Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Mr. Moo's Whisky Explorations: Whisky Tasting

Similar to wine and coffee, there are steps to tasting scotch. Although some things are familiar, including smelling and tasting, the jargon tends to differ, as does how you perform each step (For example: You don’t slurp the whisky like you would slurp coffee during a tasting).

If you want a more eloquently written version of how to go about tasting scotch, try the Master of Malt’s How to Taste Whisky Guide. This is my very basic understanding of tasting scotch.


If you want to get serious about whisky, invest in a tasting glass or two. Although there are probably quite a few to choose from including The Glencairin Glass and a Sherry Copita, the one that I’ve found most widely available is The Glencairin Glass. The glass is designed wider at the bottom, tapering in at the mouth. From what I’ve read, it is designed such that it focuses the aromas at the opening of the glass, allowing you to more easily smell the aromas.

Although you can taste scotch with a plastic cup or a whisky tumbler, both of which I’ve tried, it’s not as easy to detect the aromas. With the plastic cup, I tended to smell more of the plastic than the actual aromas of the scotch.


The first step in tasting whisky is to use your sense of sight. When it is distilled, whisky actually comes out clear and the colour comes from the type of cask it is aged in. By looking at the colour of the whisky, if you don’t know what type of cask it was aged in, it can give you a clue, as well as how long as it was aged. However, there are some distilleries that do add caramel colouring (E150a) to make their whisky darker in order to make it appear as though their whisky was aged longer than it was, so the colour can be misleading. I've been told this is done in order to fetch a higher price for a lower quality whisky, which is why you will see on some bottle labels it will actually indicate that it's uncoloured.

There are also what they call “legs” that one can look at. If you swirl the whisky around in your glass, you will see the whisky run down the sides of the glass. The slower it runs, the fuller the body. I have yet to be able to really identify the body this way, I prefer to do it when I taste it.

Smell (Nose)

Next you smell or “nose” the whisky in order to detect the different aromas. Don’t go shoving your nose into the glass right away, because you will just overwhelm your nose. Bring the glass under your nose and take a quick smell. I find that I have to smell it a few times in order to detect the different aromas. Don’t worry if at first all you can smell is “sweet” or “spicy”, sometimes it’s hard to decipher what it is you smell, and even I’m learning to describe what aroma it is I’m detecting.

Taste (Palate)

Then taste the whisky, but remember that in order to taste it you just need to take a sip! As Kelly Carptener of @SMWSCanada is always reminding me, it’s not for “chugging, gulping or knocking back”. At the @Rare_Drams tasting I went to at Wine & Beyond Windermere, we were told to take a small sip, and to move it around in our mouths. They said a good rule of thumb is to keep it in your mouth for ½ a second per year old the whisky is. Moving it around in your mouth will allow you to taste the different flavours in the whisky since different parts of your tongue and mouth will detect different flavours and sensations.

I’ve found it’s difficult to detect flavours in some of the younger ones as the alcohol content tends to be higher, so all I can feel is the burning heat from the alcohol. However, there are several flavours that I have been able to taste and have found these flavours can vary wildly, anything from honey, vanilla, toffee, citrus to smoke, peat, wood, etc. It will take practice in order to detect everything, and I’ve found it particularly difficult to taste anything when drinking a peaty scotch, as the peat flavour tends to overwhelm my plate, making me unable to taste anything else.

I also find it easier to detect the body when tasting the whisky, as I can feel the texture in my mouth. The lighter body whisky tends to feel thinner in my mouth, like water, whereas the heavier body whisky tends to coat the mouth like milk.


Finally, noting the finish, which is basically just figuring out what the aftertaste of the whisky is like for you. I’ve found the finish can often be similar to how they tasted such as sweet, spicy, smoky, peaty, etc. While others, I can only describe as having an antiseptic like quality to their finish, as they burn going down my throat, leaving me with a mouth that feels burning hot!

Although the tasting process isn’t necessary to enjoying your whisky, it’s a good way to teach yourself to identify to detect the different aromas and flavours. With scotch, the different regions of Scotland often have specific flavour profiles – obviously with some exceptions, such as cask strength whisky, which can often be very different in aroma and taste. Being able to detect the aromas and flavours can potentially help you identify what area of Scotland the scotch is from.

The more tastings you do, the more you’ll train your nose and palette to detect the different aromas and tastes. It’ll also help you to figure out what you like and what you don’t like.

I highly suggest making notes and keeping them somewhere, whether it’s in a notebook or on your phone. This will help you to decide what you’d like to try more of, what you’d like to avoid and what bottles you want to invest in. There are a lot of different applications for mobile phones too, so it’s a matter of personal preference to find a way of keeping notes that will work for you.

As I learn more, I will share it with you all. For now, get out there and start enjoying some whisky!

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