How to Taste Whisky

How to Taste Whisky

The Short Tasting Course
  1. Pour one ounce in a tulip shaped glass.
  2. Hold the glass in your hand for a minute to warm the whisky.
  3. Hold the glass upright 3 to 4 inches from your nose.
  4. Nose the whisky with your mouth open. Use left nostril, then right, then both. Note the aromas.
  5. Take a small sip to just coat your mouth. Note the flavours.
  6. Nose it again. Note any differences.
  7. Taste it again, this time with enough to chew. Note the flavours.
  8. If there is any left (and there should be) nose and taste it again.

Please be responsible. If you are tasting two or three whiskies, cut the pour down to ½ an ounce. If you are tasting more than three whiskies: sip and spit. Do not drink and drive.

The Long Tasting Course
    It does not matter if you are drinking a single malt scotch whisky, an Irish whiskey, a bourbon whiskey, a Canadian Rye whiskey, a Japanese whisky, a grain whisky - the approach is the same.
    Let´s agree that there is a difference between drinking and tasting. We drink whisky with friends or on our own, indoors or outdoors. We drink whisky to enjoy the pleasure and comfort the whisky brings to us. When we taste whisky, we pay particular attention to the aromas and flavours. We are curious about this whisky. Do we like it? Would we buy a bottle? Would we recommend it to friends? Tasting focuses our attention on the whisky.
    Approach the whisky as you would someone you are looking forward to meeting - with enthusiasm, alertness, curiosity and a wee bit of wariness. Like people, some whiskies can come on strongly and be almost overpowering at the outset. Others may appear weak or having little substance. And others will delight you from the outset. Sometimes our first impressions are confirmed; other times, they are not.

    How do you judge people? What are your criteria? What criteria do the professional tasters use? Suggest you check out the Scotch Whisky Research Institute´s Flavour Wheel. This is the professional´s view of whisky flavours. Use it, if you wish, as a guide to identifying aromas and flavours.

    Please remember, we all have different abilities to identify aromas and flavours. You are never wrong about the aromas and flavours you detect. As in any skill, the more you practice the better able you will be to detect different aromas and flavours. (This is your permission to practice.)
    Choose a tulip shaped glass if you have one. This shape helps to focus the aromas as you smell or nose the whisky. The professionals most often use a copita. The most popular style in Scotland is the Glencairn glass, widely sold in most Scottish Distilleries Visitor Centres, although not at Ardbeg or Highland Park. Brandy glasses and small mouthed wine glasses will also work. Tumblers do not work nor do wide mouthed wine glasses. They do not concentrate the aromas. Avoid crystal cut glasses - they distort the colour.
    With glass in hand, pour yourself an ounce (more or less) of whisky. The amount is a matter of personal choice. An ounce allows you the opportunity to nose then taste and nose and taste three or four times to get the essence of the aromas and flavours. If you are tasting two or three whiskies, cut the pour down to ½ an ounce. If tasting more than three whiskies: sip and spit - it´s that simple.
    Hold the glass of whisky against a white background. Observe the colour. The colour comes from the wood of the cask. When it goes into the cask it is gin-clear.

    What can the colour tell you? It can give a hint of the age of the whisky and it can also tell you something about the type of cask in which it was matured and/or finished.

    Some points to keep in mind.
    • Older whiskies tend to be darker than younger whiskies.
    • Whiskies matured in European red oak (Quercus robur) tend to be reddish and darker in colour than those aged in American white oak (Quercus alba) which can be a pale gold in colour.
    • Whiskies that have matured in oak casks and then are finished for a number of months in red wine casks will often pick up a red tinge.
    What does the colour of your whisky tell you? What is your first impression of this whisky?

    CAUTION: Scottish Distilleries are allowed by law to add caramel to their whiskies in order to ensure a consistency of colour from one year to the next. In these cases, the colour will not be an indication of age or cask type. It still may be beautiful: it just does not tell you anything about the whisky.
    Here is where the fun begins. Make sure you are in comfortable surroundings that are free from other smells like perfume, after shave, cooking odours, etc.

    To get the full aroma and flavour effect it is useful to warm the whisky. This releases some of the alcohol and allows the flavours to come forward. Cup your hands around the base of your glass for a minute or so.

    NOTE: Followers of Jim Murray will place a hand over the top of the glass as well and hold it for one to two minutes until a haze develops.

    Now, bring the glass towards you slowly holding it upright and place it about three or four inches below your nose. Inhale slowly with your mouth open. Tilt your head to the left and notice the aromas you are picking up through your left nostril. Tilt your head to the right and do the same. Did you notice any difference? Take notes of the aromas you are identifying. Nose with both nostrils and move your nose closer to the glass as comfort permits.

    If you get nose prickle, back off, unless you want to anaesthetize your sense of smell.
    And the fun continues. Raise the glass slowly to your mouth and take a wee sip, enough to just coat your tongue. What did you notice? Was it peaty, dry, oily, grassy, nutty, or...? The first sip gives a first impression, just that. It sensitizes your taste buds to what it can offer. Take note of your first impressions.
    It is time to revisit the aromas. Repeat the nosing process. Do you notice any new aromas? Close your eyes and gently inhale. Move the glass away from your nose. What did you notice? Nose it two or three more times. Take note of the aromas you detected.
    Now take a healthy sip, enough on which to chew. Close your eyes. What do you sense? What flavours dominate? Are there any hints or undertones behind the dominant flavour(s)? Is it well balanced, i.e. what you detect on the nose is aligned or complements the flavours on the palate. If you are tasting many whiskies, this is where you spit. Otherwise, swallow it slowly. In either case note how long the flavours linger. Is there anything particularly pleasing about the finish?
    Repeat and take notes of your impressions.
    Repeat and take notes. What is your overall impression?