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A Guide to Tasting and Drinking Scotch Whisky

Updated on May 2, 2014
tasting glasses
tasting glasses

Introduction to Whisky Tasting

I’m getting honey, oats, vanilla with a smoky finish… Well to the untrained eye, or nose, the world of whisky tasting can appear somewhat pretentious. On your first dram of whisky all you will probably get is a fiery throat and a squint in your eye. However, persevere past those first few painful drinks and you will find it amazing just how quickly your senses will develop to allow you to pick out the different and subtle different flavours that make up a whisky.

Although we talk a lot about the taste of a whisky most of the work is done in the nose. Your nose is an extremely sensitive instrument and can detect around 35,000 different smells, and can recognise a smell when diluted to one part in a million. Pretty incredible really. Your mouth on the other hand is a relative barbarian and can only detect a mere four tastes; salt, sweet, bitter and sour. The key to whisky tasting is to combine the two and make the most of both.

Everybody’s nose is different and we will all have a dram and probably detect slightly different things, but discussing these with your friends is all part of the fun of whisky tasting. The nose is so important that master whisky tasters are smugly known simply as “noses”, a title that I strive for but am sure will never obtain.

When tasting / nosing a whisky you essentially look for 4 things how it looks (colour) how it smells (the nose), how it tastes (the palette) and the finish. The finish is how it tastes after the initial flavour has gone, similar to an aftertaste but can last much longer, some whiskies have finishes that literally last all night, a Laphroaig would be a good example.

Checking the colour
Checking the colour
Glennfiddich 15 year old solera reserve
Glennfiddich 15 year old solera reserve
Label description
Label description

Colour

When assessing a whisky’s appearance colour is the main criteria. All whiskies have different colours and can range from perfectly clear in the case of a new spirit to deep dark oily brown. The colour generally comes from the cask so gives you a good indication of what the cask held in it’s previous life and the duration that it has been maturing in that cask for. Casks are almost always made of oak and often were used to hold sherry, port or bourbon in before being used for whisky.

Generally the darker the liquid the longer it has been maturing in that cask for. To legally be called a whisky the spirit has top have been matured in oak casks for at least 3 years, most single malts and all good whiskies will have been matured for much longer than that, the minimum for a decent single malt is around 10 years, but as a general rule the longer in the barrel the more expensive the whisky (although whether it is better or not really is up to you). Bourbon casks provide a golden whisky whereas sherry casks make a darker spirit, like the colour of marmalade, port casks can provide a still darker whisky.

Casks are often used 3-4 times by each distillery before it is disposed of, each time it is used it will contribute less colour and flavour than the time before. Some distillers also combine different casks starting with maybe a sherry cask and moving the liquid to a bourbon cask after a few years. A good example of this is the Glenfiddich 15 year old Solero reserve where 3 casks are used. In this case Glenfiddich 15 year old whisky from American bourbon, Portuguese sherry and new oak are combined in a vat to deliver a really delicious whisky. Maybe not for everyone and real purists would turn their nose up at the idea, but it tasted really good to me.

Some distillers use a dastardly trick to add colour to their whisky by adding caramel, they claim that this doesn’t affect the flavour, but most noses disagree. Look for bottles that proudly declare they are free from caramel.

The Whisky Scale
The Whisky Scale | Source
Get your nose right in there...
Get your nose right in there...
A Glencairn Glass
A Glencairn Glass

The Nose

I once read that 90% of whisky tasting is done through the nose, I thought this was a ridiculous figure at first, but if you try a dram while holding your nose you will soon realise that you taste nothing at all, I suggest you don’t use your top shelf bottles if you attempt this.

To really get the smell of the whisky get your nose right into the glass, I like to get my nose as close to the whisky as possible and take a good long sniff to really breathe in the aromas. When you first start doing this you will probably get only the strongest aromas, so for a Laphroaig you might say that it was smoky or a Glenfiddich 15 year old smells of toffee. As you try to do this more and more your nose will adapt, the thing to remember that the nose is just a sense organ, the real work is done in the brain, so if you really concentrate you will start to be able to identify the individual flavours that make up that overall smell. Also be aware that the first sniff will give you the best indication of the actual aroma of the whisky because your nose will quickly get used to the smells, so feel free to sniff as many times as you want, I often take a good long sniff before each sip, but if you are writing notes, try to take the note after your first or second sniff.

My personal preference is to drink out of a crystal cut whisky tumbler, not only does it look good but is heavy so feel great to hold too. However, a real “nose” would tell you that this is not an ideal shape for the glass as the large open rim allows many of the vapours to escape reducing the potency of the sniff. A real “nose” would use a Glencairn glass, a special type of glass that has a tulip shaped bowl and a longer, thinner neck and lip. The tulip shape gathers the vapours and channels them into your nose making them ideal for nosing whiskies.

Enjoying a whisky from a Glencairn Glass
Enjoying a whisky from a Glencairn Glass

The Palette

There are four primary tastes that are widely accepted; salt, sweet, bitter and sour. However, many experts identify a fifth taste known by the Japanese name of Umami meaning “flavour”. This is used to describe meaty or savoury flavours so adds savoury as the fifth primary taste.

Flavours are tasted by your taste buds which are tiny sensory receptors on your tongue. The taste buds are arranged so that the tip of your tongue picks up the sweet flavours, sour and salt are picked up on the sides and middle of the tongue and the bitter flavours at the back. Each area takes different times to be stimulated with the bitter receptors being the least sensitive so taking the longest. So always make sure you hold the liquid in your mouth for a good few seconds to ensure all of you taste buds are stimulated, take small sips and gently roll the whisky around your mouth before you swallow. I sometimes like to purse my lips and gently pull some air in while I have the whisky in my mouth, this looks ridiculous but I find it really helps to taste the subtle flavours of the whisky. Again, your taste buds can quickly get used to a whisky so write your notes after your first few sips.

Another element to think about when tasting the whisky is how it feels in your mouth, this is using the sense of touch on your tongue to identify whether it is a light whisky with a thin body or is thick and viscose and really coats your mouth and throat when you swallow.

Whisky Nose Wheel
Whisky Nose Wheel | Source

Conclusion

Hopefully this will provide you with a bit more information on how to enjoy the whisky drinking process, I find that knowing more about what you drink and how to enjoy it enhances the experience. Also discussing the finer points of a whisky with your friends is great fun (almost as fun as actually drinking it). I have reviewed a few whiskies already following this process and plan to do more, please check these out and let me know what your own thoughts are.

The Finish

The finish is how long the flavour of the whisky lingers after you have swallowed it. It is ranges from short to long. Generally the longer and more lingering the finish the better and more expensive the whisky.

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    • Rain Defence profile image

      Rain Defence 4 years ago from UK

      I've found that the Glencairn style glass tends to concentrate the vapour from the whisky a bit too much. I have tried drinking from one a few times as I know that it is the right sort of glass, but I just don't enjoy drinking from it as much as I enjoy whisky from a crystal tumbler either.

      I have never seen a whisky that is coloured at the treacle end of the scale. I can only imagine you'd get a headache from a whisky like that before you've even finished drinking, but I bet the flavour would blow your head off! Have you ever tried a whisky that dark?

    • dommcg profile image
      Author

      dommcg 4 years ago

      I've never really got on with the Glencairn glass myself either, it just doesn't feel as comfortable in my hand. But then i guess i'm just not as serious about whisky tasting as others, i'm more serious about enjoying the whole experience.

      I've never drunk a full on treacle coloured whisky, but i have a bottle of Glenlivet 18 year old which is a dark amber. Bowmore do a 15 year old 'darkest' whisky which is a treacle colour

      http://www.bowmore.com/whiskies/15-years-old-darke...

      christmas is coming...

    • profile image

      sanu 2 years ago

      It's nice blog.

    • sunilkunnoth2012 profile image

      Sunil Kumar Kunnoth 2 years ago from Calicut (Kozhikode, South India)

      Fantastic article with rich contents. I loved reading it. Shared on FB.

    • dommcg profile image
      Author

      dommcg 2 years ago

      Thanks for reading, the whisky season is almost on us (well OK, the whole year should really be the whisky season...)

      Thanks

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