How to taste whisky

If you’re going to do this bottling thing then you’ve got to have some sort of opinion on how people should drink the stuff, right? So I thought I’d stick my sticky beak in where it’s not be asked to be stuck and voice my equally unwelcome opinion.

So how do you taste whisky???

Put in glass, add anything you want, drink, enjoy.

That may be a facetious statement, but it is also anchored firmly in the truth. There are two sides to the tasting coin. There’s an analytical side where the whisky is tasted for what it is. Each dram pulled apart and carefully inspected for its colour, nosed for its bouquet, swilled in the mouth to uncover myriad flavours and then savoured for its finish, the fading moments being no less dramatic than the first.

The other side of the coin is pure enjoyment. This is where you go freestyle. Add ice, add cola, serve cold, serve warm; A dash of still water perhaps or on the rocks with plenty of soda for a long sparkling drink. Part of an artisan cocktail or paired with food, anything goes, and it can be as weird as you like as long as your enjoying your whisky.

That’s not to say you can’t have one without the other. I really enjoy the analytical nature of whisky, but I also appreciate those moments of joy when I’m not trying to detect individual flavours, just enjoying the dram with good company. There is a place in the middle and I like it a lot there.

So let’s get behind the tasting of whisky. Dos and don’ts with the essential caveat that you can actually do what you like. But don’t. for now.

Bit of prep. Make sure your nice and hydrated.

Pour yourself a dram and breath…

No, we’re not taking a break already but a little time to breath can work wonders on a whisky. For this I often adopt my sofa sloth position – an expertly researched position, slouched unceremoniously (in appearance only) on the sofa, feet on the coffee table, glass held carefully against my chest under my nose. I can hold this position for a surprisingly long time before taking a sip. The vapours wafting into my nostrils keeps me happy while the whisky soaks up the ‘atmos’ and begins to oxidise. The heat from my chest and hand ensure it’s at my favourite tasting temperature and before long, I’ve forgotten about the woes of the day and my whisky is approaching the goldilocks zone.

Take it like a pro…

To release the full bouquet it’s good for the whisky to be at room temperature. If your whisky is a touch cold you can warm it in your hands by clasping them around your glass or pour into a glass that’s been warmed in a bowl of warm water, being careful not to get it hot. Cold whisky clams up a bit and denies us some of the more subtle aromas and flavours; bob an ice cube in later if that’s how you like it but let’s taste it at room temperature first.

It makes good sense to pour a dram into a whisky tasting glass. These tend to be small tulip shaped glasses with or without a stem. The shape concentrates the smells to help you nose the dram and pick apart the flavours. Some even come with a lid to concentrate the vapours but a hand over the top and a gentle swirl is an effective way to release the aromas. Pro’s favour whisky coins – like a poker chip placed over the top of the glass. Careful with your nose though, it can be quite overwhelming at cask strength so a gentle examination with the nose, moving up the gears as you see fit, is a good way to start. The shnoz is a sensitive instrument so approach carefully.

If you’re feeling brave, get your nose right in and have a good sniff, let the bloodhound in you go crazy. Just smell what you can and if you can’t pick up the citrus edge and stewed fruits detailed on the side of the bottle, don’t worry. It might take a while, but it will start to reveal its secrets slowly but surely if you keep the glass under your nose. Don’t feel you have to find lots of different flavours but do have a go hunting them out even if you can only find a few. Your findings might be at odds with the review you read but that’s the beauty of whisky, it’s complex enough to provide you with your own unique experience.

The bit we’ve all been waiting for – finally a taste! When it come to the assessing the palate, it’s good practice to take a good sip and get it all around the mouth and gums to get the full flavour and experience. Not so much that it overwhelms, and it’s not mouth wash so there’s no obligation to hold a 60% abv dram in your mush and swill it around until it’s stripped your teeth of enamel. I usually do a good swill on the first taste but less so on subsequent tastes.

Some of the most revered pros would have you roll the whisky slowly over your tongue and the underneath your tongue. Have a go but you may find that your tongue is a bit sensitive to this method and it can feel like you’ve been licking the sun.

What you taste is what you taste. If you get manuka honey, well done, you can afford manuka honey; I usually go for a mid-priced honey from the supermarket so do bear that in mind if you ever read my tasting notes and adjust accordingly. If you get an old slipper warmed by the fire or a fence post on a damp day, then that’s okay too but you might want to invest in a better bottle next time. Wet cardboard is a surprisingly common description though, unfortunately, not used as an indicator of quality.

I’ve even seen a review that said, “Vomit, but in a good way,” which my wife excitedly agreed with, glad that someone else understood this peculiar flavour profile in the same way.

Your experience is individual so you can’t get this wrong. Sometimes we lack the language to describe what we taste or can’t place a familiar flavour but, as academic as this type of tasting can be, these aren’t exam conditions and you can always phone a friend or go 50/50.  

The finish is the easy bit. All you have to do is let it happen. No effort required.

Here we pay attention to how long it takes to fade and what flavours you get as it does so. There is often a distinguishable order to events, flavours come in and out, and the mouth may dry or even wet a little as the whisky fades. Take your time here and let it completely disappear. How long did it take to fade? Was it a short, medium or long finish? Did you get a sense of satisfaction or did it fall a bit flat?

Repeat the whole lot with a touch of water!

Aah water… It shouldn’t be controversial but it is.

I’m a cask strength fan and that’s how I prefer to buy my whisky but not necessarily how I prefer to drink my whisky. I may add water to take it to the best strength for any given time, so cask strength is not necessarily drinking strength. Sometimes that drinking strength involves no water at all, other times I’m taking it as low as the mid 40s abv wise but i prefer not to go lower. Depends where my palate is at the time.  

Your palate changes based on time of day, what you’ve had to eat, how tired or hydrated you are and more. I like to have a wee nip of my whisky at cask strength to assess how much water, if indeed any, I need to get the best out of my dram and, of course, to taste it in its natural state.  These days, with many years’ experience behind me, I can pretty much smell when it’s at the right strength for my mood.

Some drams are a little closed and open up with just a hint of water. Others, brutally strong even after many years in cask, fall apart with just a drop. Our single cask Caol Ila is often best without water if my palate is ‘in the zone’ but I think our Linkwood always benefits from just a touch of water to open up some of the sweeter flavours of orchard fruits and baked goods.

I love cask strength whisky because you can experiment with water and change the nature of your whisky in an easily controllable way, adapting it to suit your palate and mood. Don’t forget to swirl it into your dram otherwise it will separate from the oilier whisky in to distinct layers.

Don’t be a cask strength ninny either; insisting that it must not be diluted, that’s how the distillery intended it and you ‘like it at that strength anyway’. It’s not a competition to see who can ‘take it’ at full strength. There are times and whiskies that work better with a bit of water and times and whiskies that don’t. Experiment, compare and contrast, and have some fun.

Glenfarclas was reportedly the first to regularly bottle at cask strength and that was as late as 1968, with their cask strength (and rather yummy) Glenfarclas 105 a mainstay of their core range to this day. Most distilleries that bottle at cask strength just spotted a commercial opportunity, especially in recent years, so the argument that this is how they intended it to be tasted is nonsense. We’d have a much richer history of cask strength whisky if that was the case. Those distilleries that do release whisky at cask strength, I can assure you, just want us to enjoy it and often recommend water to open the flavour up.

I digress. Use bottled mineral water (tap water will do* if nothing else but give it a good swirl and let it settle for a minute for the chlorine to dissipate) and add very carefully. My wife and I have given up on fancy water jugs and we just use a cheap metal milk jug we picked up in the supermarket for a couple of quid, the sort of think you find in a canteen or budget hotel room. It has considerably more bounce on the kitchen floor than its crystal predecessors and at a fraction of the cost.

Fancy accoutrements are available including glass or crystal water droppers but they’re too fragile for my cumbersome digits so I’ll stick to my milk jug.

You can even get whisky tasting kits to get you started too. They help you get used to different aromas by giving you small samples of various items to smell and hone your nosing skills, equipping you with the knowledge and language to pin down those aromas in your whisky. Including Manuka honey!

Mix it up…

I don’t like any mixers in my whisky. I like it at room temperature. I might add water and let it breath. That’s it. But I know what suits me and me alone.

If you’re thinking about adding cola or ice, then you do just that. Whisky might be an ingredient in your favourite cocktail or perhaps you use it to make a killer sauce for your steak. When it comes to pure enjoyment, just do it your way. I for one am glad you’re getting some pleasure out of whisky, no matter how you do it.  Some may criticise anything other than a purist approach but ignore them. It’s yours to drink your way and get the most enjoyment you can out of it. Whisky has become painfully expensive so the last thing you need is someone tell you how to drink your hard-earned bottle of the good stuff.

I remember a comedian at the Edinburgh fringe tell the audience that he enjoyed 15 year old whiskies with coke. There was an audible collective gasp from the audience. The guy likes a whisky a coke and doesn’t want rough whisky ruining his favourite tipple. Deal with it. It’s not a waste to him, it’s his slice of luxury on an evening. Certainly I think there’s a case for drawing a line as even I couldn’t sit idly by and watch a 50 year old Springbank being mixed with Tizer. Just be careful where you draw the line is all I advocate.

Tasting whisky is what you want it to be. An analytical journey that picks apart the multitude of flavours of this unique spirit, or simply pure enjoyment of a moment with friends after a meal.

You may find the analytical side is what brings you joy but you may find those oft whacky tasting notes just don’t speak your language whereas a splash of ginger ale and a couple of ice cubes does. Don’t get hung up on how you should taste it and what you should taste. Just enjoy it your way.

*Tap water being the tap water in the UK which is safe, clean drinking water.

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