Monday, September 15, 2008

Explain about ... How to taste whisky

a whisky snifterThe art of tasting whisky is much simpler than you think. You can read so many reviews and tasting notes than refer to a whisky having the flavour of sherbert, dark chocolate or burnt rubber, but how do you learn to pick up such extreme characteristics? The answer is to build up experiences of tasting different things that are unrelated to whisky and taking a ‘taste snapshot’ of the characteristics of that flavour. The more that you do this, the better and more precise your whisky tasting will become. Another key is that whisky is unlike most other spirits in that the true character comes through after some time, so it is important not to drink it too quickly. It is important to remember that taste is a personal thing and that there are no right or wrong answers.

1. The glass
The type of glass that you use will help your cause. Don't worry about it being made out of crystal or anything like that - the shape is the most important thing. By using one that has a wide base and a narrower opening, this will channel and concentrate the aromas of the whisky towards your nose. This type of glass is called a snifter, but a similar shaped wine or brandy glass would work just as well. Glasses such as tumblers should be avoided for tasting purposes, as the aromas dissipate too quickly and should be used for drinking the whisky on it’s own or with ice.

2. The nose
This is the sensation and aroma that you pick up from the whisky before tasting it. Important characteristics can be found and can indicate what the whisky will taste like. Pour a reasonable amount into the glass and swirl the whisky around for a short time, so as to allow oxygen to get to the liquid and evaporation to begin. This is important as the whisky has been trapped in a cask or a bottle for all of it’s life until this point and needs a little time to express itself and start to show it’s true characteristics. Take a note of the colour while you are waiting for these couple of minutes. Put your nose to the glass and breathe in, letting the aromas circulate around your nostrils. Repeat this three or four times and think about what the aromas remind you of – are they light, fresh, heavy, rich, fruity, floral, spicy, smoky etc? Try to predict what the taste of the whisky will be like.

3. The palate
The flavour of the whisky on your palate is the most rewarding and enjoyable part of the whole process! The most thing is not to drink the whisky too fast (like a shot of tequila or similar spirit) and to savour it in your mouth so as to get the maximum flavour and benefit. Different parts of your tongue and mouth respond to different flavours and stimuli so pass the whisky over all areas of your mouth to gain maximum effect. Upon swallowing, there will be an alcoholic burn (which is one of the main things that puts a lot of people off drinking whisky) but it is important to let this pass as it is now that any whisky will reveal it’s true characteristics. Try to identify obvious flavours that are present and repeat, trying to identify something new each time. Remember, there are no right or wrong answers and everyone’s taste buds are different so don’t worry if you get a flavour that someone else doesn’t or vice versa.

4. The finish
This is the after taste that comes once you have swallowed the whisky. Some people say that the complexity of the finish in whisky is what differentiates it from all other spirits. Once you get passed the alcoholic burn, then numerous flavours can 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 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?
A common question and one that only you can answer. It’s all down to personal taste. Always try it in it’s natural state first and then add water as this can release further flavours and complexity, especially in higher alcohol level or cask strength whiskies. Try to think of it as the same as if you tried to drink orange squash/ 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. Ice is different. this drops the temperature of the whisky and inhibits the characteristics from coming out. For more information on this, please visit (Explain about ... Adding water or ice).


Stephen George said...

This is a good article, but there seems to be some difference of opinion about swirling in our article you recommend it to let oxygen get to it etc but at a recent tasting i was told that this is more of a wine thing and shouldn't be done to whisky as it disturbs the acohol.
Another general tip that i've heard if you're going to a tasting is to have a pint of something (guiness seems popular!) before hand as it gets your mouth used to the acohol before having a much more alcoholic drink like whisky

Matt C said...

Hi Stephen
Thanks for your comments. The question of whether to swirl or not is a divisive one, although I am of the opinion that you can do whatever you like with your whisky. I personally do swirl for the reasons stated in the post and feel it wrong for someone to say not to. I do not understand how it would 'disturb the alcohol' and there is no scientific evidence for this I believe. Anything that helps you get the most out of a whisky cannot be bad, although some people do remain stoically traditional.

With regards to having a drink before a tasting, this is again a matter of choice. As I say in the post, it is important to prepare your senses for the higher alcohol that you will be experiencing. However, having something like a 5%ABV beer will not prepare you for a 40%+ whisky in my opinion. Having said that, there is nothing better than having a Guinness with a good dram accompanying it!