Before exploring how to taste whisky like an expert it must be made clear that there are no right or wrong ways to do it.
Over the many centuries that whisky has been enjoyed, habits and customs have shifted. What is deemed correct today will most likely be different in another fifty years.
That’s to say, if you enjoy whisky the most when consumed through a straw or buried in ice – that’s what’s best for you. We’re not here to change that.
However, for those who wish to discover more about how to extract the most from the whisky-drinking experience, read on and see how to taste whisky like an expert.
Here, we’ll look at the best way to drink whisky in order to appreciate the complex relationships at play, deep layers of flavour, and textural qualities.
1. The Look: Recognising a Whisky’s Appearance
2. The Nose: Smelling the Whisky
3. The Palate: Having a Sip
4. Adding Water: Unlocking More Layers
Remember, this isn’t about detective work but simply self-reflection.
The Look: Recognising a Whisky’s Appearance
Although this may seem a slightly obvious starting point, taking the time to really consider a whisky’s colour will help provide the context for what’s to come. Acting as the departure point for your personal journey of discovery.
Hold the glass to the light to uncover hidden hues and try to build a picture of how the colour may have been taken on.
If it’s a dark ruby or walnut, you can most likely expect a richer whisky perhaps matured in ex-sherry or bourbon barrels. Whereas a lighter colour could indicate a more delicate flavour, a heavier grain concentration, or a shorter maturation period.
The viscosity will also tell you a lot, so give the glass a gentle swirl and see how the whisky reacts. Higher-alcohol whiskies tend to produce slower-moving ‘tears’ or ‘legs’ (the drops which form and roll down the inside of the glass).
This gentle swirling will also help the whisky release its aromas, ready for the next step.
The Nose: Smelling the Whisky
We all know how closely linked our sense of smell and taste are – with each supporting and guiding the other.
Start by taking a gentle sniff of the whisky to familiarise yourself with the alcohol vapours rising from it. It may take a moment to become used to the sensation.
Now, take a deeper inhalation through the nose and reflect on what you can detect.
A large proportion of a whisky’s character and taste resides in its effect on the nose.
Here, you may pick herbaceous notes, smokiness, sweetness, or spices.
What’s important is that you take the time to really think about the aromas you encounter.
Do they transport you to a particular place? Do they remind you of anything?
Again, as ever, there are no right or wrong answers here. By taking the time to enjoy the aroma of a whisky, the experience of tasting it will be elevated greatly.
The Palate: Having a Sip
The best part of any tasting… the tasting.
Take a small sip of the whisky, enough to cover your tongue, and move it around your mouth to extract as much taste as possible.
You may have different sensations in different parts of the mouth and when swallowing, think about how the taste changes and evolves.
The mouthfeel will be most evident initially, is it soft and rounded or punchier? Maybe it dries the mouth slightly or it has a sweeter mouth-watering effect?
Here, it’s worth inhaling again to take in the maximum flavour and thinking about the structure of the experience.
On this journey of taste, does the flavour strengthen? Or do new flavours emerge? How does the overall taste change over time?
And finally, we come onto the finish.
This is the aftertaste left in the mouth after swallowing. You will read about “long and short finishes” or finishes that are “dry” or “smooth”.
Ask yourself how the taste has settled in your mouth, how would you describe the feeling and what it reminds you of.
Adding Water: Unlocking More Layers
Adding water to a whisky is a tried and tested method to draw more flavour and character from the spirit.
Some whisky-drinkers may add water to every glass but in a tasting it’s common to add a few drops after having tasted the whisky ‘neat’.
Water helps activate certain flavours locked within a whisky and provides a new level of differentiation between its component tastes.
The amount to add is up to you, depending on how much you want to dilute the stronger alcoholic flavour, but after adding some water to a whisky you can then repeat steps two and three, and remark on the results.
The most important element of each of these steps is your own individual experience: the personal memories you can associate with the flavours, the stories a whisky tells, and how it ultimately connects with you, the drinker.
So, next time you enjoy a fine whisky, take the time to taste it like an expert – we’re sure you’ll be enriched and rewarded by the experience.