Should You Let Your Whisky Breathe?

So now everyone knows that the shape of a glass can radically change the taste of the spirit inside it, right? But are there any other ways to improve the taste of your favorite beverage even further? What about letting your whiskey aerate before drinking, like we do with tannic wines? Does whiskey “open up” the way wine does after exposure to air?

In order to determine if aeration has any noticeable effect on the taste of whiskey, we’ve done another taste test experiment: This time we’ve let the same whiskey sit for three different lengths of time, to compare and contrast how much effect time spent in glass before consumption had on what’s inside. The whisky chosen for this experiment was Balvenie 14 Caribbean Cask, and the glassware used was three Glencairn whisky glasses. We let one glass sit for ten minutes before tasting, one for five minutes, and one for no time at all. How did the whiskey fare in each glass? Read on to find out.

No Resting Time in Glass

Nose: Light, sweet, enticing aromas of honey, white sugar, and white flowers. Balvenie is always a favorite at Drinkhacker HQ for good reason; this is simple but wonderful stuff.

Palate: There’s a very brief rush of bitterness that fades almost instantly, leaving a sugary sweetness that lingers on the tongue. This is almost certainly because of the rum barrels that the whisky is aged in, making this an easy choice for those just getting in to trying whisky.

Five Minutes Resting in Glass

Nose: The honey is still there front and center, but it is now flanked with richer sugar tastes: butterscotch, a standard for whiskies, and the rum barrel comes through this time with a nuanced taste of coconut. Just nosing it, this is far more enticing and interesting than the initial pour.

Palate: Surprisingly, not much different from the initial pour. Though the nose had evolved, the palate remains loaded up with soft sweetness, though perhaps it comes across as a bit more subtle than the first pour. The taste buds at the tip of the tongue are fired up, and the whisky lingers on the tongue for some time.

Ten Minutes Resting in Glass

Nose: We can see a clear line drawn from the first pour to the last: Each pour deepens and enriches the aroma found in the glass. The honey here is rich and sumptuous, the butterscotch is decadent, and the coconut has been replaced by a general tropical fruit scent; subtle, sweet papaya and mango waft through the senses.

Palate: And yet again, on the palate it’s mostly the same story. It’s more subtle still — soft and lightly sweet, not overpowering. Easy to drink and tasty, Balvenie remains a whisky that both novices and aficionados can appreciate, but the core flavor has remained surprisingly consistent over the course of the tasting.

Conclusion

So what can we infer from all of this? Clearly it seems from this simple test that while aeration has an effect on whisky, it’s not as dramatic a change as if it were applied to, say, a heavy, tannic cabernet. The taste of the whisky remained surprisingly consistent from pour to pour; in fact if anything the whisky got lighter and more subtle with time. Where the changes occurred were in the nose, where the aromas got deeper and richer as time went on, and new scents floated up to the top of the glass.

All of this is likely because two contradictory things are happening in the glass as time passes: first, alcohol is evaporating from the glass, as we saw in the glassware taste test. This allows you to more readily access the aromas that are initially hidden by the ethanol fumes (though as we have seen, the right piece of glassware cuts these fumes pretty heavily just to start). Secondly, the water in the whisky is evaporating as well, which actually concentrates the remaining flavors left behind. In just ten minutes, neither of these phenomena are terribly significant in terms of the abv of what’s left in the glass, but clearly the shifting amounts of alcohol in the whisky and the free vapor in the glass open up subtle changes in taste — and more pronounced changes in aroma. These effects would likely be even more dramatic in a higher-proof alcohol, so if our article on bonded whiskey inspired you to pick up a bottle of Old Grand-Dad 100 Proof, trying this experiment with that whiskey will likely produce interesting, potentially exciting results.

To sum up the experiment, letting whisky breathe isn’t as essential as letting wine breathe, but you will find detectable changes on the nose and palate as you let your drink aerate. Hopefully these findings will help you enjoy your preferred whisky even more, and if you decide to do the experiment yourself, let us know in the comments!

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7 Responses

  1. Joo May 10, 2017 / 7:11 am

    Older Scotches tend to benefit more from breathing in the glass. 10-15 years dont need much time in glass. When you get to older 20+ bottles, the oak notes and oils in the whiskey could use a little time to open up. 10-20 mins for a 25 year old changes it. Also higher ABV ones benefit as well.

  2. Jason May 10, 2017 / 10:33 am

    What glass were you using? Typically if you are tasting with a glencairn glass, the changing aromas should benefit the tasting. If you are tasting in a lowball glass, like the one depicted in the blog post, then those aromas are more likely to escape when tasting (which might explain the consistent taste even after the changing aroma).

    • Christopher Null May 10, 2017 / 2:59 pm

      The post notes he was using a Glencairn glass. The photo (a stock shot) is not meant to be illustrative of the testing. We wouldn’t test this way with ice, either!

  3. neandrewthal May 10, 2017 / 4:50 pm

    I bet you wouldn’t taste this way with rum and coke either!

  4. Heidenkind May 10, 2017 / 8:33 pm

    If you were pouring a heavy tannic wine, like a Malbec, 10 minutes wouldn’t change much in the character of the wine, either. Most tannic wines need to be decanted and sit for at least a half hour, sometimes as much as a full hour, before they open up. So it would be interesting to see what would happen if you let the whisky breathe for a longer period of time.

    I’m also now curious as to whether or not brandy needs the same treatment, since it’s made with grape must and therefore theoretically closer in character to wine than whisky.

  5. Mike September 29, 2017 / 10:38 am

    I came here searching for whether or not I was losing my mind. I have a glass of whiskey left over from a few days back. This particular brand, I prefer drinking at room temperature. I had left it in the glass, covered for 4 days, and took another sip today. The change is phenomenal. It’s much lighter with floral notes it didn’t have before. It tastes almost like a different whiskey. No evaporation occurred that I could see, and the alcohol taste is still there. But much, much smoother.

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