Going to whisky tastings is the utmost treat for lovers of this fine, distinguished spirit. You’re in for a real treat for your senses, and the chances are, you’ll uncover plenty of facts and surprising details about your favourite distilleries and distillations in the process. However, for a lot of people, the process can be slightly intimidating at first.
Sure, you’ve put on your best shoes, and you’ve made sure to have a decent meal beforehand. But once those bottles are lined up, plenty of people’s heads start swimming with questions: are you supposed to taste whisky like you’d taste a wine? How much are you supposed to smell the spirit before you take a sip? Would it be rude to add a drop of water? All these questions are more than familiar to us… but rest assured, we’ve got you covered. Let’s take a look at our rundown of whisky-tasting tips that’ll have you sipping like a seasoned pro.
How Important is the Glassware?
We all know that when it comes to tasting wine, the glassware you use is key to the experience you’ll encounter. While using the right glassware isn’t quite as vital for whisky tastings, it’s fair to say that selecting the best vessel for your experience is going to heighten the way you taste.
If you’re going along for an official tasting at a distillery or expo, it’s highly likely the hosts would have already settled this for you. If not, aim for a snifter – it’s a wide-bowl glass with a short stem and a narrow opening, which allows you to give the whisky a good swirl before you sniff. If you’re tasting whisky at home and don’t have your own snifter, you can achieve pretty much the same effect with a wine glass. If you don’t have a wine glass… well, you’re long overdue a trip to the shops!
Using Your Eyes and Nose
Fine Scotch whisky – and other whisky styles, too – possess an astounding array of different aromas, and no tasting would be anywhere near complete without first taking these in. Unlike with a wine tasting, you don’t want to stick your nose into your whisky glass. It’s considered poor etiquette, and the alcohol fumes coming off the spirit are likely to overcrowd your olfactory senses, and stop you from taking in the subtleties of the nose. Instead, swirl the whisky in your glass, and take in the scents coming off the top of the rim – what do you encounter? What does it remind you of? Try to identify one aroma at a time, and take a moment to recognise its presence before moving onto the next.
While you’re swirling and sniffing, raise your glass and take a look at the colour of your whisky. OK – it’s not going to affect the way the spirit tastes, but it’s all part of the process, and will allow a moment of appreciation. Whiskies range in colour from the palest gold to the murkiest amber, and the tones you see might give you a sense of what to expect. At the same time, check out how the whisky moves down the inside of the glass – is it smooth? Viscous? Clean and fluid? Make a note, and then prepare your palate for the next part.
Here’s the part everybody enjoys the most… but as with every aspect of appreciating fine whisky, there are ways to ensure you get the most of your tasting experience. Professional tasters will take only a very small sip through fairly pursed lips, and then suck in a little air, allowing the whisky to move, aerated, to different parts of their mouth. This can take a little practice, and it isn’t unusual to cough a little from the burn it causes. However, practicing tasting whisky isn’t exactly a chore, and everybody gets there in the end. Don’t take a big swig, and certainly don’t try to ‘down in one’ – whisky tastings are refined affairs, not something you’ll find at a student bar.
As you roll the whisky around in your mouth, allow the flavours to manifest themselves on your palate. Different parts of your tongue and the roof of your mouth will experience the taste of the spirit in different ways, so give yourself a moment to encounter the sensations that arise. As when smelling whisky, don’t go searching for flavours – allow them to come to you. Be passive, be relaxed, and explore your senses and your memory as flavours as diverse as nuts, caramel, charcoal and chocolate arise.
Once you feel you’ve gotten as much as you can from the whisky in your mouth, swallow it. Focus now on the finish – that burning sensation at the back of your throat. Is it pleasant? Too harsh? Very smooth? Does it last a long time, or disappear too quickly? Make a note, and move on.
What About Water?
There’s a fairly big argument in the whisky community regarding adding water to fine spirits. From our point of view, getting sanctimonious over such things is really a waste of time – it’s simply a matter of personal preference. However, scientists have recently confirmed that adding a few drops of water to whisky really does ‘open up’ the flavours and aromas, and allows you to pick up on subtler notes that may otherwise be missed. Obviously, don’t slosh in half a bottle o2O – just a very small splash will suffice.
Be sure to take your time. Nothing pleasurable in this life is worth rushing, and if you want to make the most of your whisky tasting experience, it’s best to go slowly, and give each glass the appreciation it deserves. Enjoy each moment, make lots of notes, and compare your findings with the people you’re sharing the experience with. Don’t be afraid of being honest – your palate is your own, and your experience is subjective – and explore your findings in the best way you see fit.