How To Taste Whiskey

Introduction

Whiskey consumption is on the rise as high end brands proliferate and millennials take a shine to mixology. Bars dedicated solely to whiskey are popping up like mushrooms. With all this activity, there’s also a growing interest in learning how to taste whiskey. Whether you’re visiting a local distillery for a tasting session (and you want to look smart) or you’d simply like to up your tasting knowledge, you’ve come to the right place. Read to the bottom of this page and you’ll have a good understanding of whiskey tasting.

As you develop your whiskey tasting skills, you’ll quickly discover four important facts:

  • Whiskey tasting is a simple process: easy to learn but hard to master.
  • It’s an art and a science: both are required to effectively taste.
  • Patience is key: regular tasting practice will take you to expert level.

“Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.”
Mark Twain

Factors to consider

Glassware

A whiskey glass isn’t just about looks, although that does play a part in the visual enjoyment you get from the tasting. The shape of a glass plays role in emitting aromas. The traditional whiskey tumbler isn’t ideal for a tasting session because only the most aggressive notes will be present. These glasses were made popular by US bars; the tumbler was a good fit for a shaker top, meaning the bartender could easily mix club soda and ice with blended whiskey.

The ideal tasting glass should:

  • Be tulip shaped – they’re the ones that have a wide bottom and stemmed top. This glass type stops your hand from heating the whiskey.
  • Have a thin lip – this is a sign of quality.
  • Have a shallow bowl – allowing heavy compounds to easily rise to the top of the glass.
  • Not have a wide shoulder – there will be too much surface contact with the air resulting is rapid oxidation.

Will a tumbler crush your ability to taste whisky? Probably not. But as you become a whiskey aficionado, factors like glass shape will increasingly come into play.

Whatever your choice of glass, you should use the same shape when testing multiple whiskeys.

Water

Still water can be added to whiskey using a pipette, bottle cap or anything in the kitchen that allows you to easily add a drop or two of water consistently. Adding water opens up the whiskey and enhances the tasting process. Certain aromas may become more prominent whilst others may be masked.

Add the water after smelling and tasting the pure, undiluted whiskey. In some cases, you may want to have two tastings of the original, before adding water.

Temperature

Serve whiskey within a temperature range of 60-65F (15-18C). This rule applies to any type of whiskey, whether it’s Bourbon, Japanese or Scotch. Maintaining this temperature can be a challenge in very hot or cold climates. If possible, store whiskey in a cool dry cupboard or cellar rather than trying to manipulate the temperature such as using ice. In icy conditions, you may be forced to briefly warm your brew to help release the flavors.

The palate

Our taste receptors can be stimulated by a large range of chemical substances including: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, umami, astringent, fatty and metallic.

whiskey tasting
Serve whiskey at 60-65F to enhance the taste.

Getting started

You don’t need a lot of whiskey in the glass to taste. Aim for roughly one ounce of liquid, or 3 centilitres. To give you an idea of how much that is, a single shot is 1.5 ounces, so you’ll want under a shot for tasting.

Your first goal is to lightly coat the entire inside of the glass to help bring to life aromas that reside in the bottom of your glass. The easiest way to achieve this is to slightly tilt the glass and make a circular pattern with your hand – this will swirl the liquor everywhere.

Understanding the visual cues

Before you start to smell or taste, initially your sense of sight will be stimulated. There is a surprising amount of information you can gather in this early stage, but be warned, it can also be deceptive.

Colour

Generally speaking, the darker the whiskey, the longer it has been aged and a more intense flavor experience can be expected. There are other factors such as type of oak used for the barrels, whether the barrel is being used for the first time and whether caramel color has been added.

American white oak Reddish shade
European oak Yellowish shade
Previously used sherry cask Auburn shade
Bourbon Scotch whiskey Very light shade
First fill for cask More intense color
Refilled cask Less intense color each time
Caramel coloring added Adds artificial intense color

As mentioned already, visual cues can be deceptive. We can make assumptions by eye-balling the whiskey but no conclusions can be made.

Clarity

A clear spirit may indicate that it’s been subjected to a chill-filtration process? This can affect the whiskies aromatic profile with a reduction in its complexity. On the other hand, chill-filtration can remove slight defects in its flavor profile.

Viscosity

Assessing the whiskey’s alcohol content is possible by observing the whiskey legs. These legs, or tears, can be seen by swirling the glass with whiskey. The more legs and the slower they form and fall, the higher the alcohol content. Also look at to see if the legs separate or cling together: spaced out legs is a sign the whiskey has been aged in their barrel for longer.

Expert Tip: After exhausting all the visual cues, allow the glass to sit untouched for 1-2 minutes to allow the concentration of aroma

The olfactory cues

Our sense of smell is what adds complexity to the whiskey and is a major part of the tasting process. Learning how to nose a whiskey is a skill that can be developed over time. Aromas can be broken into three types.

Type of Aroma Description
Primary Aromas derived from the primary ingredients used in production such as barley, grain and malt.
Secondary Aromas derived from the fermentation and distillation process.
Tertiary Aromas derived from the ageing process such as the type of oak barrels used.

The environment can play an influential role during tasting: a smoky bar, a garden bar at a seaside tavern, a non-ventilated room – all of these will cloud the olfactory senses. Always try to taste in a neutral area away from distractions.

The tasting process
Our sense of smell is vital to effective tasting.

The whiskey tasting process

Step 1: the first aromas

Holding the glass gently, position your nose above the glass and inhale the first aromas. This will allow you to inhale the lighter volatile compounds. Avoid swirling the glass to begin with. That is what you do wine, not whiskey.

Step 2: the heavy aromas

Now turn the glass towards your face so that the liquid is almost tipping out. What you’re trying to accomplish here is inhale the aromas from the top and bottom of the glass, but not at the same time. Start by inhaling the bottom of the glass opening. These are the heavy volatile compounds with aromas such as smoke, wood. Now, lower your hand to appreciate the more volatile floral aromas.

Step 3: taking the first sip

Take a sip of whiskey then hold the glass horizontally and position your nose directly above the glass. This will allow you to smell lighter volatile elements which are difficult to pick up when they’re intermingled with the more dominant aromas. Using this technique will help you perceive the floral aromas.

Step 4: inhallation

As you inhale, consider varying the speed at which you inhale so as to detect different aromas. Breathing slowly will assist low-absorption odors to be detected.

Step 5: isolating the nostrils

Take turns at blocking each nostril while inhaling. Each nostril inhales at varying rates one nostril will outperform the other at detecting aroma. By isolating each nostril you will detect different odors.

Step 6: check an aroma wheel

Check an Aroma Wheel to establish the aromatic families your senses have detected. This wheel is helpful as it allows both beginners and connoisseurs to describe the whiskey’s characteristics using the same vocabulary.

Step 7: cleanse the palate

Throughout the tasting, take a sip of neutral water which is at room temperature.  This helps prevent acidity from affecting the palate. It is also helpful to avoid spicy, strong flavored foods or drinks that will impact the palate.

Step 8: continue sipping

Only take very small sips each time so as to allow the palate to get used to the alcohol. It’s important to masticate for up to 30 seconds so that the salivary glands kick into action. Allow the whiskey to touch all parts of the tongue.

Step 9: swallowing

After swallowing the whiskey, immediately breathe out deeply through the nose. This will allow you to further inhale aromas which may not have been detected until now.

Step 10: the expressive aromas

Once the glass is finished, cover it to allow the concentration of residual aromas. Expressive aromas can help us draw the conclusion that the whiskey has a rich aromatic profile.

Final words

Whiskey tasting can be seem a little daunting when you’re starting out. Don’t let it intimidate you. Learning to taste should be as much about the journey as the destination. Have fun, and practice whenever you have the opportunity. By following the process on this page you’ll be a whiskey feinschmecker before you know it. I recommend investing in a whiskey tasting chart as well as a journal so that you can record your whiskey tasting notes. It’s easy to forget previous tastings if you don’t record them.

Happy whiskey tasting!

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