Subj: How to Taste Whiskey Like an Expert
Adam Carmer is the Owner and Founder of the infamous Whisky Attic in Las Vegas, Nevada. While this small drinking establishment may not look like much from the outside, to those in the know this little corner of Sin City is a goldmine; housing the largest collection of whiskey anywhere in the world with over 1800 varieties originating everywhere from Scotland to Japan.
In addition to owning one of the finest drinking establishments in the state, he is also considered one of the world’s premiere alcohol tasting scientists; and in 2011 was even knighted in Belgium “in appreciation of his dedication and acknowledgment of his significant contributions in education and promotion of the Belgian beer industry.”
As if that wasn’t enough, Sir Carmer is also a distinguished professor at the University of Nevada who has the rare ability to teach anyone how to taste whiskey like an expert.
Based on his study of the olfactory system, Professor Carmer has developed a new method for tasting whiskey which allows even laymen to taste alcohol like a pro without the need for years of sensory training.
However before we discuss this new method it is best to take a look at the old method so that we can understand why it follows the protocol it does in order that we may understand how this new method differs from the old, and why (at least in my opinion) it is superior.
The standard method for tasting alcohol follows a simple protocol:
The first step serves both a practical and aesthetic purpose. By examining the libation you are about to consume you can both appreciate the visually pleasing nature of the liquid, as well look for any inconsistencies or undesirable traits such as floating particulates or signs that the drink has “turned.”
Once you have examined the drink, connoisseurs are united in their agreement that you must then “nose” the beverage. It is widely known that a person’s sense of smell and sense of taste are intimately linked, and that what you smell directly affects what you taste. If you’ve ever plugged your nose while eating something bitter or unpleasant you understand that without the ability to smell, you lose most of your ability to taste.
Tasting the drink is the final step. You want to pay attention to the feel of the whisky in your mouth. Is it soft or hot? Is it drying or refreshing? Try to pick up on any sweetness, or lack thereof, as well as any flavors such as chocolate, wood, citrus, cherry, or nut.
For centuries this Look-Smell-Taste method has been the only option available to those who wish to taste alcohol. Surely modern scientific advances in how we see, smell, and taste call for an update to (or at least a second look at) this method.
This is exactly what Adam Carmer has done. He has spent the past few years researching the olfactory system, and has applied this knowledge to the art science of alcohol tasting.
In his thesis CSTEM: An Evolution in the Sensory Evaluation of Alcoholic Beverages, Professor Carmer lays out his new tasting system which flips the traditional method on its head. He calls this new system CSTEM.
The Carmer Spirits Tasting Enhancement Method
The problem with the traditional method of Look-Smell-Taste is that, due to the high alcohol content of whiskey (normally 80 proof and above), it is notoriously difficult to taste when compared to wine. Novice tasters often don’t get anything out of the tasting process and just end up tasting alcohol.
This high alcohol content, which obscures a person’s ability to sensory evaluate it, is also the most formidable barrier to enjoying the beverage.
It is for this reason that tasters often add water to their whiskey. While this is not terrible advice scientifically speaking (as water breaks apart the fatty esters in the whisky, releasing more flavor), as Professor Carmer explains, “That […] sounds like adding sugar to unripe fruit so you can eat it. If the fruit is not ripe or edible then pass on it.”
However this problem can be easily solved with just a little understanding of a concept known as subsumation.
Subsumation is the idea that when two senses are being used, one sense will take over (or “subsume”) the other.
In the traditional method of Look-Smell-Taste, smell ends up subsuming taste because it was used earlier in the process. This is less than ideal if your ultimate goal is the optimization of your sense of taste.
The solution therefore seems simple; reverse the order of operations. Rather than nosing the drink before your first taste, you nose the drink AFTER your first taste.
But wouldn’t this mean that you are dulling your sense of smell?
At first glance it would seem so, but upon further inspection this turns out not to be the case.
Although taste is easily subsumed by smell if olfaction is performed prior to taste, your sense of taste does not easily fatigue from overuse. Your sense of smell on the other hand is much more sensitive and is therefore easier to overwhelm, especially with the high alcohol content in whisky which may burn the nostrils and wear out the nose’s ability to smell over time.
It makes sense then to allow your more robust sense of taste to do the lion’s share of the work, while saving your more delicate sense of smell.
By tasting the drink prior to olfaction, you allow your entire system to get calibrated to the drink, which enables both your senses to be utilized more fully. This sensory optimization allows you to access elements of the drink beyond what a taster could achieve using the traditional Look-Smell-Taste method.
Here is Professor Carmer’s entire method broken down step by step:
How to Taste Whiskey with CSTEM
- Look. This first step follows the same procedure as the traditional method. You want to appreciate the aesthetics of the drink as well as look for any inconsistencies which may negatively affect your tasting experience.
- Next, take a small sip and allow the liquid to sit at the front of your mouth in the space between your lower gums and teeth. Do not swish or agitate it, just let it sit at the front of your mouth.
- While keeping your mouth closed, slowly count to twelve, only breathing through your nose while doing so. Holding the drink in your mouth serves two purposes: It allows your sense of taste to calibrate to the high alcohol levels of the drink so that after a while you taste less of the alcohol and instead are left with more of the drink’s flavors. Secondly it allows the drink to combine with your saliva. As I mentioned earlier, water is often added to whiskey to break apart the alcohol esters, allowing more flavor to be released. Saliva does the same thing, only better.
- After twelve seconds take a series of about 5 small swallows. Now that you’ve given your system time to calibrate you should be left with nothing but pure flavor.
- Pick up your glass and smell the spirit. With the smell of the alcohol gone there should be no alcohol burn and you should be able to clearly smell the aromas in the glass.
- Continue to sip the spirit and drink naturally.
This method was designed for the unique challenges of tasting whiskey, but it can be used for tasting any alcoholic drink.
In his thesis, Professor Carmer was quick to note that his new method is not meant to replace the traditional method. In fact, he would much prefer that both methods remained in use that they might act as sort of friendly rivals. As each method seeks to challenges its opponent, new discoveries are made and refinements in technique are perfected. Whether it is a business or a scientific theory, competition leads both sides to advance; which ultimately benefits everyone. But up until this point there have been no such options for keeping methods of alcohol tasting in check.
There you have it. That’s how to taste whiskey like a scientist. So the next time someone insists that you nose whiskey before tasting it, ask them if they’ve ever heard of CSTEM.
Until next time,