Drinking Whisky

How to taste whisky?

The human mouth and nose is amazing. We have 5 primary tastes (bitterness, sourness, sweetness, saltiness, and umami) but we can detect up to 10,000 different smells with our noses. For this reason it is important to use both our nose and mouth when tasting whisky.

Whisky, like wine, is purely subjective. People enjoy different tastes and there is no right or wrong when tasting a whisky. Some people will enjoy a certain whisky, while others hate it, regardless of price, type, blend or region. It is extremely important to remember this to appreciate whisky, just because someone else likes a certain whisky, doesn’t mean you have to!

I’m going to use Richard Paterson (Master Distiller at Whyte & Mackay) instructions on tasting whisky, because they add such a personality to the tasting experience. Remember, there isn’t really a great deal you need to know about tasting and enjoying whisky, but these guidelines will help the experience.

The glass

When drinking whisky, it’s best to use a whisky tumbler. When tasting whisky you can use a wine tasting glass or tumbler.

Pouring the whisky

When tasting, pour a tiny amount of whisky in the glass and swirl it around to coat the inside of the glass. Now, this may sound strange, but if you can afford to, throw it out. The reason you do this is to clean the glass and ensure it’s up to the quality of the whisky you’re about to taste. Now you can pour a tot (25ml) of whisky in the glass and swirl it around, it’s now ready for nosing.

Nosing the whisky

When nosing the whisky put your nose deep in the glass for a few seconds. The first nosing is the “Hello” moment, it’s when the alcohol hits your nose and overwhelms your senses. The second  nosing is the “How are you?” moment, you’ve forgotten the initial alcohol smell and can go in for a second sniff. One nostril will always be better than the other depending whether its morning or afternoon, so it’s important to move the glass from side to side while nosing. If your eyes start flickering, your nosing the whisky too aggressively. Your mind should be on the inner warmth of the whisky. Next is the “Quite well” nosing. This is when you can start to pick up scents from the cask that the whisky was matured in.

Tasting the whisky

There are different methods that can be followed here. I personally prefer to taste the whisky neat first before adding any water to try get a true sense of it in raw form. Next added a little cool water, you want to reduce the alcohol down to 38%. This releases the tannins (flavours) of the whisky and makes it more palatable. Swirl the whisky a little and then take a sip and swirl it around your palate for at least 12 seconds. If your eyes flicker while tasting the whisky is still to strong for your palate and needs to be diluted with a little more water. There’s a debate around whether or not to add ice to whisky, with most masters claiming you don’t. During a tasting this is all good and well but when enjoying whisky socially I prefer to add a maximum of 2-3 blocks of ice with less water than usual.

Below is a chart of the most common whisky flavours, feel free to click the image below to download a high-res version.

Whisky Flavour Chart

Start with youngest and move up 

If you’re tasting a number of whiskies, start first with the youngest aged and move up through to the oldest. Always leave some of each to go back to. You’ll be amazed at how different they taste and what flavours you pick up when you go back to the beginning.

A final thought

When tasting whisky, try not pay attention to the price or year. In fact, try it blind at first if possible. As humans our initial perceptions are skewed and this may lead to bias in tastings.