This is one of our most commonly asked questions - how do I taste whisky properly? The art of tasting whisky can seem confusing but is much simpler than you think. You can read reviews and tasting notes than refer to a whisky having the flavour of this or that, but how do you learn to pick up these characteristics?
The simple answer is to build up experiences by tasting different whiskies and taking a ‘taste snapshot’ of the aromas and flavours. The more that you do this then the better and more precise your whisky tasting will become.
Another key is that with whisky the true character comes through after some time, unlike the majority of other spirits. Therefore, it is important not to drink it too quickly and to remember that taste is a personal thing and that there are no right or wrong answers. Here are a few tips and things to consider so as to get the most of a whisky.
Before you even get on to the whisky the type of glass that you choose will help your cause. Don't worry about it having to be made out of crystal or anything fussy like that as it is the shape is the most important factor.
By using one that has a wide base and a narrower opening, such as the Glencairn glass, this will channel and concentrate the aromas of the whisky towards your nose. This type of glass is called a snifter, but a similar tulip-shaped wine or sherry glass would work just as well. Glasses such as tumblers should be avoided for tasting and analysing purposes as the aromas dissipate too quickly. However, tumblers are perfectly fine for sipping and savouring a whisky at leisure.
2/ The Nose
The sensation and aromas that you pick up from a whisky before tasting it is often referred to as 'the nose'. Important characteristics can be identified and give a good indication of what the whisky will taste like. Pour a reasonable amount into the glass and take a note of the colour. Different whiskies from different casks will present differently - ex-bourbon casks are generally light and golden yellow, while ex-sherry casks are darker with a deeper amber hue.
Now put your nose to the glass and breathe in with your mouth open - this increases the flow through your airways. Let the aromas circulate around your nostrils and repeat three or four times. Think about what the aromas remind you of – are they light, fresh, heavy, rich, fruity, floral, spicy, smoky etc? Try to identify something new with each sniff and predict what the taste of the whisky will be like.
3/ The Palate
The flavour of the whisky in your mouth is known as 'the palate'. It is the most rewarding and enjoyable part of whisky for the majority of people. The important thing to do is not to drink the whisky too fast - we are not slamming tequila or in an old Western movie. Sip and savour it, roll it around in your mouth so as to get the full flavour profile.
Different parts of your tongue and mouth respond to different flavours and stimuli so passing the whisky around your mouth gives maximum effect. Now try to identify obvious flavours that are present and repeat, trying to identify something new each time. What do the flavours remind you of? Remember there are no right or wrong answers and each persons taste buds are different - do not worry too much if you get a flavour that someone else does not or vice versa.
4/ The Finish
Upon swallowing you will feel an alcoholic burn but it is important to let this pass. It is now that many whiskies reveal their true characteristics and extra depth. This after taste is what is referred to as 'the finish'. Some say that this extra layer of depth and complexity is what differentiates whisky from other spirits.
Once the burn has faded then numerous flavours will reveal themselves, some of which can be extremely subtle. The list can be extensive but again try an relate the flavours and sensations to things that you have tasted or experienced in the past. Also, ask yourself whether the flavours remain for a short, medium or long time. This is called 'the length of finish'.
5/ Should I Add Water Or Ice?
Another common question and one that only you can really answer. It is all down to personal taste at the end of the day. We always recommend tasting a whisky at its natural strength first and then adding as much or as little water as you want. This dilutes the strength and allows the release of further flavours that can be masked by a high ABV, especially in something like a cask strength whisky.
Think of it as the same as if you tried to drink orange squash or cordial without diluting it. It is far more pleasant with water in some cases and how much water you add is up to you, dependent on your taste. Put in small amounts at a time until your find your perfect level. Avoid drowning the whisky as once the water is in then you can never get it out.
Ice is a different story. This drops the temperature of the whisky rapidly and inhibits the characteristics from coming out. This is a very pleasant way to enjoy whisky but is not recommended for analysis as the aromas and flavours are locked in. Think of it like an over-chilled white wine - this only begins to reveal its true characteristics when coming back up to room temperature. For more information on this, please visit our page - Explain about ... Adding water or ice.
* Please note / this post has been updated from the original - July 2020.