Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Does your whiskey need to breathe

Will whiskey change if given some time in a glass? A lot of people seems to think so. I’ve observed many accounts of others changing their perception of whiskey leaving it in the glass for 5-30 minutes to “breathe”. Harshness, burn or other unwanted qualities have disappeared, and what remains is a more inviting and pleasant whiskey.

The process of aeration is common in the wine-world. The swirling of the glass serves to expose more of the wine to air, agitating it, releasing aromas easier to sense. It’s referred to as “opening up” the wine, or letting it “blossom”. Another similar but often misunderstood process happens if you let the wine sit exposed to air for a longer amount of time. It then becomes oxidized. A small amount can help one wine but just as well kill another. Leave it for too long and the wine turns acidic or bitter, and eventually undrinkable.

Whiskey is a grain-based product, much higher in alcohol by volume, compared to a grape-based, lower ABV product like wine. But is the process transferable?

Exactly what happens in the "breathing" process and how much it matters is aggressively debated, and it made me curious: does whiskey “open up” after a bit of time in the glass? The question led me to conduct an experiment of my own:

I poured three glasses of whiskey: a wheated bourbon (Old Weller Antique 107), a higher-proof bourbon (Noah’s Mill) and a rye whiskey (Whistlepig 10), and left them for 30 minutes.

I then poured another glass of each, marked the undersides and switched the pairs of glasses back and forth a number of times until I didn’t know which one was which. I had two glasses of each to compare: one rested for 30 minutes, and one straight out of the bottle.

My goal with the experiment was to see if I could detect a difference in whiskey that has been left to breathe, compared to the same whiskey poured in the moment, spending as little time in the glass as possible.

Beginning to nose the pairs I wrote down any first impressions as quickly as possible as I wanted the “unrested” samples to be as fresh as possible–and then moved on to tasting. I went back and forth nosing and tasting a number of times, and lastly decided which one in the three pairs was which.

I was finished, and I will let you know right away: I couldn’t tell any of the pairs apart. The two glasses of each whiskey both smelled and tasted exactly the same as the other. A couple of moments I thought I smelled or tasted something a bit different, but I wrote that off to psychology, as the potential difference I maybe sensed was tiny and perhaps I thought that one had to be different from the other.

In guessing, I got the Old Weller Antique 107 right, but the Whistlepig 10 and Noah’s Mill wrong. I couldn’t tell the OWA apart anymore than the others, so that one was pure chance.

There is still the fact that many others claim to definitely sense a difference, and I’m absolutely sure they do. Maybe it’s psychology of the ritual, maybe it’s temperature change, maybe it’s a little bit of many things and they’re all true. My findings were highly non-scientific and my results purely anecdotal, and should not be construed in any other way. I recommend that you try for yourself and see what you find!

I will continue to swirl my whiskey glass, but you won’t see me leaving whiskey to “open up” anytime soon ;) 

Written By: Erik Hasselgärde