Whisky tasting can feel overly complicated, a little intimidating and very unapproachable. From descriptive tasting notes to required glassware, it’s no wonder many people feel overwhelmed. So, we decided to write up a few simple steps to take when you taste a new whisky for the fist time. We’re by no means ‘experts’, so feel free to pick & choose from our list.
Before we start, make sure to choose a glass and pour yourself a generous measure. Glass-wise, professional whisky tastings, i.e. ones you pay to attend, will use a tulip-shaped glass as the aromas of the whisky are channeled into the narrow funnel at the top of the glass, making it easier to pick out individual notes. If you don’t have such a glass, don’t worry. Just use a tumbler. There’s no need to be pedantic, and we actually prefer the look and feel of a crystal rocks glass.
Now, sit back, relax and enjoy tasting the large glass of whisky that you’ve just poured. Here goes:
Background: The colour typically comes from the maturation process and can give you a few clues about the flavour profile of the whisky. If the whisky has a red tinge it’s likely to have been matured in an ex-sherry or port cask. If the whisky has a gold/ amber tinge then it’s likely to have been matured in an ex-bourbon cask. Ex-sherry will give fruity notes whilst ex-bourbon will give vanilla notes. The darker the whisky, the longer the maturation. The colour of the whisky can also be controlled by adding caramel colouring, which is often done to maintain consistency between batches.
How to: Hold your glass up to the light (natural light is best) and see if you can identify any tints.
Background: Nosing will give you an idea of the whisky’s flavour profile. Similar to smelling coffee, you may be able to pick out certain characteristics e.g. sweet, salty, smoky etc. Whisky is a complex liquid and so it may take you a minute or two to distinguish between different scents.
How to: raise your glass up to your nose and take short, sharp sniffs. If you’re struggling to identify any notes then close your eyes and try to think about memories or moments in the past that relate to what you can smell. Is it medicinal or perhaps fruity? Some “official” notes are a little crazy and so we’d recommend just picking out headliners that would allow you to distinguish this whisky from another e.g. smoky and sweet.
Background: The moment you’ve been waiting for. If you’re new to this then the whisky in front of you probably just tastes like whisky. Don’t worry, it takes a lifetime to perfect this. You can start by trying to differentiate between flavours. So, if you pick out a certain headline note e.g. citrus then start to hone in on that. For example, it could be grapefruit, and then white grapefruit over red or pink and so on. Obviously, there’s no right or wrong answer, so don’t feel intimidated and just have fun. After all, you’re drinking whisky!
How to: Take a small sip and swirl around your mouth like mouthwash for 4 or 5 seconds. Swallow and then open your mouth and breath through your nose. This should let the flavours mix, working their magic. After doing this once, we recommend adding a few drops of water and repeating this step. You may find a few more notes come to the surface.
Background: Lastly, what’s the finish like? This is, at it’s simplest, either long or short. In other words, does the taste last for a while or disappear pretty quickly? The finish is often best compared to other whiskies. Some peatier expressions will last longer than fresh, floral whiskies as smoke is quite a pungent note. You may have to try a few whiskies to get the hang of it… but that’s no bad thing!
How to: This one is a pretty self explanatory.
It’s important to say that whiskies CAN have stereotypical characteristics depending on the region they were produced e.g. peated whisky found in Islay and soft, lighter whisky found in the Lowlands. This is not always the case as distilleries play around with various distilling and ageing techniques and so you can now find a non-peated Islay whisky, just as you can find a peated Lowland whisky.
So, there you have it. A quick, simple guide to tasting whisky. Again, there are no right or wrong answers and the important thing is to enjoy yourself. You can use this guide every time you try a new whisky and we’d recommend using it to taste Double Standard (but of course we do). It’s as easy as see, smell, taste and feel. Alternatively, just throw back a glass if you prefer that. It’s much quicker. Our only rule: don’t call out anyone who doesn’t follow your rules…that’s not cool.
If you are feeling more adventurous then you may want to start batching up some cocktails. The world of whisky cocktails is fairly new as, until lately, the general consensus was to not mix your whisky. However, rise of the bartenders has overthrown the whisky police and many brands are now starting to experiment with whisky cocktails. Our cocktail guide, A Mixed-up View of Whisky, will be available to download for free very soon. Stay tuned!