Whisky basics

Did you know?

Every part of your mouth registers a different unique taste sensation. It is therefore important to coat the inside of your mouth with whisky for the maximum taste experience.

How to taste whisky

The art of tasting whisky is much simpler than you think. You can read so many reviews and tasting notes that refer to a whisky as having the flavour of 'sherbert, dark chocolate or burnt rubber', that it can leave you wondering "am I tasting the same whisky?". But how do you learn to pick up such extreme, different and expressive 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.

The glass
The type of glass that you use will help your cause massively. It is best to use one that has a narrow opening as this will channel and concentrate the aromas of the whisky towards your nostrils. This type of glass is called a snifter, but a similar shaped wine or brandy glass would work just as well. Some come with an additional glass plate (as seen above) that is placed over the top of the glass and this plate helps to trap the aromas. Glasses such as tumblers or those with a wide rim should be avoided for tasting purposes, as the aromas dissipate too quickly. These should be used for drinking the whisky on its own, with ice or when less analysis is needed.

The nose
This is the sensation and aromas that you pick up from the whisky before tasting it. Important characteristics can be found and should give an indication as to what the whisky will taste like. Pour a reasonable amount of whisky into the glass and swirl it 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 its life until this point and needs a little time to express itself and start to show its true characteristics.

Once you have swirled allow the spirit to settle so that your first sensations will not be full of alcohol. Take a note of the colour while you are waiting during this short time - holding it against a white background is a good tip. Now 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. You will often find that your first sniff will be full of alcohol and that you may not pick up much. However, the second, third and fourth sniffs should reveal more each time as your nostrils get used to the high strength of the spirit. From this, try to predict what the taste of the whisky will be like.

The palate
The flavour of the whisky on your palate should be the most rewarding and enjoyable part of the whole process. The most important thing is not to drink the whisky too fast (like a shot of cheap Tequila), rather to savour it in your mouth 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. It is important to let this pass as it is now that any whisky will reveal its 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.

The finish
The finish 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.

Should I add water or ice?
A common question and one that only you can answer. It is all down to personal taste. Always try whisky in its 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 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. Ice is different as it drops the temperature sof the whisky and inhibits some of the characteristics from emerging.

For more information on this, please visit our page on Adding water or ice.

Brian Kinsman, Master Blender - Williams Grant & Sons