The simplest way to drink whiskey or any other spirit is neat. Neat = no water, no mixers, no ice, at room temperature. The false information surrounding this simple procedure is amazing. There are many barriers, each taken for granted, to serving and drinking spirits neat. As a bartender, you serve the way the customer likes it, but unless your customer is in the mood for education, you should probably not comment. That does not mean you shouldn’t understand the facts and science.
Science: Let’s start with basic science. Straight spirits are at least 40% ABV (alcohol by volume). That is a lot of ethanol to handle. Ethanol is a nose-numbing anesthetic, used in olden days to deaden the pain for minor surgeries; and it is not difficult to understand that ethanol blocks the signals from human sensory neurons, disabling them from detecting pain, and, in the case of the nose, disabling them from detecting aromas. Flavor has three basic components. Flavor = 90% smell + 5% mouthfeel + 5% taste. It stands to reason that blocking neuron receptors with ethanol leaves far fewer to detect aromas, particularly when most aroma molecules from neat spirits are ethanol. Ethanol compromises aroma, flavor.
Barrier 1 – Use a tulip glass: Even the most sophisticated spirits drinker, simply has it wrong on this point. The tiny rim tulip shapes actually collect ethanol and numb your nose quicker than large rim glasses. Most drinkers follow what everyone else told them, although there is no science to support the claims. Tulips are a derivative of the Spanish sherry copita, designed for 22% fortified wines. Putting 40% ABV (or even worse, cask strength) spirits in a glass designed for 22% creates a pungent, numbing, nose-bomb. Tiny rims are supported because non-thinkers believe they concentrate all aromas, so none escape detection. The truth is, they concentrate and accentuate anesthetic ethanol. What is worse? Snifters are an aid to quicker intoxication and hide more aromas than the tulips.
Solution: Use a wide mouth tumbler or NEAT glass specifically designed to remove ethanol and display the aromas.
Barrier 2 – Add a little water: The most controversial procedure regarding straight spirits, the “add water” thing came from those who drink from tulips. They choose tulips (because everyone else does) only to realize there is too much olfactory ethanol and, just as “experts” do, they add a little water, compounding the sin of interfering with aromas and flavor. Water raises surface tension, lowers evaporation of all aromas, including the sought-after character aromas (honey, oak, caramel, floral, nuttiness, and the rest). They say water “opened-up” the spirit because they perceive less ethanol, but conveniently forget it “closed down” other aromas. Eyedroppers and special pH source water are imaginations of the uninformed. Solution: Two reasons to add water; “I like it that way,” and palate burn.
Barrier 3 – Don’t swirl: Swirling powers evaporation. No swirl = no smell (except pungent ethanol). Solution: If swirling yields more unpleasant ethanol, change to an open-rim glass that freely diffuses ethanol.
Barrier 4 – Waft to acclimate your nose: Wafting or the famous “shake-hands” approach acclimates your nose to the pungency, but doesn’t change ethanol cancellation of olfactory neurons, which destroys smell-ability. Solution: it’s useless to acclimate unless there is severe pain.
Barrier 5 – Breathe through mouth and nose simultaneously: Open mouth breathing reduces airflow through the nasal cavity, exposing less aromas to olfactory sensors; olfactory is 90% of flavor. Smelling first is an important part of tasting and critical to maximum appreciation.
Solution: Close your mouth to breathe, use an open rim glass.
This textbook case reminds us of what happens when science fails to step in to (1) correct erroneous reasoning, (2) negate powerful media charlatans who have prurient interests or something to sell, and (3) deter those who need to build a flock of attentive followers. The absence of science spawns cultish behavior. The iconic fraternity badge of the whiskey drinker is the tulip glass, even though it gets in the way of truly enjoying the subtle flavors and hard work the distillers intended,
We care less about science with each generation and rely more on advice from uneducated pretty faces, personalities and power figures. Next time you attend a whiskey tasting using tulips, ask someone what aromas they detected in the spirit. The most common answer is “alcohol.” That’s why they came, and that’s what they got, few care once the presence of ethanol is validated. Ethanol effectively numbed noses, obscured aromas, destroyed flavor. Use common sense and science to make better decisions. Remove the barriers, tasting and nosing is more informative, and closer to the truth with the right glass. Education on the truth about drinking neat spirits begins behind the bar with carefully chosen glassware.
George is an entrepreneur, inventor, engine designer, founder, Chief R&D officer, Corporate Strategy Officer, CEO Arsilica, Inc. dedicated to sensory research in alcohol beverages. (2002-present). He is the inventor of the patented NEAT glass, several other patented alcohol beverage glasses for beer and wine, (yet to be released). Director ongoing research into aromatic compound behavior, and pinpointing onset of nose-blindness. George is a professional consultant for several major spirits competitions, has been published in the MDPI Beverage Journal Paper, is the founder or member of over seven different wine clubs for the past fifty years, is a collector of wines and spirits, has traveled the world, and is an educator and advisor of multiple spirits sensory seminars.
George F Manska, CR&D, Arsilica, Inc. Engineer, inventor of the NEAT glass, sensory science researcher, entrepreneur.
Mission: Replace myth and misinformation with scientific truth through consumer education.
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