Scotch 101: Tasting Whisky

It sounds snooty right? The “correct” way to taste a beverage.  From wine, to whisky, to beer, to even water (there are water sommeliers?!?), there’s all kinds of people out there to tell you exactly what you should be tasting when it comes to your beverage of choice.  Now I will say this article was requested on Twitter, so while I may come off as snobby, I’m going to do my best to just let you know what I’ve learned so far, and try to make it clear that I am not an expert. I’m an enthusiast like yourself looking to get the most out of the money I spent on an expensive bottle of liquor.  I’ll also add that I have noticed a difference in some drinks that I’ve had for a long time and I am finally noticing undertones and secondary flavors that I hadn’t noticed before.  So at the very least, I’m getting more enjoyment out of familiar drinks and brand new drinks by focusing on the flavors and following these steps.  Finally, I’m going to base the article on scotch, but almost everything can be transferred over to any drink you’re looking to try.

Step 1: Clear the Palate

This is a pretty obvious step, but it’s important to make sure you clear your palate of any other flavors that may be lingering from any previous food or drink.  It’s just as simple as swishing some water in your mouth to clear out any impurities.  Try not to taste a new scotch after heavily flavored or spiced meals as they can affect the taste, and don’t use mouthwash or brush your teeth prior as that will leave a strong lasting mint flavor.

Step 2: Pour and Inspect

Pour the scotch into a glass and first inspect the color of the whisky.  The color of a whisky can give you some hints on flavors as well as tell you about how the whisky was aged and/or how long it was aged.

-Clear or very pale yellow usually means the whisky is young

-A yellow or light golden color often means it was aged in a new cask or bourbon barrel and will often be light and sweet

-Deep goldenrod color usually indicates a well-aged expression from a bourbon barrel

-Reddish hues usually indicate sherry or port casking

-Green to brown color usually indicates earthy/mineral and herby/vegetation flavors; often with some charred character

-Deep dark whisky is usually matured in port of sherry casks but usually quite charred

The next thing to inspect is the “legs” of the whisky, which is also a common step in wine tasting.  Start by tilting the glass and rolling the liquid around to coat the sides of the glass.  Put the glass down or hold it steady and watch how the scotch runs down the sides of the glass.  This tells you how thick the whisky is as well as give hints about how old the scotch is.  If the whisky runs quickly, it often indicates a light, possibly young, expression.  A slow, oily crawl back to bottom is usually a sign of older whisky.

Step 3: Nosing

The aroma is a surprisingly important step in tasting a whisky, and it’s important to get a good sense of the smells of a whisky before tasting it.  Nosing is achieved by vigorously swirling the whisky, and then taking a slow steady inhale.  The “standard” is to do this process 3 times, the first inhale to get your palate used to the strong alcohol or “burn” taste and smell that usually comes with a 40-50 proof liquor.  The second inhale is when you get the first true aromas of whisky, these are usually the first 1-2 flavors that the distiller will use to describe their whisky.  The third inhale is when you can start to notice secondary notes or undertones.  A lot of times this is where you’ll get the hints of citrus, or cherry, or cedar or whatever other aromas distillers will list.  I will say that when you first start taking these steps, you might not notice the secondary notes, or at least not EVERY note the distiller lists, and this is 100% normal.  The more you use this process, the more refined your palate will become to start noticing second, third, fourth flavors and aromas.  For whisky, there are 8 primary aromas that people will notice:

-Cereal: Comes from the malted barley used in a particular expression.

-Fruit (ester): Sweet, fruity scents, characterized best in Speyside Whisky.

-Floral (aldehydic): Grass, leaf, bush, or hay best characterized in Lowland Whisky.

-Peat (phenolic): Islay Whisky in a nutshell, the tar, iodine, and acidic phenols come from kilning of the grain.

-Feint: Hard to describe nuances, feints are part of the actual distillation and can range from toasted biscuit to tobacco and honey. They characterize the physical still as well as the skillset of the distiller.

-Sulfur: Generally too acrid to enjoy, the use of copper in distillation is meant to filter this out. Though a touch of sulfur can add to the tasting experience.

-Wood: Any time you taste vanilla, it is usually because of American White Oak. If left too long in the cask a whisky can develop a pure wood scent.

-Wine (extractives): Extractives are just as they sound, essence leached from ageing in a barrel previously filled with wine (often sherry or port). This includes tannins, fruit particulates, and other residues.

Step 4: Tasting

Now that you have the aromas giving you a preview of the flavors, it’s finally time to taste the whisky.  Without adding any water, ice or any other mixer, take a sip of the whisky, and move it around in your mouth in order to get the full experience of flavors.  Yes the burning/alcohol flavor will likely be strong on that first sip, but it’s important to continue rolling the whisky around in your mouth as this will get your palate used to that “burn” and you won’t notice it as much in future sips.  Finally swallow that first sip.  Now that you have got your palate ready for what to expect, in future sips you can start to focus on the primary and secondary flavors of the whisky as you roll it around

Overall Tips:

-When first starting out, feel free to check out the distisller’s official website or any online reviews to see what flavors and smells you should be expecting.  

-Don’t be surprised when you probably only taste about 10% of the flavors you’re being told you should taste, everyone has a different palate and everyone grows their palate at a different pace.

-After tasting a few times, then you can add water, ice, or other mixers to see if that makes the flavors improve.

-In general, the biggest change ice makes is it takes away the strong alcohol burn, and will weaken the flavors, usually meaning you’ll only notice the stronger flavors, and the secondary notes will mostly disappear (the colder a beverage is, the less you can taste it).

-Adding a few drops of water is usually considered standard for a single malt scotch, as adding a little water can “open the bouquet” and was actually scientifically proven.  Scientists in Sweden proved that high concentrated ethanol alcohols (such as scotch whisky) will distribute their flavor molecules differently when water is added.

-You drink whisky how you drink it. Don’t let anyone tell you ice “waters it down” or a mixer “ruins” the whisky, drink what you like how you like (responsibly I suppose).

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