A Beginner’s Guide to Whisky Tasting
You’ve decided you want to do more than just consume whisky. You want to analyze and critique, better understand what you’re tasting. It doesn’t matter if you’re new to whisky or if you’ve been drinking for decades, this guide will walk you through the process of drinking whisky from a critical perspective, allowing you to better understand and enjoy the spirit in your glass.
Countless whiskies exist and it’s important to take notes of everything you sample over the course of your journey. You might think you’ve got a great memory, but after you’ve explored over 100 whiskies, it becomes difficult to remember the names of every expression you’ve tried, let alone their taste profiles and what you liked or didn’t like. We’ve designed the Whisky Journal tasting notebook for this sole purpose. You can also use any standard lined or unlined notebook, or a note taking application on your computer, tablet, or phone.
Use Appropriate Glassware
Avoid tumblers and other wide mouthed glassware! Use small, tulip shaped glassware with a wide base and narrow mouth that will concentrate the spirit’s aroma and help you better experience the whisky. I recommend using a Glencairn whisky glass or port glass. If you don’t have access to either, I’ve found that a snifter works just as well.
Appearances Can Be Deceiving
Before you nose or taste a whisky, take note of its color. Color can tell you a lot about a whisky, such as the quality of the casks used during maturation and the type of spirit the casks held prior to being filled with whisky. For example, a straw or golden color may indicate a whisky was matured in ex-bourbon casks, whereas a reddish tint may be an indicator of red wine cask maturation. A light color may be an indicator of a young whisky, or an older whisky that was matured in a refill or inactive cask. A dark color may be an indicator of an old whisky, or a younger whisky that was matured in a first fill or active cask.
Color can also tell you nothing about a whisky. Many distilleries add e150a caramel coloring, also known as spirit caramel, to their product during bottling. This processed additive is creating by heat treating food grade sugars into a liquid solution. Caramel coloring is added to whisky for a variety of reasons, such as to give the impression of an older spirit, create consistency in the color of a product, and to help combat forgeries.
The takeaway in all this? The color of a whisky only has informative properties if it’s natural. If you were tasting a whisky blind, its natural color, along with its aroma and taste, would allow you to take an educated guess as to what you were tasting.
Take a Whiff
Gently swirl the whisky in your glass before bringing it closer to your nose. With your mouth slightly open, nose the whisky. What do you smell? These aromas will give some insight into what you’re about to experience when you take your first sip.
Taste the Whisky
Take a small sip to minimize alcohol burn. Swirl the whisky around your mouth, coating it the way you would with mouthwash. Bite down on and chew the whisky. What kind of mouthfeel does the whisky have? It is watery, oily, or creamy? What flavors are you tasting? This is known as the palate. Now swallow. Are you tasting any new flavors, or is it more of the same? How long do the flavors linger after swallowing? This is known as the finish. Repeat this process, recording your tasting notes along the way.
What do you like about the whisky? What don’t you like? Why? Asking yourself these questions helps define the types of whiskies you’ll enjoy and make it easier to find new whiskies to explore.
If you’re coming from low ABV spirits such as beer and wine, it can take time to get used to the higher alcohol content in spirits such as whisky. Once you become accustomed to the higher alcohol content, you’ll be able to look past it and have an easier time tasting and analyzing the whisky.
An unrefined palate may not detect much besides ethanol (alcohol) and simple descriptors (fruity, floral, woody, smoky, etc.). Over time, and as your palate improves, you’ll be able to break down those descriptors in more detail, pinpointing specific fruits, vegetables, meats, phenols, and other notes.
Experiment with Water
Despite what you may have heard from some so-called “experts”, there’s nothing wrong with adding a splash of water to your whisky. Adding water can improve some whiskies by reducing the alcohol burn and can open up the nose and palate so that you’re better able to nose and taste the whisky. As a general rule of thumb, cask strength and high ABV whiskies handle the addition of water better than those bottled at or near the legally required minimum of 40% ABV. When tasting a whisky for the first time, always try it neat before adding water little by little until you find your sweet spot.
Water added to whisky should be free of iron and contain no chemical (fluoride, chlorine, etc.) aromas or tastes, otherwise it may negatively affect the whisky. Well water and tap water are fine if they meet this criteria. If not, use a reliable bottled spring water.
To avoid over diluting your whisky, I recommend using a pipette or dropper to add water one drop at a time. If you don’t have access to a pipette or dropper, a teaspoon or water bottle cap can be used, but be careful not to add too much water. Remember: You can always add more water to your whisky, but you can’t take it out! The last thing you want to do is over dilute the whisky and risk it tasting thin and watery.
Pairing with Food
When tasting a whisky for critical (e.g. review) purposes, avoid eating or drinking anything other than water. Any food or drink consumed immediately prior to or while simultaneously tasting a whisky will interfere with your palate and prevent you from being able to properly analyze the whisky.
When drinking casually, I prefer to pair with light snacks rather than a full meal. Assorted cheeses and deli meats, dark chocolate, fresh fruit, and mixed nuts are perfect to munch on while casually sipping a dram. That’s not to say whisky can’t be paired with heavier foods or full meals, but every whisky is unique and pairs best with the types of food that compliment its taste profile – a topic for another day.
Try, Try Again
Always try a whisky multiple times and on separate occasions, if possible, before making final judgment. As you become acquainted with a whisky, it becomes easier to detect subtle notes that you may have originally missed. I prefer to try a whisky at least three times in order to properly experience it and to account for the possibility of my palate being off on any given day.
Don’t be afraid to revisit whiskies you’ve already tasted and didn’t enjoy. Our palates and preferences are constantly evolving. I know a number of whisky drinkers that originally found peated Scotch to be off-putting, only to find themselves enjoying all things peated upon revisiting at a later date.
Have a good time! It’s easy for newcomers to feel (unnecessarily) intimidated. Don’t be concerned if your tasting notes differ from those of others, or if their tasting notes are more detailed than yours. This is a hobby, not a contest or competition. Furthermore, everyone’s palate is different and individual experiences will vary. Part of the fun is in comparing notes with others and learning about each others’ preferences.
Though this guide was written with whisky in mind, much of it can be applied to other fine spirits such as brandy, rum, and tequila. Don’t be afraid to branch out and try new spirits!