Despite what you might think, tasting whisky is a lot more than simply taking a big gulp, swallowing it, and exclaiming to your mates that it, “sure is smooth”. While that’s all well and good, if you want to learn how to “taste” whisky, you need to do a little more than that. Also, you need to drink it a little slower than you’re probably used to. Beyond that, there are three things to remember if you want to taste whisky like a professional.
The first thing is that it’s slightly more complicated than you probably realise. There are many steps involved. The second thing is that once you learn the steps, you’ll enjoy whisky more and your palate will broaden. It will lead to trying more different types of whisky. Maybe you never tried bourbon before or perhaps you thought you wouldn’t enjoy single malt Scotch whisky. Learning to taste whisky will help you pick out the different aromas and flavours in the different whisky styles.
The third thing is that learning how to taste whisky the way distillers, blenders, and bartenders do is actually a lot of fun. You’ll be really happy that you learned how and maybe you can even wow your mates when you explain the intricate aromas and flavours of their favourite whiskies.
What You’ll Need to Taste Whisky
First and foremost, you need a bottle of whisky (feel free to grab your favourite). During this exercise, you’ll likely find aromas and flavours you’ve never noticed before. If you’re feeling really adventurous, get a bottle of whisky you’ve never tried before. If possible, taste it in a Glencairn whisky glass. This glass was created with a wide, round bottom and narrow top. It’s perfect for swirling and to help concentrate the aromas. If you don’t have one, fear not. A rocks glass, albeit less ideal, will work fine for these purposes in a pinch.
Whisky Tasting Steps
When it comes to tasting whisky like a professional, there are a few steps. As we mentioned before, truly tasting whisky is much more than just tipping it back and gulping it down. In fact, this might be the lowest level of tasting possible. You might not believe it, but the first step is taking a moment to look at the appearance of the whisky. This is followed by nosing the whisky and eventually (yes, you get to drink) tasting the whisky.
A lot of work went into crafting the whisky you’re about to drink. In the case of single malt whisky, it required malting, mashing, fermentation, distillation, and a lot of time. Sure, you can enjoy a white whisky (like moonshine) that’s been un-aged and goes straight into a bottle after being proofed down, but wouldn’t you rather have a whisky that’s been matured in charred oak barrels? We definitely would.
Not only does barrel aging impart nuanced flavours, but it also gives the whisky its colour. Before we do anything, we hold up our glass and take note of the colour. It can go a long way in telling us how old the whisky is. If it’s light amber, it’s a younger whisky. Dark caramel and you’re looking at something that spent longer maturing.
This might seem silly but hold up the glass and give it a little swirl. This will key you into the whisky’s viscosity. Watch the whisky take hold of the side of the glass and slowly work its way back down. This is referred to as the whisky’s legs. Watching how long it takes for the legs to work down the side of the glass and back into the rest of the whisky will tell you about the mouthfeel. The longer they take, the more creamy or silky the whisky is.
It’s important to take in the aromas of the whisky before your first sip. Getting the most out of this experience is a bit of a science. You don’t want to simply stick your nose into the glass and breathe in. While keeping your mouth open, hover your nose just over the opening of the glass and take a few small smells.
If it helps, close your eyes and try to pick out the aromas. There are no wrong answers. Take a break and let your nose recover from the many scents. Do this long enough and you’ll find a whole bouquet of aromas will reveal itself to you.
You might want to fill your mouth with whisky, but the key is to start with a very small sip and let it move around on your tongue. Swallow the whisky to prep your palate for the liquid to come. During your next sip, hold the whisky on your tongue a little longer.
You also might want to bring some air in from between your lips. Continue this and, as your palate gets used to the alcohol, more flavours will appear. Do you notice caramel, vanilla, fresh leather, cracked black pepper, or perhaps dried cherries or a hint of mint leaves?
Just like with the nose, there are no wrong answers. Just know that the more often you sample whisky, the better you’ll get at picking out the specific flavours the distillers and blenders intended.
After a long sip or when you’re finished, you’ll likely notice that the last sip ends with a warming (or downright hot) sensation that leaves you feeling pretty good. Think about the warming level, but also try to think of what flavours and mouthfeel you find on the finish. Is it dry? Does it end with a fruity sweetness? Maybe a little smoke (or a lot of smoke) in the case of peated single malt Scotch whisky? What are the last few flavours you notice?
If anyone tells you not to add water to whisky, they don’t really know much about its molecular makeup. After your initial tasting, add a few drops of water to your whisky to let it open up a bit more. This is especially important when tasting higher proof, bottled-in-bond, and cask strength whiskies.
The Kentucky Chew
While simply tasting whisky is a lot of fun and can lead to a new appreciation of the spirit, there are some tasting techniques that make the experience even more memorable. One of our favourites is called “The Kentucky Chew” and (you guessed it) It comes from Kentucky.
Created by Booker Noe, former master distiller at Jim Beam, it consists of taking a sip, swirling it around on your tongue (making sure it thoroughly coats the inside of your mouth), swallowing, and then immediately smacking your lips. You’ll be amazed at the flavours you notice from this simple, seemingly silly exercise. If you ever visit Jim Beam in Kentucky and get a chance to attend a bourbon tasting with Fred Noe (the current master distiller), he’ll absolutely do this technique.
Tasting Instead of Drinking
As we mentioned before, there’s a chance you’ve spent your adult life simply “throwing back” whisky. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, if you’re reading this article, you’re looking for a way to get the maximum enjoyment out of your favourite spirit. Tasting requires patience and allows you to fully immerse both your sense of smell as well as taste. Some even use a spit bucket like with wine tastings, but we don’t like to waste good whisky and prefer to instead sip it slowly, a dram at a time.
What’s a Dram?
If you’re not a seasoned whisky drinker, you might be wondering what exactly a dram is. Well, it’s certainly not a rocks glass filled to the brim with your bourbon, rye, or Australian whisky of choice. In the most basic terms, a dram of whisky is a small sample size amount. While there is no set standard of what a dram is, it’s usually around twenty-five to thirty-five milliliters or an eighth of a fluid ounce. All in all, it’s a decent amount if you’re trying to taste and sample a whisky as opposed to getting a buzz on.
Remember to Have Fun
Obviously, tasting whisky sounds very complicated. But it really isn’t. Just remember to take a few sniffs, sip and savour, and you’re on your way to tasting whisky the way professionals do. Just remember, it’s not all stuffy and uncomfortable. It’s supposed to be fun. Otherwise, why would you drink whisky in the first place?
Whisky Tasting FAQs
If you want to drink whisky the way professionals do, the best way is to swirl it, nose it, and sip slowly (letting it swirl around inside your mouth). But there’s no wrong way to drink whisky. If you prefer to just guzzle it down or sip it without enjoying all of the nuanced aromas and flavours, suit yourself. We’re not here to judge.
Regardless of your level of whisky drinking, the simple act of swirling, nosing, and sipping slowly is beneficial to your overall enjoyment of whisky. Just get started and have fun. You don’t need an advanced degree in distilling to taste whisky.
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