How to taste and enjoy Whisky
To truly appreciate and understand the intricacies and complexities of whisky, one must embrace the ‘art’ of whisky tasting. By understanding how to properly taste whisky, you will be taken on a journey that will navigate you through the unique quality and pleasure of each whisky you drink.
Before the first sip
Your whisky tasting journey begins by understanding a few basic things about the whisky, which starts from studying the bottle label. (How to read the label of a Scotch Whisky)This can tell us what to expect from the whisky as well as what type of glass we should choose.
The most appropriate glasses to showcase whisky, and allow us to enjoy a unique experience, is a tulip-shaped glass. With a wide bottom and narrower rim, the glass concentrates the aromas at the rim, pleasantly entering our nose as one bouquet. The glass should be filled to about one-third, enabling both the 'breathing' of the drink in the lower wider part of the glass and the occurrence of a bouquet of fragrances at the rim or the glass.
Pour yourself a dram of whisky and don’t rush to drink it down. The fun game of whisky tasting has just begun.
First notice the colour: whisky colours range from colourless “Gin Crystal Clear” through to “Black Coffee”. To better observe the colour, place your glass on a white surface. In some cases, one can identify in what type of cask a whisky has been aged. Whiskies that are lighter in colour tend to have been aged in ex-bourbon barrels, while those that are darker tend to have aged in ex-sherry casks. We can make more reliable conclusions when the label guides us, but in the absence of a clear label have the following in mind:
a) A number of distilleries add caramel colour (E150) in very small quantities ( 0.08 %) to achieve a consistent colour within a particular lot. This is done to avoid any suspicions about the authenticity of whisky. (Caramel Coloring in Scotch Whisky)
b) A whisky may be aged for some years in bourbon barrels and then in sherry casks, or vice versa, and other times multiple types of casks are used. Typically, depending on the hue one is able to understand which cask/barrel most actively altered the colour of whisky that we have in our glass.
Our visual inspection does not end here. Swirl the whisky around the glass, coating its sides thoroughly. The movement creates the so-called 'legs' as the spirit runs to the bottom. The slower this movement is, the older the whisky, while the number of tears is considered a good indicator of the palatability.
Finally, the spirit strength of a whisky can be seen from the line made on the glass. If the line of wetting on the glass walls is even and smooth, the whisky is lower in alcoholic content. A ‘broken' and steep line indicates a stronger alcoholic content. When one reaches the cask strength of 60%, the line is a series of drops hanging onto the glasses’ walls.
The scent will assess the flavors of your whisky. Let's start by holding the glass a few centimeters from our nose. What are the first scents that we recognize? Experts have created a guideline that represents the basic smells a whisky and their subcategories. Let's translate some:
- Wine scent (winey): chocolate, walnuts, sherry
- Grain scent (cereal): barley, yeast, beer
- Fruity scent: fresh fruit, cooked fruit (jam), dried fruit
- Floral scent: carnations, heather, green leaf
- Peat scent (peaty): iodine, smoked, salted fish
- Tail scent (feinty): plastic, cheese, tobacco, leather
- Sulphur scent (sulphury): old matchstick, rubber, warm sand
- Wood scent (woody): Fresh wood, old wood, vanilla, burnt toast
No one can expect to be able to distinguish all these scents with the first quick taste. One or two guiding scents are enough. Besides, there’s more to come.
Now take a deeper breath. Which scents are strongest? Rotate the glass quickly to help the flavours emerge and have another smell. Is the bouquet of scents "open" or quite fragrant, or "closed" just revealing a few aromas? How is the texture on the tongue? If the nose is "burned" it is an indication of high alcoholic content. More of a tickling in the nose results in a salty flavour. As we hold the glass in our hands it heats up, and the glass releases new aromas.
The aromas of whisky are one-half the enjoyment and predispose us for what will follow. Αlthough in many cases we can find whiskies with wonderful aromas, it is not always true that the nice scents are accompanied with great taste as well. Should we be lucky enough to get both then we obviously have an extraordinary whisky in our glass. By adding a few drops of bottled water one reveals new flavors - and some whiskies with "closed flavors" are aided particularly by this technique, which makes it even more exciting and enjoyable to taste the whisky.
The taste assesses the quality and traits of whisky.
Unlike the nose, which recognizes 32,000 flavors, there are only four basic tastes (5 with umami)
Each group of sensors is in a particular region of the tongue as follows:
Sweet (front part of the tongue)
Salty (the side of the tongue)
Sour-astringent (the side and the middle of the tongue)
Bitter-dry (the back of the tongue)
In many whiskies the primary flavors offer a combination and can, for example, start fresh and finish with a salty note.
The appropriate way to drink
Create a "spoon" with your tongue and take a satisfying initial sip. Leave it for a few seconds there and then munching (chewing) spread across the tongue and coat the mouth. Observe initially the texture and feeling that it leaves the mouth.
The texture is characterized by general and abstract terms and it is very subjective. For example, a whisky characterized as “rich”, means that it has a strong personality and rich taste. Soft means that it is not “drowning” in alcohol with no spicy taste. Smooth means that it has a soft feel in the mouth and is easy-to drink.
Go ahead, take a sip and notice the harmony between the flavors initially identified by the nose
The taste is linked to smell. Know that all the aromas come from the nose rather than the tongue. The palate simply confirms the findings of the nose. To better understand what I mean, try closing your nose whilst you have whisky in your mouth. You will notice that almost all perfumes have disappeared, like tasting a liquid without flavor.
Texture - Finishing
After swallowing, notice the aftertaste of whisky.
The aftertaste is the duration that the taste remains in the mouth after having swallowed and is characterized by the terms "long" "moderate" "persistent" and "quick". The taste left in the end must be pleasant and not differ from the taste of the whisky. Usually, the longer the aftertaste of a whisky the higher the quality.
In whisky tasting there is no right and wrong and tasting notes differ from person to person since everyone has different stimuli and different aromatic memory. These flavors and scents are uniquely personal and differ for everyone. There is no right or wrong. Comparing aromas and flavors with those found by your friends is one of the many pleasures offered by whisky. The point is to enjoy the journey!
Co Founder of www.singlemaltlodge.com