How to taste whisky

Angela D'Orazio

Would you like to become a real pro at whisky tasting? Then you’ve come to the right place. We’ll be sharing a few useful tips here for those who want to learn how to host their very own whisky tasting.

Best of luck! Whisky greetings from Angela, Master Blender

CHECK YOUR EQUIPMENT

Whisky should be tasted in small, tulip-shaped glasses to ensure you get the best aroma. If you don’t have enough whisky tasting glasses at home, you can use small wine glasses or cognac glasses. What’s important is that they get narrower at the top so that the aromas are concentrated. Water and tumblers should also be available. Water at room temperature is used both to dilute the whisky and for drinking between the different varieties. The whisky is diluted with small volumes of water using a pipette or teaspoon. Provide tumblers next to the whisky glasses to drink water from, and possibly also spittoons (in case people don’t want to swallow the whisky).

Also provide whisky tasting mats and pens so people can take notes and save them for future reference.

Preferably pour the whisky half an hour before tasting so that it gets the chance to breathe. It should be at room temperature. Pour equal amounts into each glass (2–3 cl) to make it easier to calculate the amount of water you may want in the whisky. Read the labels of the whisky you’re planning to taste – how strong, young, old, smokey and flavourful the different varieties are. It’s best to taste the one with the least flavour first and the more flavourful ones later on. The smokier the whisky, the later you should taste it. Take the younger whiskies first, followed by the older ones so that your taste buds can keep up. If you have very old whiskies, it may be best to taste them separately. If you have strong whiskies (cask strength), it’s a good idea to note how strong they are. Nose the whiskies before you start. If a whisky is more than 60% ABV, it may be a good idea to taste it very carefully first before diluting it.

APPEARANCE

Start off by studying the colour of the whisky. Preferably tilt the glass a little and hold it up against a light background. The colours may vary from light yellow to a deep dark brown. The whisky is colourless before maturation, so all colour comes from its time in the cask (provided that no colouring is added, of course, which is sometimes the case with younger whiskies).

Three factors give the whisky a deeper and richer colour: longer maturation, a smaller cask and a higher quality cask. There may be red tones, indicating sherry cask maturation. Examples of colour terms are pale straw, pale gold, amber, deep gold, deep copper, tawny, brown sherry and treacle. Swish the whisky around the glass so that the liquid touches the walls of the glass. See how the whisky runs down the glass walls in small streams. Does it run quickly in thin curtains, or slowly in viscous, sticky drops? The slower it runs, the more body and flavour extract the whisky has.

NOSE

Pick up your glass and swirl it in your hand to give the whisky lots of air and thus allow it to give off more aromas. Preferably blow away the first layer of stronger alcohol before placing your nose in the top of the glass and nosing carefully. Try to assess the immediate and most prominent aromas. Decide whether the aroma is light, fresh, clean, sharp, pungent or simply warming or burning. Taste the whisky carefully. Experience its strength with your tongue and mouth. Decide whether or not you want to add a little water. Adding water helps you to better distinguish the aromas and flavours, as the whisky then “opens up” and gives off more aromas that would otherwise have remained bound up in the whisky. A good rule of thumb is to dilute all varieties to the same strength, e.g. 30%, but as it’s a matter of individual taste, you should explore what you personally prefer. Swirl the glass so that the water and whisky are well mixed. If you don’t they will separate into layers, with the water on the top. Nose again. One trick is to close your eyes so that you can focus better on the aromas you’re picking up. Note these aromas. Write down those you recognise. Also write down associations and any queries; use your imagination to identify the aromas. Examples of terms for aromas are floral, fruity, dried fruit, honey, vanilla, toasted, sherry, toffee, fresh vegetables, malt, tar, new wood, marzipan, leather.

TASTE

It’s now time to taste the whisky properly. Take a draught so that you get a mouthful. Keep the whisky in your mouth for a couple of seconds so that your entire tongue gets the chance to taste it. Preferably breathe with your mouth open, as that will help your nose identify more of what is in your mouth. Prepare to swallow the whisky. Does it taste more or less like its aroma? Swallow or spit it out. Consider which of the four basic flavours, sweet, sour, salty and bitter, is the most prominent. Write down the flavours you recognise and those you don’t – try to associate the latter with something so that you can identify them later. Examples of terms for flavours are apple, pear, citrus, banana, raisin, honey, nougat, chocolate, sherry, toffee, hay, lawn clippings, herbs, toast, seaweed, smoke, new wood, resin, marzipan, coconut, almond, hazelnut.

TAKE NOTES AND COMPARE

Put together aromas and flavours and make a summary of your impressions. Think about whether the whisky has similar characteristics in terms of aroma and flavour. Make a list of the aromas and flavours you recognise and those you don’t. Ask other tasters for their impressions, but remember that everyone has recorded different tastes and aromas in their lives. Where you’re concerned, it’s your own impressions that count. Some descriptions of aromas may sound negative but aren’t necessarily. For example, leather can be very pleasant if paired with other fruity, candied, floral and herbal notes. Go through all the varieties in the tasting in a similar way. Use the whisky tasting mat to make notes about each variety. When you have gone through a number of the whiskies, preferably go back to the first varieties and nose/taste them again. Has their character changed now that you’ve tried several different varieties?

A FEW FINAL TIPS…

LIGHT OR HEAVY – AND WHEN?

Different whiskies are a bit like children – you like them for their different characters. A lighter whisky is no worse than a more flavourful one – it can be perfect on occasion as an aperitif. A more flavourful whisky is more appealing later in the day when you’ve eaten and drunk more and exerted your taste buds. A really flavourful whisky with a lot of cask is more appropriate when rounding off a pleasant evening, whether smokey or not. So whether you prefer your whisky more flavourful or lighter, the challenge is to see the differences and be able to describe them without involving your own opinions too much.

SPIT LIKE A PROFESSIONAL

Professionals usually taste/spit and try everything at a tasting before choosing a glass and drinking the whisky – this helps them better remember what they learned from the tasting.

NO RIGHT OR WRONG

One person’s flavour and aroma notes often differ from another’s. This is also the charm of whisky tasting. You can share your experiences and see if you can identify and learn something that someone else has found. Tasting whisky with people who are both more and less experienced than you are, along with more accomplished tasters, is the optimum solution – and perhaps the most enjoyable.

DON’T INFLUENCE YOUR TASTE BUDS

Chewing gum, toothpaste, throat lozenges, snus and similar items should naturally not be consumed or used when you’re attending a whisky tasting, as they distort your taste buds. If you want to neutralise your mouth between the different whiskies, you can eat some ordinary white bread or an apple or drink some water.

PUT THE CORK IN

Check that all the corks are back in their bottles when you’ve poured the whiskies so that the angels don’t take too much of a share of the delicious aromas! Once a bottle has been opened, it’s a good idea to drink it up within a year. If it’s an undiluted whisky (cask strength), it may keep for longer. But each time you open the bottle, a little alcohol creeps out along with the aromas. Compare it with coffee: a freshly opened jar always has the most aroma.

Good luck with your Mackmyra tasting!

Lycka till med din provning! / Angela D’Orazio, Master Blender