whiskey, were you able to taste them though the alcohol.
2 fl oz is the approximate amount poured for a glass of whiskey that’s drunk neat because it’s a substantial enough amount to allow for four or five sips so you can really assess and enjoy the flavors but it’s not too much that it doesn’t leave enough space for air to get to the whiskey so it can breathe.
This doesn’t mean you should only have 2 fl oz of whiskey. Some people have two or three or more glasses of whiskey in one drinking session, but you probably won’t want much more than 2 fl oz in a glass of whiskey at one time.
Smell / Nose Your Whiskey
As mentioned, flavor is smell as well as taste, so even if you sip from a whiskey glass, unless you spend time nosing your whiskey you won’t get all its flavors. To smell or nose your whiskey you’ll need to do the following:
Smell your whiskey gently so that the alcohol (the whiskey glass won’t get rid of all of it) doesn’t overpower the smell of the whiskey or burn and numb your smell receptors. Keep your mouth open so that the alcohol fumes can escape, and the whiskey aromas can circulate round, making it easier to detect them.
You’ll probably get an overpowering sense of alcohol so you’ll need a second, third and fourth sniff which will reveal more of your whiskey as your nostrils get used to the strength of the alcohol.
Breathe 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. If you want to ensure that you pick up anything more than the lighter aromas, you’ll need to breathe in deeply.
Smell 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 smelling with 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.
Vary your rate of inhalation because some aromas are easier to detect when the flow of air is rapid while other aromas are easier to detect when the flow of air is slower.
Sip Your Whiskey
Now you’re ready to actually sip your whiskey and taste it.
The first sip, just like the first smell, will taste overwhelmingly of alcohol because just like the nose needs to get used to the alcohol so does the mouth. With the second sip you’ll be able to taste the flavors of the whiskey.
Take a second sip but this time don’t swallow it yet. Instead, 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.
Before you swallow assess how the whiskey feels in your mouth (termed unsurprisingly the mouthfeel). Does it feel oily, creamy, thin or rich? Is it soft and rolling or hot and immediate? Is it drying or refreshing and lively? Think about the texture. Is it silky or more powerful?
After you swallow 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. Assess the taste of your whiskey and wait until the taste comes back up so you can explore the finish.
Take Your Time
The most important thing is not to rush your whiskey drinking but to take you time and enjoy sipping your whiskey. For those who like more precise measurements a reasonable amount of time to spend sipping a glass of high-quality whiskey is 20 – 30 minutes and if it’s particularly special or flavorful you could spend an hour drinking it.
Of course, this is only an approximation and the amount of time will vary depending on the drinker and the drink, but I think it’s a good ballpark estimate. If the standard pour for a neat glass of whiskey is about 2 fl oz which can be drunk in four to six sips and for each sip you take a minute or two to detect the aromas, the same again to chew the whiskey and taste its flavors, and another minute exploring the finish, then each sip could take anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes depending on the whiskey and how easily you’re able to identify the aromas and flavors.
This makes the total length of time it can take to drink a glass of whiskey anywhere between 20 minutes (four sips taking five minutes each) and an hour (six sips taking ten minutes each).
When Whiskey Should Not Be Sipped
There are times when you won’t want to sip whiskey.
If you’re drinking a whiskey cocktail sipping it won’t help you detect all the whiskey’s flavors in the same way as it would when drinking whiskey neat as it’s mixed with other ingredients and therefore diluted. While a whiskey cocktail is also not something you drink quickly you also you won’t sip it with all the nosing and tasting that goes into sipping whiskey.
There are times when not only will you not want to sip whiskey, but you’ll want to drink it as quickly as possible.
If you’re drinking cheap or low-quality whiskey there will probably be little or no flavors to taste, so there would be no point in sipping your whiskey in a way that helps you detect and savor them. In fact, such whiskeys are likely to taste bad so it would probably be better to drink them as quickly as possible. This is where whiskey shots come in handy, and you drink your not-so-high-quality whiskey in one gulp or swallow.
Also, if you’re drinking whiskey to use its high ABV to become intoxicated as quickly as possible, then the way to do that is with a quick one or two second gulp or swallow, because sipping 2 fl oz over the course of half an hour will probably only make you slightly tipsy.