Heads, Hearts and

Whiskey Tales

Sharing stories of good whiskey, good friends, and good memories

But, Before the Pour

February  2021

It’s the best time of the day. You ease into a seat in your favorite spot with a whiskey, bourbon, or scotch.  Evening has arrived. This oft repeated scene occurs daily for some Whiskey, Bourbon, and Scotch Enthusiast (WBSE) Facebook page members! As with all activities conducted frequently, there is a chance it may lead to habitual behavior. Take brushing your teeth as an example. You pick-up the brush, wet it, add paste, a few scrubs across each quadrant, spit, rinse, replace the toothbrush. Little thought goes into the process. Do not let your whiskey drinking become as monotonous as your tooth brushing. Mindfulness leads to greater appreciation, which increases enjoyment and enthusiasm for the whiskey, bourbon, and scotch we share. Here are a few things to consider before the pour to help you become more mindful.

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 Glassware is important. Some prefer a rocks glass. They‘re especially good if you enjoy a cocktail or ice in your libation rather than a spirit served neat. The large opening is good for adding ice, stirring, or muddling, but not as good for nosing the spirit. For nosing whiskey, a Glen Cairn is preferred. A wider tulip shaped bottom creates more surface area contact with air which helps release the multitude of floral, earthy, winey, cereal, malty, feinty, woody, caramel, vanilla … fragrances. The narrow opening concentrates the aromas at the top of the glass, allowing maximum perception by olfactory senses which perceive more smells than taste buds perceive tastes.  

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The heavy, thick base at the bottom helps to prevent spills. The glass looks like – sophistication. But Glen Cairns are generally expensive, especially in lead-free crystal. Another option is stemmed tulip shaped glasses like ones provided by Wigle Whiskey Distillery in Pittsburgh. Generally, stems prevent hand contact with the bowl, which warms the contents. The important features of the tulip shaped wider bowl and narrow opening are still intact in this variant of the Glen Cairn. TW and I often disagree on Maryland versus Pennsylvania whiskies, but on drinking from plastic, we are tam unamimem. At our tastings we always serve in glasses. Enough Glen Cairns to serve flights of 5 whiskies gets damned expensive.  

I stumbled onto glass votive holders in an AC Moore craft store. At 50 cents per glass we could provide enough Glen Cairn “styled” glasses for everyone, and even smash a few into the fireplace. The votive has the wide bowl and narrow rim to facilitate nosing the whiskey and adds to the ambience of a tasting without the expense. Finally, the shot glass. Google defines “shot” as “a small drink of distilled liquor”.  Nick Hines, in Vinepair, 3 Nov 2017 addresses the origin of “shots”.


There are several internet memes for “shot” which are probably false. The term’s earliest reference is by British Reverend, Oliver Heywood, who lived from 1630 until 1703. He used the phrase “their vain way of drinking shots”. More than one preacher was also a distiller, and in early America the church was generally beside the tavern. The 15th century Oxford English dictionary defines “shot” as a charge to be paid. A few thoughtlessly tossed down your gullet typically results in a large charge to be paid while increasing your chances of inebriation. I limit “shots” to Jack, Slivovitz, and tequila.

Another factor to increase mindfulness and enjoyment of the spirit is the addition of water. Reasonable minds may differ, but the master classes I have attended recommended the addition of a few drops of water. Most whiskies are bottled at 40 to 50 percent ( 80 to 100 proof). I taste the plethora of palates best if the percentage of spirit is the mid-30s % range

(mid 70’s proof). Water reduces surface tension, allowing molecules of ketones, phenols, guaiacols, and esters to escape the liquid and hover in the space just beneath the rim. Much of the character of whiskey can be described from the nose. Water also reduces the percentage of alcohol slightly so that our senses can perceive tastes and smells without the prickle or burn of high proof alcohol. Tilting the glass slightly sideways exposes even more surface area to air, further enhancing this reaction. There are many ways to add water. A small dropper is my favorite, because I can accurately keep track of the number of drops added, then recreate that perfect adjustment in the next dram of the same whiskey. Opt for bottled or distilled water at room temperature rather than ice cold or tap water.

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One final consideration. When possible, enjoy your drams with friends and fellow enthusiasts. There are many reasons for this; chief among them is that taste perceptions vary from person to person. The conundrum of being good at tasting and describing whiskey is that, not only does one need a sensitive nose and taste buds, but the perceptions must then be linked to a memory bank of tastes or smells that others can recognize. “Marzipan” may perfectly capture a tasting note of a whiskey. But if I do not know how marzipan smells and tastes, the description would be lost on me. One evening at a whiskey tasting next to a campfire along the Potomac River, a participate noticed that the Booker’s we were sipping had hints of marshmallow. Another commented that the marshmallow tasted toasted. Yet another offered that he detected woodiness likely due to a hickory stick on which the marshmallow was toasted. But the final tasting note put the discourse over the top! Howls of incredulity snapped, popped, and crackled like damp firewood splitting along a crevice and releasing steam into the fire when the final taster observed “yeah, but hickory stick had the bark removed!” The laughter shared during that moment of mindfulness has strengthened the camaraderie and became part of the cultural heritage of the group. In recounting the story through the years, I wonder: was it mindfulness that lead to the astute observation by one taster, or the fact that un-barked hickory was not in the rest of the group’s memory bank?

 I enjoy drinking whiskey from a Glen Cairn glass with a few drops of water anytime. But the most memorable drams are those shared with others who are mindful of the joy whiskey brings to friendships.