Thursday, 14 September 2017

An Introduction to Whisky Tasting

This photo taken from Neil Wilkie (bugmonkey)
Many people find tasting whisky, much like wine, to be a daunting task that can be intimidating and complex.

I've been there when I was first starting out tasting wine: people were swirling and snorting at their wine, and in my imitation I ended up inhaling wine and collapsing into a coughing, spluttering mess.

Luckily tasting whisky doesn't have the swirling aspect, but it can be a minefield that I should hopefully be able to clear, at least partially.

Choosing a whisky

The first thing you are going to need for your tasting is of course... a whisky. I recommend something of quality, but that doesn't have any crazy, overbearing flavours. This rules out anything peaty from Islay really, but I would also say to give any odd wood finishes a miss too when starting out. The Balvenie 12yr Doublewood is a great starting point, being nicely accessible with good complexity as well.

Photo by Mike Bitzenhofer


Glassware is important for tasting whisky: plastic cups are a no-no, and although swigging from the bottle is fun in a Johhny Depp, buccaneering sort of way, it doesn't allow you to experience all the finer nuances of a whisky.

 Glencairns are the generally accepted tasting vessel: they're wide at the bottom, allowing lots of air contact with the whisky, but they have a tighter neck concentrating the aromas.


The subject of water is a very divisive one and while people may not erupt into gang war, there can be minor hissy fits.

Some say adding water allows the whisky to open up and for the more scents and flavours to be released, others contend this dilutes the whisky, that it doesn't represent the distillery's work, and so on.

I firmly believe in trying both. Not only do you drink more beautiful whisky (YES!), but you get to experience the differences between the two. You need to decide how you prefer yours somehow.

Personally, I've found that some drams benefit from added water, but it really takes away from others.

Breathing Time

Contact with air isn't as dramatic as with decantng wine, but can be a fun thing to look at. Breathing time is not really essential to tasting whisky, however it adds another dimension to a whisky that you think you know already.

Now those issues are sorted we need to look at the process of actual tasting:


By Dr John Bullas
When tasting it can be helpful to take in the colour of the whisky.

Whiskies cover a huge range of browns, ambers, golds, and also much paler hay to almost transparent hues.

Be sure however not to let the colour influence you too much: these days, distilleries love adding caramel colouring to make a whisky look more appealing. Many of the uninformed believe that a darker colour equals quality, but we won't be fooled will we?


This for me is one of the most important and also enjoyable parts of tasting whisky (bizzare that, eh?). You'll want to give only a slight swirl, (don't give it the mad whirling dervish treatment you might with one of those austere Bordeauxs) and have a little smell. One thing to be wary of is the alcohol content of the whisky: those up in the 46% and above can numb your sense of smell, so tread lightly. Other than this there's not much to be said, sniff it and see what you smell.

If you need to 'reset' your nose, smell the skin on the back of your hand.


When tasting I find it most useful to take small mouthfuls and simply hold them still without any of the gurgling malarkey, perhaps stirring every few seconds or so before swallowing.

Think about the flavours on the tip of your tongue, what you can taste and feel towards the back of your mouth, and then seeing what develops over time.

Once swallowed, consider what flavours develop on the finish, the whisky's length, and if it's smooth and silky or a harsh, gasp-inducing ethanol bomb.

Lastly, there's the mouthfeel: if the whisky feels thick and oily or thinner and watery, this can give some indication of manufacture techniques used in the distillery (we don't need to worry too much at this stage), but the difference can be most striking between different whiskies.

That's pretty much all that can be said about tasting whisky from my perspective other than to say to try tasting around others: the imparting of different ideas is always fun, and will always make you see something you might have missed or not have considered.

Most importantly, have fun and don't feel under pressure or stupid. If you taste rubber then damn well say so and don't let anyone come along and say that you're drinking your whisky wrong. We are all different and people's palates, preferences, memories and experiences vary, and all of these impact on tasting. There really is no right or wrong answer, despite what the snobs might say.

Happy drinking!

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