On a sunny afternoon in Brooklyn, three Veterans and three civilians came together to tell stories, share laughs, and drink a sampling of spirits provided to VeteranLife by Flaviar, the popular liquor membership service. Joined by special guest taster and National Book Award-winning author and Marine Corps Veteran Phil Klay, our six intrepid heroes faced down nine total drams, including one full bottle of Ragtime Rye.
It was 12 in the afternoon.
On a Tuesday.
Thus, one thirsty fellowship journeyed into the classy world of whiskey tasting.
How To Prepare for a Veteran Whiskey Tasting
There are several hoops to jump through before hosting or participating in a tasting. Some are easy jumps, others are more difficult, and others still can be moving targets.
It’s a little overwhelming to see so many boxes to check before popping the cork. But the goal here is to have fun. So if you want to skip a step or change things up for convenience, don’t hesitate to do that.
If you’re aiming to stick to the “proper” protocol and become acquainted with the tried and true methods and madness of barrel-aged malts, schnozzes and snifters, charred casks, and strong sherry notes, then follow along with the VeteranLife tasting journey below and see how our experience turned out.
A few of the participants had previous experience with tastings, but none had ever hosted one. To make up for it, Flaviar’s guide to tasting whisky was perpetually open as a guidebook for the afternoon, at least until the words began to bleed together on the page. In it, Flaviar includes everything you need to know to be sure that you don’t miss any crucial aspects of what can be a complex operation.
How To Decide on the Whiskey
Getting the booze is a crucial first step. In our case, Flaviar provided us with several samples. Flaviar offers these neatly packaged tasting boxes as a great way for curious customers to break into the world of spirits and discover the best flavors for them. Instead of building your own, by yourself, with limited information, these provide a lot of helpful utility for the burgeoning whiskey connoisseur.
One pack we picked up was called “Livin’ the American Dram,” while the other was the “2022 Flaviar Awards,” which holds five vials and is an assortment of the highest-rated and most purchased spirits of the year.
If you don’t end up going with a premade pack, remember to bring an assortment of different kinds of whiskey in order to try out the various profiles and mash bills. The goal is to dive into a wide range of flavors and figure out what you like. If you find you like rye better than scotch right away, for example, then you can set up another tasting to try out multiple brands of rye.
How To Find a Space for a Whiskey Tasting
Crucially, you’ll need a comfortable space that’s convenient for everyone. There are a few obvious choices, the easiest being to assemble at one of the participant’s homes. If that’s not an option, though, some restaurants and bars allow you to bring your own alcohol, and they often have private or semi-private spaces to reserve.
There are also a number of websites cropping up these days that allow you to rent spaces or homes on a per-hour basis. Think of them like gig-focused Airbnbs. Many artists and photographers use these sites to find locations for shoots and other events. Popular sites in the category include Breather.com and Giggster.com.
The VeteranLife gang was lucky enough to find a space close to our special guest taster so that he wouldn’t have to travel on the day of his latest book release.
What To Bring to a Whiskey Tasting
First and foremost, you need the right people. Fortunately for VeteranLife, we had a couple of retired Army officers and one retired Marine officer who were willing to make the trek out in the middle of the day on a Tuesday to sample some spirits.
Accompanying us on this Tuesday afternoon tasting journey were Captain Mike Lang (retired, Army), Captain Phil Klay (retired, Marine Corps), and Lieutenant Jason Grassick (retired, Army).
A large part of what makes for a “proper” whiskey tasting includes bringing the right equipment. The most vital accessory is the glassware. Hands down, Glencairn glasses are said to be the absolute best for tasting whiskey. This is chalked up to their unique shape, which facilitates aromas and tickles taste buds. Of course, any glass will do in a pinch, but we went all out at VeteranLife and acquired our own set of Glencairn glasses to see if we could really open up those flavors.
The right snacks are also vital to throwing a successful tasting. What you’re looking for here is a palette cleanser. Avoid punchy flavors and opt for plain, unsalted crackers or bread when possible.
There was an assortment of snacks available on location for our tasters, in addition to the cracker selection, both regular and gluten-free. While ensuring the purity of the tasting experience, also remember to be practical. Some members of the group hadn’t eaten lunch yet, and with 9 spirits to try, tasters were bound to get the munchies when the empty vials began to pile up.
Provided snacks were things like pretzels, plain chips, and mild mofongo plantain and pork skins. Everyone followed the rules generally, and no one broke into the more flavorful bags until well into the experience, when we began to lose control of our internal physiological hunger regulation.
How To Taste Whiskey Like a Veteran
Start by pouring a small amount of the first spirit into your whiskey tasting glass. You’re not aiming to fill up in the first round, so aim for half a shot or less, depending on how many samples you have.
You’re going to be tempted to take more than you should at first, but remind yourself that the goal of a tasting is to make it through all the samples with your tastebuds intact and functioning. Too much, too fast may turn them into completely useless flaps of neutered tongue skin.
You’re going to find a lot of alcohol that tastes good. So write down names, fill out your wish lists, and proceed down the list in an organized fashion.
And make sure to pay attention to a few key variables in every sample.
There’s a massive spectrum of colors that opens up to a whiskey taster. Spirits can be completely clear, totally dark, and everywhere in between. The color of whiskey tells you a lot about its particular properties. For instance, a lighter-colored whiskey indicates that it was matured in an older barrel that’s been used previously. A darker-colored spirit might also indicate a higher complexity of flavor.
Hold the glass up to the light and let the color really shine through. While you’re doing this, you can investigate the next property of your dram.
You may have heard that wine has legs, but did you know that whiskey does, too? Slosh it around against the glass to see how quickly they fall back into place. The “waves” this creates against the surface of the glass can tell you a couple of things about what you’re sampling.
Long legs can indicate a higher alcohol content and an older spirit. Shorter legs can reveal that your beverage is younger and not as textured or full-bodied.
There’s no right way to smell your whiskey, but there are countless methods floating around to try out. This is the part where tasters get to channel their most ridiculous sommelier impressions.
Flaviar’s tasting guide mentions that some people even smell their spirit with one nostril at a time. Our tasters had an absolute blast making a big show out of snorting the aroma of our booze. It’s unlikely that anyone achieved the intended result from this experiment, unless the intended result was to provide the group with a callback gag joke that never failed to get a laugh.
If you’re looking for a practical way to nose your booze and fully take in the aroma, you can do one of two things. You can dive-bomb your nose in and out of the rim of the glass, catching new whiffs with each pass. Or you can do the classic swirl, hovering your face above the glass while the smells waft into the waiting cavities of your sniffer. Those were the two most successful methods the VeteranLife team identified.
It may feel like it took eons to get here, but there are so many properties of whiskey to appreciate before you actually take a swig. Even here, in the tasting phase, you can take further steps to draw out the full tasting notes.
The key is to take a tiny sip initially, especially if this is the first sample. You want to get your taste buds used to the alcohol content, almost in the same way that you’d get your skin used to a hot bath by easing into it. Take another small sip to ensure that you’re grabbing flavors now and not just the burn of the alcohol on your tongue.
Just like with the smelling phase, there are varying opinions about what to do next. One popular idea is to take a larger sip that you roll around in your mouth, over your tongue, your teeth, and brush against the roof of your mouth, before you swallow. Get the whole mouth involved in parsing out flavors. It’s also a good idea to start with the least flavorful sample first and work your way up to the samples with more complex profiles, that way you don’t overwhelm your taste buds right off the bat.
One thing the group did not know about at the time but would have undoubtedly spawned a new running joke is “the Kentucky Chew.” Fred Noe, master distiller at Jim Beam, has been teaching the world about chewing their booze, which he learned how to do from his father, Booker.
Just like you’d expect, the process is to take a sip of whiskey, hold it in your mouth and simply chew on it as if it were solid food. This gets the whole mouth involved by default, getting all the whiskey has to offer absolutely everywhere, slipping and slopping the flavors all around the anatomy of your mandibular geography before you ultimately slide that swell down the hatch.
Fortunately, there’s no wrong way to taste whiskey. Many people use straws to suck up water droplets and mix in one drop at a time until the kick is at a level that’s bearable for them. This is common when tasting cask-strength alcohol. Whatever works for the way you like it. If you even want to use a mixer, don’t let anyone give you a hard time for it. This is all about personal preference.
The Flavor Profile of Reintegration
Flaviar ships custom flavor spirals with each of its sample packs that showcase the individual profiles of each drink. In other words, they’re a list of the flavors that you’re “supposed” to taste. The bigger the picture on the card, the more prominent the particular flavor.
Much like a sommelier describing the profile of a specific wine, whiskey tastings can have participants guessing away about one standout flavor or another.
But it’s not an exact science. Captain Lang swore he tasted cinnamon in just about everything, even though there was no cinnamon in any of the samples at all. He thought that if he guessed cinnamon every time eventually he’d be right. This is one of those examples of how truly unfair the world can be.
Some of the flavors are on the subjective side. Each taster identified an “orange” taste in the first sample, but when the flavor spiral was revealed, the biggest element on it was called “marmalade.”
When the only rum sample to sneak into the collection of whiskeys popped up, Captain Lang was ready. Limes, he said, were an excellent resource for rum. Once his sister-in-law’s uncle gave him a huge bag of limes. Ingeniously, he decided to freeze the fruit into ice cubes to drop in his tumbler. The lime cube kept his drink cold and melted slowly, seeping into the liquid and changing the rum into a tropical mixed drink.
Famous now for his baking prowess, Lang shared an anecdote about the similarities between tasting notes and flavor profiles of whiskey and desserts. After his homecoming, when he struggled to reintegrate into a society where nothing made sense and his anger continued to get the best of him, he was encouraged to find a low-stakes hobby to channel his energy into.
There may not have been any cinnamon in the spirits at the VeteranLife tasting, but there’s more than enough in the myriad delectables that Captain Lang is now known for among friends and family.
The Best-Tasting Whiskey We Sampled
We took a lot of notes on the first samples, really taking our time with the process. As the day went on, fewer notes graced the page, and less attention was paid to the process. Snacks with poppy flavors were cracked open, and the gang began to laugh and share stories and experiences.
This was arguably the most powerful aspect of our tasting. The experience itself was unforgettable, and the Veterans who came and shared their experiences and their struggles provided a lot of value and insight for total strangers they’d never met.
Of course, we all had our favorite spirits, as well. Amazingly, the group was practically in agreement on which ones those turned out to be.
The samples we tried, in order of tasting, and the packs they belonged to, were:
Livin’ the American Dram Pack
1. Coppersea Excelsior Empire Straight Rye Whiskey
2. Uncle Nearest 1856 Premium Aged Whiskey
3. Yellowstone Select Bourbon
Flaviar Awards 2022
4. Yellowstone Select Bourbon (Yes, we did a double-take here, too)
5. Bushmills 16-Year-Old Single Malt
6. Brugal 1888 Rum
7. Stauning Kaos Danish Whiskey
8. The GlenAllachie 15-Year-Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky
9. Ragtime Rye
- Coppersea Excelsior Empire Straight Rye Whiskey
- Brugal 1888 Rum
- The GlenAllachie 15-Year-Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky
- Stauning Kaos Danish Whiskey
- Ragtime Rye
Everything in life is subjective, of course, but the consensus was pretty clear. If you’re looking for alcohol that tastes good, you won’t go wrong by starting with some of these.
Our Veteran Whiskey Tasters
The assembled crew that came out for the VeteranLife whiskey tasting includes two Army officers and one Marine officer. Our participants have diverse backgrounds in their respective branches and have all experienced a variety of challenges both while deployed and after returning home.
Former Army Captain Mike Lang served two deployments in Iraq. He was first stationed in Balad, a city northwest of Baghdad, and then in Mosul. He worked as an assistant operations officer in an infantry battalion and then as an assistant personnel officer for an infantry brigade.
During his second deployment, Lang worked at a strategic level media operations unit, an inter-agency public affairs division in Baghdad. While there, Lang helped monitor media coverage of the war, coordinated press releases and press briefings, and supported other media-related activities. What he saw raised questions for him, and he came to have mixed feelings about his time in Iraq and America’s involvement in the war, feelings that would never totally be resolved.
Former Army Lieutenant Jason Grassick was also deployed to Balad and then to Mosul, participating in both OIF 1 and 2. He started out as a Platoon Leader on the ground with Bravo Company 2/3 Infantry Regiment. After seven months he moved to Alpha Battery 1/37 Field Artillery. As “an artillery guy,” he says, he “likes to keep things simple.”
Special Guest Taster Phil Klay
Phil Klay is the author of the short story collection Redeployment, a work that won the National Book Award, and the critically acclaimed novel, Missionaries. His latest book is called Uncertain Ground: Citizenship in an Age of Endless, Invisible War.
A Captain in the Corps, Klay spent his time in TQ, an airbase just south of Habbaniyah. As part of his duties in Public Affairs, however, he also traveled around the province. Klay left the military in July of 2009, though he’s been part of special projects since, such as accompanying the UN as a special envoy to review rebuilding efforts.
Uncertain Ground was released the day of the tasting. At one point, a friend from Denmark texted Phil to say they’d be raising a glass to celebrate. Phil was able to text back, Stauning Kaos Danish Whiskey in hand, to raise a glass in return.
The New York Times calls Uncertain Ground “engrossing and important.” The book comprises a collection of essays written over ten years. It’s an explosive and thorough time capsule dedicated to the American military efforts of the past decade. In total, the collection examines what it means to be embroiled in endless wars as a country where less than 1% of citizens directly participate.
You can pick up Uncertain Ground from Phil Klay’s website, or at the bookstore of your choice. You can also see a list of upcoming book events on the site calendar where you can hear more about the essays and Phil’s own experience.
Whiskey Tasting at Home
Whiskey tasting isn’t a spectator sport. Please, by all means, try this at home. Get yourself a handful of good guides and sift through the advice you find, make some notes on the primary points that jive with you, get your gear together, get your friends together, and throw down the firewater while you (responsibly) let go of the concerns of the outside world.
The right method for how to do a whiskey tasting really depends on how you want to do it. Follow the rules, break the rules, but most importantly, find the spirits that taste the best to you. Each whiskey tasting is primarily dependent on the individual whiskey taster. If you want a more organized experience or don’t feel like going through the trouble of hosting, check out local events and support businesses near you. Start by Googling “whiskey tasting near me,” or even “what does whiskey taste like,” if that’s the level you’re on.
If possible, read up on the best Veteran-owned whiskey brands around and support the people who’ve always supported you. Or check out a membership service like Flaviar to help you sample new brands and then buy the bottles you love.
At VeteranLife, we can’t do the things that we do without our audience. Thank you for reading through the results of our whiskey tasting adventure and for supporting all our content on veteranlife.com.
A very special thanks goes to our Veteran tasters for making the trek out and suffering through nine different spirits in the middle of the day. We know it was tough.
Get the most out of Flaviar with these customized offers for the VeteranLife audience:
- Flaviar Gift Membership » Spirits Club Subscription
- Join Flaviar Today – Make Your Home Bar the Best Bar in Town!