How to Taste Whisky

It may seem obvious to some but one of the most frequently asked questions we receive is "how should I drink my whisky?". In a world of tradition and pretentiousness in equal measure it is no surprise that aspiring connoisseurs and fledgling whisky enthusiasts feel a certain pressure to drink whisky 'correctly' and to 'not-do-the-wrong-thing'. We certainly would not want to loose face by adding a dash of cola to our 1947 Macallan now would we?

Whisky and coke mixer

At Whiskybosh our goal is to give people the freedom and the tools to make their own decisions about how to drink whisky. If it's your whisky and it's in your glass, drink it however you like. Flavour is entirely subjective and whilst we share certain commonalities we all have our own personal preferences. With the vast array of flavour styles found in whiskies around the world, it provides us with a great example of how diverse we are as people. Some drams we love, some drams we hate, however we would never expect to agree with everyone about every whisky. We support and promote creativity and experimentation so advise people to try combinations out on their own and see what happens. We are constantly trying different whiskies with different cocktails, mixers and food, either in the food, on the food or with the food. You do not know unless you try, right?

It is important to differentiate between drinking whisky and tasting whisky. Drinking whisky varies a great deal around the world and is culture specific. Tasting whisky involves an analytical approach designed to understand the individual components of a whisky and the whisky as a whole.

Highball, ice, whisky and soda. The standard serve in Japan.

Highball, ice, whisky and soda. The standard serve in Japan.

There are essentially two approaches to tasting whisky, depending on how much detail you wish to delve into. The first is the subjective approach in which your appreciation is based solely on personal preferences and individual tastes. The second is the objective approach or professional approach which is designed to assess the balance and quality of the spirit with as little personal bias as possible.

This is a comprehensive guide for both tasting whisky for pure enjoyment and also for performing sensory analysis at a professional level. Please scroll down to skip to the objective approach.


The Subjective Approach

1) Experiment with glassware

Any drink will taste different from different glassware. As a rough guide the tulip shape of whisky or wine glasses are designed to focus the aromas whereas an old fashioned glass or tumbler will allow the aromas to disperse and be lost. Try different whiskies from different glasses to see how they change.

Good for tasting.

Good for tasting.

Good for cocktails and mixers.

Good for cocktails and mixers.

2) Always try it neat first

Before adding anything to a dram give it a try at its full strength first. All whiskies are unique and our perception of flavour fluctuates on a daily basis. Try not to make assumptions before tasting, some whiskies simply feel either milder or hotter than their abv (alcohol by volume) would suggest, give them a try first just to see.

3) It's not a crime to add water

Almost all whisky has been diluted with water prior to bottling. Before going into a cask most whisky is diluted with de-mineralised water down to a consistent strength, normally around 63.5% abv for single malt Scotch. When the whisky is ready to be bottled it will be diluted once more down to the bottling strength, most commonly 40, 43 or 46% abv. The only exceptions are cask strength whiskies which are bottled at the strength they were in the cask. For these reasons adding more water once it is in the glass is an entirely normal and acceptable practice. Smell the whisky, taste the whisky, if it is too hot or intense for your palate then just add a few drops of water. If it is still too intense add a few more drops and keep going until you find your perfect balance. It really is that simple.

Adding water to whisky changes its chemistry and will release different alcohols and aroma compounds into the air. In addition, as the alcohol becomes further diluted it reduces its dominance on the senses and will allow different and often more delicate characters to be appreciated.

Cask strength whiskies provide a greater range when diluting.

Cask strength whiskies provide a greater range when diluting.

4) It’s tricky to remove the water again

Once water has been added to your dram it cannot be removed without re-distillation, so be cautious when adding water. There are many stories describing how people have ruined a dram of very expensive whisky by being overly zealous with the water. Just add a few drops at a time, you can always add more.

5) Should I add ice to my Whisky?

Whisky on the rocks has become a classic amongst serves. If it tastes better to you with ice then who can tell you otherwise? Just give it a try neat first however before going full Titanic on it. Adding ice to a whisky will gradually begin to dilute the whisky but will also obviously cool the temperature of the whisky. As whisky begins to cool the molecules start to huddle together and the experience of flavour is reduced. This is really useful when drinking something a little on the wrong side of the quality fence as many of the off-notes in the drink will be less noticeable. It is fine to chill a good quality drink but why hide those lovely flavours. Even a quality vodka should taste good at room temperature. Imagine buying a shiny new Ferrari and replacing the engine with a 1 litre economy engine because you do not like the power. If you don't want a fast car don't buy a Ferrari, save your money, buy a small city car and spend the rest on whisky instead. Adding ice to any whisky is not wrong but it may be a waste of your money. If the whisky tastes too strong simply adding water is much better because it will release flavour rather than hide it.

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6) Experiment

Try different types of water, glasses, location, music, friends, food pairing... anything! Whisky is exciting and should not be restricted to flavour traditions. Have fun and don't take it too seriously. The difference between loving and hating a whisky can simply be the setting.

7) Take tasting notes… with a pinch of salt

The whisky world is full of complex and often confusing adjectives about one person’s flavour experience and whilst being fun these can be off-putting to many whisky drinkers unless you have a palate that is similar to the person writing the notes. How many times have you heard someone ask how the whisky tastes, only to be met with the response "errr... like whisky'? The only thing you really need to know is do you like it or not.

8) Drink with caution

Whisky is a strong spirit that can sneak up behind you with a flat stick on occasion. Drink plenty of water, know your limits, be aware of how many units you are consuming and obviously don't drive. Further useful information can be found at Drinkaware.

9) Finaly

Whisky and whisky flavours are so diverse, keep trying different drams in different ways, there is a whisky out there for everyone! Enjoy the journey and don't let people tell you how it should taste and how you should drink it, come to your own conclusions. And a final finaly, you don't have to like whisky to enjoy whisky. There are plenty of times that we try a dram that is not to our taste but we really enjoy the experience anyway, simply because it has a really unusual combination of flavours. One of the most exciting things is smelling an aroma in a whisky that we have never experienced in a drink before. We may not like it but it will be really fascinating.


The Objective Approach

The goal of the objective approach is to assess a whisky or spirit based on mutually agreeable scales of colours, aromas, flavours, balance, quality and styles. Although personal bias is removed as far as possible, it is of course impossible to remove it entirely so it takes time and practice to produce consistent results. The most important aspect is to be methodical and follow a system of assessment.

To begin always clear a space with a good source of natural light, free from aromas that may obscure the spirit and also free from distractions. Brushing your teeth, smoking or drinking coffee etc before the assessment will dramatically alter the results so try and be in as neutral a state as possible. Even eating something sweet or bitter beforehand will have a large effect on how your senses detect sweetness and bitterness.

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1) Standardised glassware

It is essential to have glassware that not only displays the spirit in a balanced way but also is suitable for a wide range of styles. The familiar tulip shape glasses are designed to provide good visual inspection of the spirit but more importantly to focus the aromas around the top of the glass where they can be efficiently drawn up to the olfactory receptors. The most common styles of glassware for professional tasting are either ISO’s (international standard optics) or sherry copitas.

Always make sure the glassware is clean and free from any detergents or other contaminants. Sometimes glasses that have been in a box or cupboard for a period of time can carry a stale aroma or aromas from foods or scented items that may have been stored close by.

Sherry Copitas.

Sherry Copitas.

International Standard Optic.

International Standard Optic.

2) Visual assessment

When imagining someone tasting whisky, a common image is one of swilling the spirit in the glass and inspecting the results. Rather than it simply being a charade to give the appearance of competence, there is some science behind the method.

The initial inspection and the most obvious one is to check the clarity of the spirit. Is it clear and bright, clear and dull or cloudy? Sometimes cloudiness can be present when a non-chillfiltered whisky is below a certain temperature or it has been diluted. Check for particles in the sample, it is not uncommon to find small particles of wood and charcoal, especially with cask samples.

Next, swilling a whisky in the glass will cause liquid to stick to the sides of the glass. The resulting residues that then trickle back down the glass are called beads, tears and legs as well as on occasion other names.

Pay close attention to the beads on the glass.

Pay close attention to the beads on the glass.

Firstly the beads and legs can be an indication of the alcoholic volume of the whisky. When we swirl a whisky in a glass and it coats the sides, the alcohol begins to evaporate at a faster rate than the water (alcohol being more volatile). As the alcohol evaporates from the sides of the glass the remaining liquid gains surface tension as it’s water percentage increases, as water has a higher surface tension to ethyl alcohol. The higher percentage alcoholic liquid in the bottom of the glass is then attracted to the lower percentage alcoholic liquid on the sides of the glass through a action called the Marangoni Effect. Once liquid has been drawn up the glass, beads will appear and run down under their own weight creating legs. This effect therefore can be an indication of the alcoholic strength of a liquid. A lower abv whisky will evaporate alcohol at a slower rate on the sides of the glass so will therefore not create as much disparity meaning less pronounced beading.

Inspecting the speed of the returning liquid and the thickness of the legs can also be an indication of viscosity however. Very simply, thinner and faster beads indicate a less viscous spirit. The viscosity of a spirit will be determined not only from the distillation process but also from oak extractives that will be present from maturation. Thicker and slower beads can indicate a high degree of cask interaction. Note this is not necessarily related to age.

A similar test can be performed by holding a hand over the top of the glass and shaking the spirit vigorously. Bubbles and beads will appear in a spirit with oak interaction but disappear rapidly with new make spirit.

Another observation surrounds the inclusion of water to the spirit. Often when a few drops of water are added it is obvious to see swirling patterns on its surface. The exact science is not fully understand, it may be due to the temperature difference of the water and spirit or it may be due to a pressure wave caused by the difference in viscosity. Either way this effect is known as viscimetric whorls.

These observations can indicate a level of viscosity of the spirit which may be supported by the mouth with oily or thin textures identified which we call mouthfeel.

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The colour itself can be misleading as spirit caramel is permitted to alter the hue. If it is confirmed that no spirit caramel has been added we can begin some conclusions regarding the cask interaction, style of cask and age. Generally we associate the very golden colours with ex-Bourbon casks, the darker mahogany colours with Sherry casks and red or pink hues with ex-red wine casks. The key note hear though is cask interaction. A Sherry cask with a low level of interaction will not provide a pronounced colour in the whisky, whilst a highly interactive ex-Bourbon cask will provide a very bright colour over a relatively short period of maturation.

Cask interaction is based on many factors that include the type of oak and where it was grown, how it was seasoned, the age of the wood and for how long the cask had been use previously. Oak being a natural product comes with great variation in terms of porosity and compounds. Other factors include the level of toasting or charring of the wood and if the wood has been revitalised in some way. Cask size is a crucial component as smaller casks create greater surface contact with the spirit as a percentage. The final factor to consider is the environment in which the spirit has matured as differences and fluctuations in temperature and humidity play a vital role in cask interaction.

3) Nosing

The most important element of the tasting process is using the sense of smell to make an assessment as the vast majority of flavour is constructed from input from the olfactory apparatus in the nose. Compared to other animals the human nose is nothing special, however it is still one of the most sensitive and complex senses we possess. When attempting an objective approach to nosing, again it is important to be systematic and methodical.

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3.1) Nasal reactions

The first aroma impression from a spirit will most often be ethyl alcohol as it tingles and stings the nose, particularly with cask strength samples. Take note of the sensations and their intensity and where on a scale they are between a mild tingle and an aggressive burn or even pain. Sometimes the sensations can be more akin to white or black pepper. The more intense the burn the more it will mask aromas and it may be necessary to dilute once the palate has been assessed undiluted. For blending assessments the samples will often be reduced in strength to around 20% abv to remove the burn and allow the subtleties to become detectable.

Inside tips:

Rather than placing the nose directly into the glass try resting the tip of the nose above the very uppermost ridge of the rim of the glass whilst the glass is tilted at a 45° angle. This method allows the alcohol to fall away from the nose whilst the lighter aroma congeners are drawn into the nose. This method works particularly well with higher strength samples.

Experiment by taking long, controlled inhalations with shorter inhalations for honing in on an aroma. Dogs are expert sniffers by inhaling and exhaling rapidly to adgitate aroma molecules on the ground. Try exhaling into the glass from the nose and inhaling again quickly if a spirit is restrained and it’s difficult to identify the character.

3.2) Aroma intensity

Now pay attention to the intensity of the aromas and consider how powerful or restrained they are. See how they change with time and how they alter once the spirit has been diluted.

3.3) Aroma quality

Assessing aroma quality is searching for faults in the spirit which may present themselves as overly solventy (fruity/nail varnish remover), overly feinty (earthy/bitter), overly sulphury (rotten eggs/rubber/burnt), overly soapy or decay (farmyard/compost). Each of these elements when balanced can be pleasant so it is looking for unpleasant spikes that may point towards a fault either in production, maturation, bottling, transportation or storage. It is also possible to have whiskies that have been affected by cork taint also known as TCA (trichloroanisole). Cork taint appears when naturally occuring fungi meet chlorophenol compounds and produce undesirable flavours. This can occur within the cask and within the bottle. The effects on aroma compounds in the whisky will be reduced fruity notes and a dominance of stale, damp cardboard aromas.

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3.4) Aroma complexity

Aromas in a spirit can be very simple or very complex and depending on the purpose of the whisky, neither are necessarily negative. Consider the complexity of the aromas and how they change with time.

3.5) Aroma identification

Now for the part that can be more tricky to approach objectively as aromas are intricately linked to our emotions and memories and are culturally specific. For teams of blenders and sensory analysts it is important to have a mutually agreeable vocabulary. For example if one person describes ‘green grassy’, everyone will have a clear understanding of what is meant. Whereas if someone describes ‘my mother’s fruit pie’ it makes it difficult for other people to relate to. The vocabulary will be unique for each team so it will be useful to consider your own. Assessors from a scientific background usually find it easier to describe aromas by their chemical names. Comprehensive flavour wheels are a good starting point for reference purposes.

Systematically consider the following categories of aromas as starting points and expand from there:

  • Floral (flowers/perfume/dried/fresh)

  • Fruity (citrus/dried/fresh/berries/orchard/confectionery)

  • Green grassy (vegetation/gardens/trees/woodland)

  • Solventy (pear drops/hair spray/fermenting fruit)

  • Soapy (synthetic/hand soap/detergents)

  • Sweet (vanilla/fruity/baking/sweets/natural sugars/floral)

  • Cereals (grains/popcorn/bread/biscuits)

  • Woody (balsa/pine/oak/sawdust)

  • Nutty (coconut/almonds/toasted nuts/cocoa)

  • Spicy (dried spices/hot spice/floral spice/aromatic)

  • Oily (buttery/oily/waxy)

  • Sour (tart fruit/vinegar/cheese)

  • Bitter (tannins/coffee/tree bark/citrus pith)

  • Sulphury (eggs/rubber/burnt)

  • Stale (farmyard/compost/rubbish bin)

  • Peaty (smoky/medicinal/burnt/tar)

  • Feinty (leathery/earthy/tobacco)

It is necessary to understand that aroma is experienced in two ways. The first is by drawing aroma compounds up through the front of the nose known as orthonasal olfaction. The second is after the spirit has entered the mouth and aroma compounds travel internally up the back of the palate and into the back of the nose known as retronasal olfaction.

Inside tip:

The olfactory process can quickly become fatigued and desensitised to particular aromas if they are strong. If you find your sense of smell is becoming tired, try smelling something neutral like your own skin, water or the outside air. Remember alcohol is an irritant for the senses.

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4) Taste

Taste is the part of the process that deals solely with the responses within the mouth. The tongue itself is relatively simple and is designed to assess the category of food or drink being ingested (protein/carbohydrate/fat etc) and if it may be harmful or not. The tongue is widely accepted as being able to identify salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami (savoury), however some researchers claim to have identified a more complex range. Taste buds are also not restricted to the tongue and can be found elsewhere such as in the back of the throat and the back of the nose. Again we adopt a methodical approach.

To spit or to swallow is one of personal choice and will be dependent on how alcohol effects you and if you value the sensations and flavours in the throat or not. The amount of liquid that you take into the mouth will also be dependent on personal preference. However always be responsible and realistic with your choices and the time you choose to conduct a tasting. Be sure to drink plenty of water.

Inside tip:

Using sparkling water to refresh the palate can be much more effective than still water.

4.1) Mouthfeel

Take a sip and coat the mouth, then decide to swallow or spit. Normally the first notable characteristic is the intensity of alcohol and where it sits on a scale of light tingle to painful burn. Sometimes the burn will be prickly and sharp whilst at other times it will be warming and rounded. Some spirits will burn the lips and tongue instantly whilst with others the heat will build over time. Consider the category of burn in terms of chillies, ginger, black pepper and white pepper as examples.

The second part of mouthfeel relates to textures which are extremely important when considering the overall quality of a whisky. Some whiskies are prized for their oily and waxy characters, particularly when blending. For textures use the following checklist as an initial reference point:

  • Oily (olive oil/light oil/nut oil)

  • Buttery (melted butter/cream/ghee/custard)

  • Tannic (grape seeds/fine grains/rough grains/furry)

  • Waxy (candles/beeswax/polish)

  • Clean (metallic/steely/flinty/mineralic)

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4.2) Mouth taste

As mentioned the tongue and mouth are relatively simple at detecting character and are limited to sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami. The remainder of what you think you taste is retronasal olfaction as aroma compounds travel up the back of the palate and to the olfactory recpetors in the nose. This is still an important element of the process however and can sometimes produce different aromas to those inhaled orthonasaly.

Inside tip:

After tasting the spirit take a deep breath in and slowly exhale through the nose to increase retronasal perception.

4.3) Finish

Once the primary flavours have faded from the mouth it will be time to draw your attention to the finish of the spirit. The finish is a combination of the lingering flavours and textures that remain in the mouth. Make a note of how long these continue for and any specifics about their character. Some whiskies will have a finish of great length whilst others will appear to dissipate quickly. Some may leave the dry sensations of wood in the mouth and others may leave sweet characters.

5) Dilution

Repeat the above steps after diluting the sample with water as water will reduce the detrimental effects of alcohol on the senses. Also by altering the chemical composition of the sample a different range of volatile aroma compounds will be released into the air.

The exact quantity of water for dilution will be dependent on your own circumstances. Sometimes it may be necessary to dilute each sample with the same amount of water or down to equal abvs. With a range of different samples it will become apparent however that some samples improve with water whilst others decline with water.

Which water? There is much debate over this and the purists would recommend using the same water that the distillery used to make the whisky. We have conducted back-to-back comparisons with water from different sources and have found that whilst it does alter the flavour experience, the differences very slight and are only noticeable with direct comparisons of the same whisky. The main point to consider is the level of chlorine in the water if tap water is to be used.

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6) Conclusions

After methodically following this process you can be sure to have covered all aspects of sensory evaluation. Write notes at every stage for reference and stick to the same order each time. After compiling your notes it will now be time to give an overall assessment of the spirit by considering the following factors:

Balance

How well balanced was the sample in its entirety or were there any elements that dominated beyond a reasonable level. Assess if the intensity and character of aromas was matched during taste in the mouth and vice versa.

Structure

Consider if the aromas and tastes were supported by textures and mouthfeel such as tannins and oils, or did it feel like something was lacking.

Composition

Think about how the overall character works as a whole and if it has a clear direction or is disjointed.

Individuality

Sometimes this is not a positive, such as when blenders are seeking consistency. However for an individual whisky it is important to assess its unique qualities.

Quality

The overall quality is not related to age but instead is a representation of the standard of the production and maturation methods.

Distillery character

This is a tricky one as single cask whiskies can be truly individual and occasionally surprising. It can be important however to consider if the character of the spirit is consistent with the distillery’s character or if it has diverged from the house style.

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So there you have it, a comprehensive guide to tasting whisky. Use what you find useful and discard what you do not. Experiment and develop your own methods. Whisky appreciation is a true exploration, not only of the world of flavours but also of yourself.

Our guide is the result of over 23 years of dedication and research into the sensory analysis of fermented, distilled and fortified drinks. This process is the culmination of a wide range of experiences and studying that includes the Plumpton College of viticulture and vinification, The Wines and Spirits Education Trust, The Scotch Whisky Research Institute, LVMH Moet Hennessey, The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, Burn Stewart Distillers, The Speyside Distillery and Royal Mile Whiskies. We have a working knowledge of the processes through our sensory analysis roles with leading Scotch Whisky bottlers and blenders and are continually improving our methods through assessing thousands of whiskies each year.

 
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