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Legs - What the hell are they really and do they matter?

posted Jan 5, 2015, 7:49 AM by David R.   [ updated Mar 25, 2018, 1:01 PM ]
The terms legs or "tears" are used to describe the drops or streaks that form and drip down the insides of a glass after you swirl the whisky in the glass.  We comment on them in all our tastings but there always seems to be questions or a bit of confusion about what they really mean.  So I thought it might be interesting to see what has been written about them in books and on the web.  I scoured all the books I owned and then searched the web and here's what I have found that others have written about them (since this is not an academic treatise, I will spare you all the footnotes, but will state upfront that these are other people's views on legs not mine.  Apologies to the authors for not referencing them directly or quoting them incorrectly.)

So according to what I have read:

  • Faster legs running down the glass suggest younger whiskies (except for cask strength or heavily sherried whiskies)
  • A ring of pearls forming in the glass suggests the whisky is probably 50% abv or above
  • A trail from pearls and slow drops suggest oils in whisky
  • Long, thick, slow legs suggest a full-bodied whisky
  • Lighter, less prominent, faster legs suggest a lighter-bodied whisky
  • Slow legs suggest oil, fuller-bodied whisky usually because of age or new-fill cask
  • Long legs suggest higher alcohol content
  • Legs have to do with alcohol content not necessarily the quality of the whisky
Clearly, there are a lot of different opinions out there, no wonder we have problems figuring it out.  The common thread seems to be that tears are an indicator of alcohol content (which if you have the bottle you already know what it is and do not have to guess based on the legs).  However, since whiskies that are high in alcohol may be harsher than those with lower alcohol levels, it may also give some indication of the whiskies smoothness.

So given all the above, what do you think?  Are "legs" even worth talking about?