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Inside Manska’s Mind: The Travesties of Whiskey Tasting

We go inside the mind of George F. Manska for an analytical look at the travesties of whiskey tasting.

Most of us who love alcohol beverages enjoy attending tastings at expos, restaurants, wine and liquor stores to taste and discuss aromas amd flavors of beverages. Many attendees also belong to beer, wine, or whiskey clubs. Usable information from these events differs widely by beverage, but for an unsuspected reason.

Wine and beer tastings: Tasting admins often refrain from describing flavors prior to tasting and discuss them after tasting. Attendees vociferously comment on balance, acidity, and mouthfeel, and are not afraid to say, “This wine(or beer) is too hot (referring to ethanol content).” The level of beverage sensory knowledge is generally high among attendees. Spirits events, particularly whiskey, are another story.

Whiskey tastings have less vocal audience participation. No one ever at a whiskey tasting said “This whiskey is too hot.” tasters sniff the ethanol, nod their heads approvingly, and look around the room to see who else is nodding. Full satisfaction occurs at the first sniff of pungent ethanol, as an unspoken “I got what I came for” attitude descends upon the sniffers. Discussion of flavor profile is introduced prior to tasting by a leader or brand ambassador who relates carefully chosen, corporate prepared descriptors as pre-tasting semi-subliminal suggestion to prime attendees for the sales pitch, knowing full well that sniffers do not work well once numbed by abundant ethanol fumes. Attendee comments are generally “This is really good,” or “I like it,” or the highly descriptive “Wow.”

Readers will immediately say, “Of course they are different, they are different beverages,” but that’s not the entire story. Group tastings should be about flavor profiles and a forum for sensory information regardless of beverage. Whiskey (spirits) drinkers should also be able to discern spirit flavor profiles. Given the price of spirits, accurate detection of flavors and aromas should be a primary purchasing decision but sadly, in spirits, it is not. Why? The level of anesthetic ethanol in each type of beverage superficially appears to be the major difference but the real culprit is the aroma delivery device. The acceptable glassware for each beverage type delivers a different sensory characteristic.

Beer glasses: Certain shapes have become identified with specific beers since the medieval era. Beer glass styles were associated with popular beers. A few basic styles survived; the pilsner for lighter beers, the tulip for medium body beers, and the chalice for high ethanol, heavy, aromatic beers. Over the centuries they seem to have got it right for most beers, which range from 3-12% ethanol. The public prefers the standard English pub pint glass, filled to the rim to assure a “fair” pour with no headspace to appreciate aromas. At least, after the first two sips, there is enough headspace to collect aromas to sniff and savor, and low levels of ethanol permit flavor appreciation prior to anesthetization. Serious craft beer drinkers are all about flavor, aroma, and taste of their beer, and the glasses could stand some improvement, but sensory considerations are nearly acceptable. Remember: Flavor = 90% aroma + 5% taste + 5% mouthfeel. The nose is nearly everything in flavor.

Wine glasses: Narrowed down to three basic shapes; (1) large, wide bowl wine glasses are generally best for reds to appreciate the complexity and wide variety of flavors and aromas, (2) tulips concentrate narrow aroma profiles of lower ABV white wines, and (3) flutes prevent quick escape of the bubbles in sparkling wines. Most wines range from 6% -17% ethanol. Wine glasses have a distinct headspace in which to insert the nose and appreciate flavors and aromas with the exception of flutes. Headspace size is managed by the pour, usually much less than half the volume of the empty glass, allowing adequate empty headspace volume for nosing.

Too much olfactory ethanol is disagreeable to most wine drinkers, and wine drinkers know ethanol interferes with the search for flavor. Serious wine drinkers are all about the flavor and aroma of wine and although the glasses could stand some improvement, sensory considerations exist to a high degree. Tasting discussions are sensory oriented, and the ”This stuff is good” comments are followed by deeper discussion, beginning with, “Why do you think so?”

Whiskey glasses: Until recently, two basic shapes have been widely accepted by spirits drinkers; (1) the iconic tulip, and (2) the tumbler. The widely accepted tulip is a descendant of the tiny copita sherry glass. Characterized by tiny rims too small to insert the nose, and small bowl diameters to prevent swirling, tulips give no choice or possibility of separating pungent, anesthetic, nose-numbing ethanol from the aroma profile, and in fact, tulips concentrate highly volatile headspace ethanol aromas to 65-75%, with 2-3% character aromas, the rest being air and 2-4% water vapor. Originally designed for 22% ethanol fortified wines, 40% ABV spirits in tulips create ethanol nose bombs, and are frequently referred to as “nose-cannons.” Concentrated ethanol limits accurate sensory diagnostics to a lingering but quickly fading two-sniff memory of aromas prior to anesthetization.

Tulips, the most popular, iconic spirits ethanol delivery devices, are the primary reason whiskey event commentaries end with “This stuff is good.” Tulips are the sensory problem, and the driving force behind the whiskey drinkers’ quest for higher ethanol. Distillers, recognizing the opportunity, created a new “cask strength” market segment for straight, neat whiskey drinkers, reasoning that ethanol driven whiskey lovers will appreciate undiluted spirits directly from the cask because they are the “purest” and “highest” form of whiskey possible. Higher profit margins, plus the added bonus of a “scarcity or exclusive expression” premium add up to a cask strength windfall for distillers. Assessing flavor and appreciating the drinking experience of cask strengths from a tulip is exponentially more difficult than 40% ABV (alcohol by volume) spirits. Whiskey drinkers confuse “cask strength” with quality. Cask strength spirits’ higher cost drives rationale to “more ethanol means better quality.”

State of the Art: Today, whiskey appreciation for the drinker is a status game. For spirits industry marketers it is a carefully crafted opportunity designed to replace the individual’s personal opinions with high powered marketing and buying suggestions. This approach exists solely because whiskey drinkers invited it by prioritizing pungent olfactory ethanol over discovery, enjoyment and discussion with the attitude “Let someone else make my decisions because thinking “hurts my brain.” Sensory science is completely ignored.
Gurus, mavens, bloggers, and competitions exist to help guide drinkers only because drinkers won’t own their own decisions, confuse ethanol pungency with flavor, and commonly equate high ABV with quality. Corporate loves tulips because they hide so many things and practically nothing is wasted, so they are not about to support a sensory glass.

The Uninformed Whiskey Drinker: The uninformed are unaware of the silent, painless onset of ethanol nose-blindness, and covet their tulip glass. Ethanol pungency is exactly the same for all spirits of 40% ABV (worse for higher ABV) and has absolutely no relationship to character or flavor. As long as tiny rim tulips are the standard, whiskey drinkers will remain in an ethanol fog and continue to buy popular labels, rare selections, celebrity endorsements, and cleverly advertised spirits regardless of the absence of personal sensory, fooling themselves into accepting the pre-tasting subliminal flavor suggestions of corporate brand ambassadors. Spirits drinkers will follow the passing show of revered gurus, mavens and celebrities who dictate what drinkers should buy, perhaps augmented by competition medal awards without considering true attributes, flaws, or personal preferences.

Summary: It’s time for all of us to climb to a higher place, above marketing madness, and share opinions and true sensory perceptions by becoming serious whiskey drinkers. Common sense tells us to start with a glass designed to deliver flavor and enjoyment without anesthetic ethanol quickly numbing your nose. Your glass is the most useful tool for discovery if you choose the right one. Care more about what’s in the bottle and whether you truly like it, rather than the ethanol level.

Footnote: The author is the co-inventor of the NEAT glass and sensory researcher. We are serious about empowerment, owning your own perceptions, and elevating sensory evaluation, enjoyment, and personal purchasing motives as your highest priority It really is all about you. It should be. Get the ethanol away from your nose and get serious.

About George Manska

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.

Contact:, phone 702.332.7305. For more information:

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