How to Taste Whisky

I truly enjoy a good whisky tasting. Whether it is at a distillery after a tour or at a bar, the experience is always both fun and educational. I tend to discover new flavours and brands to broaden my whisky knowledge. Unfortunately, this year we are all struggling to even get to a bar, never mind attending a group tasting or sitting at the counter. But luckily, we have online tastings and whisky deliveries.

I have previously written a Beginner’s Guide to Scotch Whisky, but I wanted to dig in a little deeper and offer some tips on how to taste (any) whisky to get the most out of the tasting experience and help you to discover various flavours and aromas. Below I have also included the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s (SMWS) flavour categories as they offer a wider description of character. It is true that some people are naturally gifted in picking up a broad range of aromas, when others struggle to get even the basic notes. By regularly trying and tasting whiskies, you can actually develop your nose and palate, and with a little help you will be able to find more words to describe the whisky in question.

Let’s start by breaking the tasting into four steps.

1 Preparation

First, make sure you have a glass of water to accompany the whisky. Some whiskies are cask strength so it’s good to remember to drink water during the tasting. You will also need water for diluting the whisky. I will explain more in due course.

Secondly, if available, I recommend you use a proper tasting glass such as the classic Glencairn Glass or Túath (made with Irish whiskey in mind, but obviously useful for any style). Of course, a classic tumbler will do, but a tasting glass is designed to enhance the aromas.

You want to start by choosing whiskies that suit your palate. I find many Speyside malts are fruitier with a lovely, rich mouthfeel, making them ideal for beginners. You don’t want to start with heavily peated and get scarred for life. You can work your way through to the more challenging flavour profiles.

Tasting glass
Tasting whisky at SMWS Glasgow

2 Observe

Once you’re ready and you have poured a small measure in the glass, it’s time to observe the liquid. Start by gently rolling the whisky in the glass, but do not swirl like you would wine. You only want the whisky to gently stick to the inside of the glass.

Examine the whisky in your glass. Have a look at the colour, oils and texture, how well it sticks to the glass. This will give you an indication of the alcohol volume and the mouthfeel. The colour can give you an idea of the cask used, the age and finish. Whisky comes in many shades, ranging anywhere from very light straw colour to golden to dark mahogany. The cask size, previous liquid (bourbon, sherry, rum…) and time spent in the cask will all influence the spirit. Also, first-fill casks will influence more than refills.

3 Nose

Before you take the first sip, you want to smell it. This is an important part of the whole tasting experience. Give the whisky a little swirl and cover the top of the glass with your palm for few seconds. This will allow the aroma to build up in the glass. Release your hand and give it a short sniff.

It is important not to stick your nose right inside the glass as the whisky is strong (maybe even cask strength!) and will make your eyes water! Keep the glass a few centimetres from your nose and slowly breathe in with your mouth slightly open. It may feel a bit silly, but this way you prepare your palate for what is about to come, and it will help you to uncover a wider range of aromas.

Remember, when trying to detect those specific aromas, there are no right or wrong answers. Sometimes it may be hard to find the words, but the scent may bring out memories that help you identify the aromas.

nosing whisky

4 Sip

It’s time to finally taste the whisky. Take a good sip and let it coat your tongue. Think about the finish, whether it is long or short; what is the mouthfeel like, velvety or dry… There are certain flavours you can expect from the cask used, see if you can detect those. Is the flavour profile light, fruity, floral, smoky, savoury…? Take another sip and move the whisky around your mouth.

Once you have had a few small sips neat, it is time to add water. Of course, this step is not mandatory, and everyone should enjoy whisky the way that works for them. But if you are new to whisky or sipping a cask-strength whisky, adding water will help to tone down those alcohol fumes. It will also reveal new flavours and aromas. The key is, however, to start by adding a tiny drop or two and then taste again. If you add too much water, you can dilute the flavour profile and ruin the tasting experience. I have met people who add a lot of water to certain drams, but that is simply how they prefer to taste that particular whisky. Just remember you can always add more water, but you can’t go back if you add too much!

Flavour profiles

As I mentioned before, different flavours will bring out different memories in people. Some can describe whisky with simple words, others like to get creative. It’s all about enjoying yourself and having fun while working through the world of whisky.

A number of people have asked me whether any fruit, spices or flavourings are added to the whisky during maturation to impart those yummy, barbecued pineapple, Christmas cake or other unique flavours. The simple answer is NO. Nothing extra is added into the cask, simply the distilled spirit. The flavour and aroma are gained throughout the process, from the grain used, the shape of the stills, the casks, the location and so on.

Scotch whisky can be categorised by region, which works as a good indicator of the specific styles of various distilleries, although these days many distillers like to experiment and create special edition bottlings that don’t necessarily match the typical flavour profile of the distillery. These flavour profiles are simply guidelines, not rules.

There are five (or six if you count Islands on their own) regions: Speyside, Lowlands, Highlands, Campbeltown and Islay.

Speysidesweet, fruity, spicy, vanilla, full-bodied

Highlands – malty, fruity, sweet, spicy, salty, slightly peaty, grassy

Islands – peated, salty, oily, spicy, sweet

Lowlands – unpeated, citrusy, light, floral, grassy, sweet

Campbeltown – peaty, sweet, fruity, salty, grassy

Islay – peaty, salty, oily, fishy

Scotch Malt Whisky Society categories

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society offer single cask, cask-strength bottlings, and because of the unique nature of single casks, they frequently bottle whiskies that don’t fit in with the regional stereotype, let alone matching a specific distillery’s classic profile. Due to their unique bottles, the SMWS has a very helpful categorisation system which splits their whiskies into 12 tasting groups:

Young & Spritely
Sweet, Fruity & Mellow
Spicy & Dry
Deep, Rich & Dried Fruits
Old & Dignified
Light & Delicate
Juicy, Oak & Vanilla
Oily & Coastal
Lightly Peated
Peated
Heavily Peated
Spicy & Sweet

In creating these categories, they wanted to make it easier for you to find the right whiskies, whether you are at the venue trying to navigate through the menu, buying a bottle for yourself or getting one as a gift. The Society is always looking for new flavours and they want to give you the opportunity to explore their findings by releasing a new outturn each month.

flavour categories for SMWS

See my previous article on the Scotch Malt Whisky Society to fully understand how the Society finds its unique whiskies and how the membership works.

Tasting notes

Below I have listed some adjectives and words you can use when describing whisky, just to offer you some guidance and help navigating through the flavours. Of course, your palate is individual to you and you should never be ashamed to express your own tasting notes when at a tasting. As I keep reiterating, there are no right or wrong answers here.

youthful (a light, fresh and vibrant whisky), creamy, malty, grassy, herbal, fruity (anything from blackcurrants to pear to lychee), floral, nutty (roasted hazelnuts, salted nuts…), oaky, dried fruit, jammy, salty (seaweed, sea spray…), smoky, oaky, medicinal, earthy (mushrooms, soil…), leather, spicy (green or red chillies, pepper, winter spices, nutmeg…), citrusy, woody, balanced (no overpowering flavours), fishy, peaty, sweet (vanilla, brown sugar, honey, cake…)

Of course, you also have dry, rich, velvety, full-bodied etc. that describe the mouthfeel and texture.

SMWS whisky tasting set

You can also describe the taste in more detail expressing each tasting note individually. Coconut, roasted pineapple, overripe banana, cinnamon, redcurrants, freshly cut grass, paint, old leather bag, cigar box, wood shavings, Christmas cake, rum and raisin ice cream, Haribo tangy sweets, banoffee pie, bonfire, lemon meringue, yellow bell pepper, Black Forest cake…. Whatever comes to your mind at the time you’re nosing and sipping the whisky in question. Allow it to bring back memories of experiences and places.

Have fun with it!

SMWS whisky tasting

Let’s recap quickly.

A few things to remember:

  • Use a tasting glass when possible
  • Keep water available for both drinking and diluting
  • Don’t swirl the whisky too much
  • Keep your nose far enough from the glass and smell with your mouth slightly open
  • Pay attention to the colour and texture
  • Take small sips and move the whisky around your mouth
  • Once ready, consider adding a drop or two of water to open up the flavours and aroma
  • Start by choosing a whisky that is closest to your usual palate
  • There are no right or wrong answers when it comes to describing the flavours you experience. Different whiskies bring out different memories in people.

Overall

Whether you sample whiskies at home or in a bar, it is always a good idea to consider each one of the steps above for an improved tasting experience. Don’t rush the process, whiskies are meant to be savoured and examined.

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society is a top-notch club for whisky lovers of any level. I’ve learned a great deal by being part of this exciting Society, through tastings or simply having a chat with a staff member. They encourage you to find your own words to describe whisky and offer a helping hand when you aren’t sure which dram you might want to taste next.

As we are getting close to Christmas, I’d like to remind you that the membership is only £65 a year, so why not treat yourself or sign up a friend? They have fun extras you can include in the gift should you wish. If you’d like to know more about the SMWS, I have written about their venues and tasting previously. All can be found on the blog, or send me your questions and I will happily have a chat.

Get 10% discount on memberships with code INKA10. Valid until 31st December 2020.

whisky tasting set

Disclaimer: This post has been created in collaboration with the Scotch Malt Whisky Society and includes affiliate links. 

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