Whiskey is a complex spirit with an incredibly diverse range of aromas and flavors. Accurately recognizing the qualities of an individual whiskey takes a lot of time, patience, and practice.
However, it is much easier to assess a whiskey if you use the correct method, in this post I’ll talk you through how to taste whiskey and recognize the different flavors.
Tasting Whiskey vs Drinking Whiskey
The main goal of tasting is to evaluate the appearance, aroma, flavor, and finish of a whiskey — it is not about drinking for pure enjoyment. This means it requires a much more methodical and analytical approach.
As you begin to taste whiskey, it’s important to remember that it is a highly subjective process. A taster’s experience and expectations play a huge role in determining how they perceive what they are holding in their hand.
There are also other factors that affect how a taster sees a whiskey, including where and when they are tasting it.
Trying a whiskey in an exotic location can deliver a very different experience compared to having the same drink in the comfort of your home.
If you begin to taste whiskey using the approach outlined below, you will eventually develop a deeper knowledge of your spirits.
You will also be able to obtain maximum pleasure with each sip as you will fully understand all of the components in each whiskey.
What You Will Need
The following items will make it easier to accurately taste whiskey:
The glassware you use can change how you perceive a whiskey’s flavor and aroma with the glass shape in particular having an impact on the overall experience. We wouldn’t advise using a rocks glass or tumbler for tasting, the two best glasses to use are:
The “Snifter” is a short-stemmed glass with a wide base and narrow opening. The wide base lets you expose a larger surface area of whiskey and the narrow opening focuses the aromas of the whiskey to your nose.
Having a stem on the glass keeps your hand away from the rim, reducing the possibility of the odors on your hand coloring what you smell in the spirit.
It also removes the possibility of your hand increasing the temperature of the whiskey.
A Glencairn is also a good option as it holds the aromas in well.
Avoid using whiskey tumblers when tasting whiskey as they tend to emphasize the stronger notes in the aroma of the whiskey.
Tumblers are also problematic because holding the glass can change the whiskey’s temperature. Whenever comparing two or more whiskeys, use identical glasses.
Water and pipette
Certain types of whiskey will benefit from having a splash of water added during the tasting process. It can open up new aromas and reduce the numbing effect of the whiskey’s alcohol content on the tongue.
A pipette should be used so you can measure the water that you are adding to the spirit accurately. Use filtered, soft, still water that is either slightly chilled or at moderate temperature.
The goal is only to open up the whiskey, rather than diluting it excessively.
Most whiskey connoisseurs believe that the ideal temperature for whiskey is between 15° to 18°C (60° to 65°F). Ensuring that your whiskey remains within this temperature range is made easier by having a thermometer on hand.
How to Taste Whiskey: Step By Step
1. Evaluate the whiskey’s appearance
Whiskey tasting starts by pouring about an ounce (30 ml) of whiskey into your snifter. Tilt the glass to one side and rotate it so the whiskey coats the sides of the glass. This will increase the oxidation rate of the whiskey and bring out the aromas at the bottom of the glass. Next, evaluate the whiskey’s appearance in the following ways:
- Colour – The more time whiskey is matured in a wooden cask, the darker its color becomes. The color of a whiskey can also give you an indication of which kind of wood it has been aged in (as long as no artificial coloring has been added).
- Clarity – Examining the clarity of the whiskey will tell you if it has been chill-filtered or not. While chill-filtration gives the whiskey a more attractive appearance, it can remove some esters, proteins, and fatty acids, which impacts the aroma of the spirit.
- Viscosity – When people discuss the ‘legs’ on a whiskey or a glass of wine, they are talking about the droplets that form inside the glass after you swirl it. The number of droplets and how quickly they fall will tell you how high the alcohol content in a whiskey is. If many droplets form and move slowly down the glass, it indicates the whiskey has a high ABV. Additionally, the more fatty acids a whiskey has, the thicker each of the legs will be.
After assessing the look of the whiskey, place the glass on a table again and wait a minute for the aromas to become concentrated in the glass once more.
2. Evaluate the nose
The nose is what the whiskey smells like. Whiskey can contain many different aromas that stimulate the olfactory system, which can be categorized as:
- Primary aromas – Relating to the types of grains used in the mash which can include malted barley, corn, wheat, and smoke/peat.
- Secondary aromas – Relating to the fermentation and distillation, which can include yeasty or metallic aromas
- Tertiary aromas – Relating to the maturation stage of production. This can include a great variety of different aromas including oak, spices, fruit, floral, grass, smoke, and honey.
To evaluate the nose, begin by lifting the glass directly up to your nose. Don’t agitate the whiskey, just allow the aromas to reach your nostrils.
You might get some alcohol fumes, take note of how strong the alcohol is.
If you experience a burning sensation from the alcohol, move the glass away from your nostrils.
During this first evaluation, you can smell the lighter volatile compounds coming off the whiskey which will include fruit and floral aromas.
Next, tilt the glass on its side (being careful not to spill any whiskey). This will give you access to the heavier volatile compounds, which can produce malty, spicy, or winey aromas.
Feel free to adjust how far the glass is from your nose, to let more air in.
Take the glass away from your nose several times.
Think about the aromas that you are smelling. Beginners often find it useful to have a whiskey aroma wheel on hand, as it helps them identify the subtle aromas that are present.
3. Evaluate the palate
The palate refers to how the whiskey tastes. Before you take a sip, drink a small amount of water to cleanse your mouth of other flavors and reduce its acidity levels.
Next, take a small amount of whiskey into your mouth. Let the whiskey fully coat all parts of your tongue.
Hold the whiskey in your mouth for at least 30 seconds while thinking about the flavors it is imparting.
4. Evaluate the finish
The finish refers to how the sensory receptors at the back of your mouth and throat are affected by the whiskey.
You may notice that certain aromas or flavors linger after you have finished swallowing the whiskey. Some whiskeys will also have a longer finish, which means those flavors and aromas persist for a longer time.
5. Drink again
Next, add a few drops of water using the pipette and repeat the entire process again. When you add water you may notice that some different flavors and aromas are present after adding water.
6. Evaluate the empty glass
Even the empty glass can provide you with useful information on a whiskey. It will contain substances that do not volatilize.
In other words, the heavier components of the whiskey which the other aromatics develop around. You may notice the empty glass gives off an earthy, smokey, or woody aroma.
Write down your thoughts on each whiskey throughout the tasting process. Feel free to re-assess a whiskey multiple times, as it may continue to expand as your palate becomes more developed.
Thanks for reading How To Taste Whiskey. Try using this process to evaluate your favorite whiskeys. You might discover some exciting new flavors and aromas in the whiskey which you have never detected before! You can share tasting experiences with friends and you will be ready for proper whiskey tastings in no time.
Here is a great article on the flavors when tasting Scotch whisky: https://whiskymag.com/story/tasting-wheel
And here is one for bourbon: https://modernthirst.com/2014/08/06/the-bourbon-tasting-wheel/