There is one aspect of the wine/spirit/beer industry that everyone assumes is all we do. Drink. I mean, the first response I get when I tell someone what I do is almost always, “Man, you get to drink for a living?!” Honestly, if I did just drink all day I would never get anything done. The key term here is “taste.” It’s one of the more important aspects of what we do. You have to know how something tastes if you are going to sell it, make a cocktail with it, or buy it. I feel that I should be clear here as well: When I say taste, I do mean taste. I don’t mean “taste” with a wink and a nudge. When I taste while working, it is truly analytical.

After working in beverage sales as long as I have, you develop a method for deciphering and discerning what you taste. What am I looking for when I taste something? I’m looking for specific aromas and flavors, color of the liquid, and if it tastes like it should. I’ve also tasted a lot with other people and most of their methods differ from mine. There is no correct way to taste as long as you get there. 

Over the past month I’ve had the privilege to be able to go to and tour multiple whiskey distilleries. That means I’ve had some of the best in the business tasting with me and guiding me through their products. I’d love to pass on what I picked up from them to you.

First of all, slugging back a shot is not tasting. Shots are the quickest way to get alcohol working in your system. It isn’t a great way to catch the fine nuances a distiller worked for years to create in their whiskey. Also, putting something high in sugar, like Coca-Cola, on top of it won’t help you to understand it better. To taste something takes time. Put some whiskey in your glass and let’s walk through this.

Step one: Smell. This may take a minute to get past the alcohol (burning sensation). Most people stop here and say, “I just smell whiskey.” Really reach for something. If you taste Bourbon, you should smell some sweet corn, caramel, toasty oak, and maybe even some black tea. Bourbon is made from a minimum of 51% corn so it should definitely show up in what you smell.

Step two: Sip. This is where we can get tripped up. Sipping is taking a small amount into your mouth and moving it around so that it hits all of the tasting zones of your tongue. Those zones are (from the tip to the back) sweet, salty, sour, bitter. This gives you the whole picture of how something tastes. Hold it in your mouth and breathe in slightly over it. Don’t do a huge inhale because you will end up coughing like crazy. How does it taste? How does it feel? Viscous or thin? When you swallow it, how long do the flavors stay with you before fading? Ask yourself these questions then repeat the process after you add a few drops of water to the whiskey. This opens it up and lets some of those restrained flavors come out and play. 

Step three: What do you think? Here is where you can start to break it down. Does it taste like it should? The more you taste the better you will have a read on this. Do you like it? How would you like to drink it? These days I drink most of my whiskey neat or with a small ice cube. But that’s my preference. What’s yours?

Everyone tastes in his or her own way.  As long as you get to the point where you understand what you are tasting, then you did it right. Here’s a list of some bourbons I’ve had lately that won’t break the bank but are delicious: Old Forester 1910 Old Fine Whiskey, Jim Beam Black, Chattanooga Whiskey 91 Tennessee High Malt, and Jim Beam Bottled in Bond.

Judd Smith is a local wine enthusiast and creator of