How to Taste Whisky Like a Pro

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Break a whisky tasting down into these five steps to get your drinking buddies thinking analytically before they get too pissed.

MANY OF our home distilling friends get together from time to time to compare each other’s latest results.

Here are the five steps to follow when you’re tasting a whisky.

Whisky tasting get-togethers are all about having a great time, but getting everyone involved in following these five steps, you’ll keep your whisky tastings on the right track.

Before we get into formal tasting, let’s start with some light training. Pour a whisky of your choice for yourself and other tasters – about a nip, or enough to taste a few times.


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1. SEE IT

There is debate regarding the relevance of color, particularly because some whisky categories, like scotch, allow color to be added.

Is the whisky visibly darker or lighter than whiskies the others brought to the tasting?

Tilt the glass and look toward the edges of the liquid. Hold it up to the light to observe more closely.

In some cases, a whisky’s color can reveal the wood impact, or suggest the type of cask, especially if it previously held wine, for instance.

2. SWIRL IT

Swirling your glass aerates the whisky, increasing the amount of the liquid’s surface area that’s exposed to air.

As the whisky interacts with air – and water if you choose to add it – certain aromas may become more apparent.

Also look at the way the whisky clings to the glass after a swirl – observe how its “legs” drip down the side of the glass.

Do they suggest the whisky will be light-bodied, or more viscous?


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3. SNIFF IT

Now, on to the nose. As anyone who has tried to enjoy an otherwise tasty meal with a head cold can understand, our sense of smell is critical to pleasurable tasting.

Therefore, a focus on nosing is often the best way to reframe someone’s concept of tasting – not drinking – whisky.

Aroma is the knock on the door, the façade of a building, giving you a sense of whether you’d like to venture in or not.

Approach the glass with caution, starting with your nose a fair distance above the rim.

While swirling the glass, smell the whisky; keep your mouth slightly open as you breathe in. Take a deep sniff. Encourage tasters to name the aromas they’re able to identify.

This can be challenging for new tasters, so feel free to suggest flavors to look for. In bourbon, vanilla, caramel, and butterscotch are easily identified.

Scotch can offer dark fruit flavors if it’s been aged in a sherry cask, or intense smoke if peat has been used. Take your time and dig deeper with each sniff.


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4. SIP IT

It’s finally time to take a sip. Use the first sip to coat your mouth with the whisky, to introduce the alcohol and flavor.

The real analysis begins with the second sip.

Hold the whisky in your mouth for a few seconds and consider its mouthfeel: texture, weight, and viscosity. Look for aromas that carry over to the palate. If anyone is having difficulty, encourage them to revisit the nose, then taste again.

Often one can inform the other. Sometimes it is especially powerful to smell the whisky as the liquid sits in the mouth, or smell with the mouth open. Experiment with different ways of welcoming the whisky into your nasal passages and throat.

If anyone is having trouble assessing the palate or handling a whisky’s heat, now is the time to add some water to temper the alcohol. Water can also reveal new aromas and flavors. Whether or not to add water is a personal decision, but many whiskies are improved by water.


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5. SAVOR IT

Finally, there is the finish, or the aftertaste: the lingering flavors on the back of the throat.

Consider the length of the finish. It may be fleeting, or can linger for minutes.

Now note the flavors. Are they consistent with the nose and palate, or does the finish take a surprising turn?

While the act of tasting initially requires focus, with some practice the process becomes automatic.

Once you understand how to taste whisky, you’ll begin to apply these lessons and quickly develop a style and approach to tasting that works best for you.

These five tasting steps can prove hilarious later in the night as everone get pisster and pisster.

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When rating whisky, Keith tastes blind – that is, without knowledge of the whisky’s identity. However, these lessons can apply to both blind and non-blind tasting.


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Let’s start with prep. Keith typically tastes six whiskies in a single session, although you may want to start with fewer. It’s always a good idea to taste at least two whiskies so you have the benefit of comparison.

Provide a pour of each whisky in the same size and shape glass for everyone in attendance, since the glass can impact perception. Keith uses one glass per whisky, with an extra glass provided to compare the whisky with and without water if desired.

And do have plenty of water available. Eyedroppers or straws allow you to add a precise amount of water to the whisky. Also hilarious once everyone’s drunk.

Beyond the purpose of adjusting the proof of a whisky, offer water for drinking to reset the tasters’ palates.

Oyster or water crackers also help on this front, cleansing the palate while having a minimal effect on flavour perception.

Keith likes to taste with an empty cup available for spitting whisky. You can do the same, or offer an ice bucket or other large container for dumping and spitting tasted whiskies.

Or get everyone to swallow every time and give the light some life!


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If everybody at the tasting just swallows every taste… brilliant for many a hilarious evening barbecues!

Until next time… Happy Distilling!

Cheers

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