"What is all that fuss about?" is a question a lot of us have often asked when watching people in movies and television shows talk about alcohol. Whether it was scratching our heads over James Bond’s insistence on shaken not stirred, or the way people in gourmet restaurants spoke about different kinds of wine. Although the thing that used to perplex us personally was "How does one taste whisky?"
Do we simply not raise the glass to our mouth and take a sip? Why do people talk about tasting whisky with such emphasis, and why is the topic hotly debated even on internet forums? What exactly is ‘whisky tasting’, and how can you learn how to do it?
Well it’s quite simple really as whisky connoisseurs will tell you, but is it really? With this helpful guide, The Whiskypedia guides you through the process of tasting whisky – how to do it, what kind of glass should you choose, and recommending three impeccable whiskies for you to try. So are you ready to learn the art of whisky tasting? Let’s go.
Beginning with the right kind of glass to help you taste the whisky, we move to the next step. Many assume the choice of glass makes little to no difference in the way your whisky will manifest itself on your taste buds, but it makes a lot of difference.
A Snifter glass is perfect for tasting whisky
Often, the glass of choice to serve whisky neat is the Old Fashioned lowball glass which is a pretty straightforward design. As most experts will point out, the Old Fashioned glass is fine for parties and excursions, but if you really want to know your whisky, the Snifter glass is a must.
Bulbous at the bottom, and tapering inwards towards the top, the Snifter glass allows the aromas from the whisky to waft upwards. The bottom of the glass allows the aromas to be released when you swirl the spirit, while the narrow neck slowly channels the fragrances towards your nose. This practice is called ‘Nosing’ the whisky, wherein you must swirl the whisky in the Snifter glass, then bring it towards your nose and inhale.
Chivas Regal Master Blender Colin Scott ‘Nosing’ a whisky
Closing your eyes does help to concentrate on the many different, complex aromas that the whisky exhibits. ‘Nosing’ a whisky is the first step in the whisky tasting process which is followed closely by doing the actual tasting. Fun fact – Many experts suggest adding a few drops of distilled water to the drink in order to reveal the true self of the whisky.
The main event of the entire whisky tasting process is when the actual tasting occurs, and it is now. Understanding the palate of the whisky takes a lot of concentration, phenomenal senses and the ability to roll the whisky on your tongue without spitting it out.
Ballantine’s Master Blender Sandy Hyslop
Take a small sip of the whisky, letting it roll around on your tongue, getting to know all the flavours that are introducing themselves. Not everyone can have the exact same experience when tasting a whisky, and the aromas and flavours registered with memories in your mind will guide you.
Is the whisky sweet, or is it smoky and salty? Do you taste fruits or spice? Are there any influences of oak, or do you taste roasted nutty flavours? After taking in the aromas of the whisky, all you have to do is roll the whisky on your tongue. This allows you to taste, familiarize yourself and know every flavour imbibed within the whisky.
Alan Winchester, Master Distiller at The Glenlivet Distillery
Many whisky veterans recommend not adding ice to the whisky before you drink it, instead drinking it neat without making any changes to it. Let’s assume you got your hands on a bottle of premium single malt whisky like Aberlour, or a delightful blended Scotch like Chivas Regal. A few drops of distilled water is as far as purists would go, but since everyone has a different preference, adding a splash of water should not be completely ruled out.
Whisky tasting is a very personal experience, so don’t let anyone else decide for you. A lot of people even encourage adding more than a few drops of water, in order to lower the proof (alcohol content) of the whisky. Finding the right proof can work wonders, and change one’s drinking experience completely.
What you must avoid at all costs is adding ice since it numbs your mouth, hampering your senses from really getting to know the whisky in its true form. Don’t even get us started on adding cola to whisky. A lot of time, effort and experience is poured into making a whisky, and dousing this amazing drink with cola is like adding tomato ketchup to a wonderful steak dinner.
Here is where the entire experience comes to a full circle. After you have taken a small sip, and allowed the whisky to roll on your tongue, the sensation you get at the back of your throat is known as ‘the Finish’.
How does the whisky feel as it makes its way down your throat? Is the sensation short-lived and harsh? Is it moderately unpleasant and pleasant at the same time? Or is it a lingering, and satisfying sensation? In short, the aftertaste of a whisky is known as the Finish, which means the flavours and aromas that it leaves behind in your mouth.
Take note of these sensations and flavours, and most importantly – you have to remember that tasting a whisky isn’t an exact science. If you did not fall in love with a whisky immediately after you nosed, sipped and swallowed it, feel free to experiment with a few extra drops of water.
You can even try adding a large ice cube to try the whisky at a different temperature. Now we know our suggestion to stay off ice if you really wish to get to know the whisky, but you might also remember that tasting whisky is an intimate journey with oneself.
It is recommended for beginners to initially stay off ice, but as they learn more and more about the drink, letting them decide how to take their drink is encouraged. Playing around with different proofs, temperatures and types of whisky is exciting, and stumbling upon the most fascinating aromas and flavours is truly mesmerizing.