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Category Archives: Whiskey Tasting/Nosing

Just a hint of pheasant blood…

In the latest (Winter 2011) edition of The Whisky Advocate, Dave Broom (one of the world’s finest whiskey writers) wrote an entertaining article describing a tasting experience with a woman that really knew her whisky. She noted that mature sherry aged whisky has a touch of the same aroma that an indigenous ant (in her area) gives off when crushed. Dave, who has been known to have some wild descriptors, was initially perplexed by hers.

Soon after the discussion, Dave found himself in the woods observing the very ant the woman described. For the good of whiskey geeks everywhere, Dave expedited the ants journey to its maker. He gave the ant a crush and noted the same aroma the woman had mentioned, and clarity was achieved…at least for him.

Dave used this story to illustrate what a big wide world it is, and how important it is to get out there and take it all in. “We all have ants to crush”, he wrote.

Taken figuratively, he’s absolutely right. All whiskey lovers (or aspiring ones) owe it to themselves to get out there and educate their noses and palates. Open up your spice cabinet. Put a flame to a sugar coated banana and find out what it smells and tastes like (you’ll find this type of aroma and flavor in MANY bourbons). Crush sweet southern spearmint and cloves in your hand and see what the combination brings. No doubt this will educate your senses. But crushing ants in the hopes that you can log it away in your sensory rolodex? Is that just a bit too far?

Here’s my ultimate point – if a crushed ant has a slight sweet-sharp acidity to it much like vinegar (which it does according to Dave), why not describe it as such in tasting notes? Would that not be a clearer and much less remote (“out there”) descriptor for the reader? And if so – think of all the ants that would be saved!

Dave argues his approach by stating his reviews would be all too similar in descriptive language if he didn’t push things a bit. He used another example of describing something as “fruity” vs. describing the actual fruit the whiskey smells or tastes like. I agree there also. A red apple and a green apple have very different aromas and flavor profiles – no doubt, but fruits and ants are vastly different in terms of how likely a reader can relate to them. And who is the review for?

For clarification, I believe Dave Broom is as good as it gets in whiskey writing. He is someone I respect a great deal, but as a whiskey reviewer myself I found this article tough to agree with. A point he did make late in the article is using Twitter to write short reviews that worry less about tasting notes and more about the attitude and mood of the whiskey. That I can get behind as it helps the reader get a picture for how the whiskey delivers flavor across your palate.

In closing I pose this to you folks, are whiskey reviewers taking things a bit too far with some of this stuff? What is your take?

Whiskey Glassware for Nosing and Tasting

Let’s say you’ve gone out and spent some good money on a bottle of fantastic whiskey. If you are like me, you can’t wait to head home and pour that sucker in the first glass you see. This might typically mean reaching for a “rocks” glass, the one that’s squat low and sturdy.

After pouring that sweet amber nectar you raise the glass to your sniffer and then………and then………nothing. Or perhaps very little, if anything, pushes it’s way to your nostrils. That’s because the rocks glass (or lowball or whatever you wish to call it) is fitting for some of the great classic cocktails (like my favorite, The Old Fashioned). It does not however enhance the aroma of the whiskey that’s glimmering and sloshing around in the bottom. The straight sides and wide opening permits way too much of the aroma to escape, leaving you looking like a basset hound rooting the top of the glass to collect what you can.

The Nose Knows
The human nose is powerful. While we can taste 4-5 basic flavors (including umami), our sense of smell can detect 30-plus (I think more than that but I’m no scientist). On top of that, the interplay between nosing and tasting a whiskey makes the experience so much fuller than tasting alone. There are whiskeys out there that I’ve sat down and nosed for 10 minutes before ever taking a sip. I was perfectly happy doing so because the nose of a whiskey can be captivating.

The bottom line is nosing is a huge part of overall enjoyment. I urge you to spend more time doing it (if you don’t currently). In order to get the most out it, you’ll need the right hardware for the job.

The Right Tools
Please drink your whiskey however you want to and enjoy it. I cannot underscore that point enough! But if you are a whiskey geek like me and really want to explore that whiskey, then investing in good glassware is a great place to start. The type of glassware I’m referring to is a nosing/tasting glass.

You can start by looking for a glass that might hold anywhere from 6-10 ounces of liquid and pinches in reasonably at the nose. Picture a white wine or chardonnay glass. The “tulip” shape provides enough of a “bowl” for which to swirl or agitate the whiskey easily, releasing aromas. The tighter, “pinched” opening then concentrates those aromas so you can experience them more easily.

If you are new to whiskey, just exploring, or not ready to invest in glassware – no problem. Don’t make it a chore or put more formality on yourself. I’d rather see you focus on enjoyment rather than stressing over glassware. Use a white wine glass or something in line with the description above. It’s a perfect starter, and I use them today from time to time.

The Next Step
If you are looking for something a little more specialized, give the following suggestions a try. All of them are fantastic for getting the most out of your whiskey. Please click the “red” link titles to view each option more closely.

Riedel Vinum Port Glass: Yep, that is not a misprint. It’s a port glass, but it’s a hell of a whiskey glass too. The 7+ ounce bowl provides plenty of room for the whiskey. The gradual pinching of the opening is not too tight and allows a nice even aroma to leave the glass. This is honestly a favorite of mine. $39.99 for 2 online and in many finer glassware stores.

The Glencairn: The Glencairn has been widely adopted by the Scotch Whisky industry. And with good reason. Notice the nice bowl and smaller opening – perfect for nosing. The thick, sturdy base provides a ideal place to hold the glass or rest it on a table. Not to mention, this glass is nice and sturdy itself. Personally I prefer a stemmed glass. To me they are easier to pick up and I don’t risk warming the whiskey too much with my hands. Overall this is an excellent option, and probably the most popular among enthusiasts. Approximately $10 a glass. You can usually find them for around that price.

The Glencairn Copita Glass: The classic “copita” shaped nosing glass is the perfect whiskey glass to me. This one is my favorite of the entire group. It’s not quite as deep as a port glass, but still ample room to swirl the spirit. I prefer how this glass doesn’t pinch in quite as dramatically as the standard Glencairn. That’s especially good when you are nosing whiskey with really high proof/alcohol percentage. The problem is these glasses are tougher to find, but this link (click the “red” title) will allow you to purchase them for $11 plus shipping.

Riedel Sommeliers Series Cognac XO Glass: This is an expensive one, but a great one. Notice the shape shares some similarities to the Glencairn. It’s a good bit more delicate than the Glencairn and smaller. I would classify this as a great special occasion whiskey glass, but it comes at ridiculously high price – $50+/ glass. Yep, that’s robbery and not worth the money in comparison to the others, but a great glass.

Crate and Barrel sold a good, solid port glass for $4 – fantastic to stock up on for group tastings. Unfortunately they’ve sold out of them at this time, but keep on the look for them as a great inexpensive option if they bring them back. If I have people over for tastings they are perfect to pour many at a time. If 1-2 break – oh well!

Also I’d recommend steering clear of Riedel’s Single Malt and Bourbon glass. Riedel make great glasses, but I think they missed the mark on both of these. The Single Malt glass just simply sucks – period. The Bourbon Glass, while reasonably good for getting the notes from a whiskey, is designed with an extremely short stem that’s not very natural to hold.

Stock Up Slowly
Take a look at your glassware options on hand for nosing and tasting whiskey. Start small and add a few of these when you can. It’s even fun to have a couple of each over time in case you are in the mood to try something different. The right glassware will allow a fuller appreciation and evaluation of all the whiskey has to offer. It’s educational, fun, and even makes it easier to determine what you like (or don’t).

Coming soon I’ll be doing some videos on my tasting and review process for those that are interested. Please be on the look out.

So what is your favorite whiskey glass?