One of the fundamentals of enjoying Scotch whisky is learning how to taste it properly. However, it is not necessarily a skill that comes naturally. After all, there’s more to a dram than just knocking it back.
This page features a quick guide to tasting whisky as well as more developed exploration on the following steps:
You can use the links above to jump ahead or scroll down to read it all!
I now truly enjoy whisky. At first I was a little weary but now I have learned to appreciate whisky with this guide.
How To Taste Scotch Whisky [Quick Guide]
If you’re in a rush and want to quickly get started on tasting whisky, you can use the following step-by-step quick guide:
- Select your whisky expression.
- Pour the desired amount into your glassware of choice.
- Vigorously swirl the dram to release aroma.
- “Nose” your whisky by placing your nose deep inside the glass and drawing in deeply.
- Repeat steps 3 & 4 until you have a total of three nosings.
- Take a sip and “chew” the whisky around, getting across your entire palate.
- Draw in a breath of air, experiencing the remnants of flavor as they cross your palate with a cool breeze.
Want to develop your knowledge and learn all the details? Keep scrolling to read more!
Full Scotch Whisky Tasting Guide
1. Prepare Your Palate
Knowing how to pour, store, and enjoy a single-malt is only part of the equation. To maximize your enjoyment, we highly recommend having a clean palate with which to draw out each ounce of flavor. After all, “sip and enjoy” is tough to attain when you are still tasting your luncheon meal.
The basic palate cleansing is a drink of water prior to your whisky as it will wash away any impurities in your mouth. It is also recommended to partake in light meals, avoiding heavy garlic, onions, or spice, prior to imbibing. Whisky Editor Robert Raymond’s ultimate recommendation is to avoid liquids with lots of sugar or roasty flavors, such as soda or coffee, as these tend to invade the tongue for extended periods.
Keep in mind that when we say palate cleansing we do not mean this in the literal sense of cleaning so do not grab your toothbrush or mouthwash. Doing so will have the opposite effect and leave you with a minty fresh but effectively useless palate for a short while.
2. Whisky Appearance
Before your first sip, you should hold the glass of whisky up to the light. At this point, you should look at both the color and the so-called “legs”.
The color or robe will actually tell you a lot about what to expect when tasting:
- 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
Not the feeling you get after a few nips! Legs refers to the way the whisky runs down your glass. It often indicates age and quality of a dram.
Hold your glass at a 45-degree angle and roll it around so the whisky coats the glass walls. Stand the glass up and watch how the whisky runs down. You are looking for the viscous, syrupy run of your dram.
- 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.
3. Nosing Your Whisky
A crucial part of the whisky ritual is getting acquainted with every aroma prior to taking your first sip. This is called, nosing.
The proper way to nose your glass is not to wave it under your nostrils but insert your nose into the glass as far as you can. You vigorously swirl the glass, then slowly and steadily inhale to take in the aromas.
Close your eyes and envision the fruit, plant, mineral, earth, wood, and other scents which make up this expression. It will magnify your ability to taste them.
We prescribe to the legendary Richard Paterson’s (master blender of Whyte & Mackay) method: saying hello to your dram thrice over.
[sniff] How Are You?
[sniff] Quite Well, Thank You Very Much.
This whimsical approach has you nosing your whisky three times prior to taking your first sip. The purpose is actually quite scientific, though in a nutshell:
- The first draw takes in much of the released ethanol vapors and thus absorbs the “shock and burn”
- Your next whiff is where the true aromas come out; you will get much more of the blender’s expression coming through
- Lastly, primed with the idea of what is inside, you can sniff out the true essence of your whisky dram
The Science Of Scent
As you will recall from biology class, we are able to detect 32 base aromas contrasted to only 4 master flavors. So it makes sense that aroma would be the biggest indicator of how we perceive flavor.
For whisky, you should look for 8 primary aromas:
- 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: Consider this the umami of the whisky world, hard to describe nuances, feints are are part of the actual distillation and can range from toasted biscuit to tabacco and honey. They characterize the physical still as well as the skillset of the distiller.
- Sulfer: Generally too acrid to enjoy, the use of copper in distillation is meant to filter this out. Though a touch of sulfer 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 tanins, fruit particulate, and other residues.
4. Tasting The Whisky
After nosing your dram and becoming familiar with what this expression is promising, take a sip. Chew it around in your mouth and move it across your palate; hit the top, front, rear–every place where you find something new to taste.
Whether tasting with the family, the Bespoke Unit team, or solo, Whisky editor Robert Raymond likes to verbalize what he is smelling and tasting (if solo, he allegedly just says it in his head). For him, this helps to amplify the experience. It also can start some great conversations when sharing a dram amongst friends.
After you swallow it, take in a mouthful of air. The lingering flavor will pass over your tongue with a cool breeze.
Whisky Flavors Breakdown
Here is where you are looking to apply the 4 types of taste to modify and amplify what you identified in the 8 basic whisky scents. These 4 primary tastes being:
- Salty: Brine flavor, often associated with heavy peat but can just as easily accent a sweet Highland dram
- Sweet: My favorite descriptor is nectar, as anything which has too much sugar-sweetness would be quite undesirable
- Sour: Often found in sherry casking, a bit of lactic acid which gives you a slight pucker and makes your mouth water
- Bitter: While whisky may not be as bitter as a craft India Pale Ale, you can find bittering, which occurs through aging in many expressions
Whisky Tasting And Metaphors
Whisky reviews are often dripping with metaphor. As you can imagine, using only 8 master scents and 4 master flavors can lead to dull reading. So, the best reviews of an expression are usually those which paint a picture of what the taster experienced, versus a scientific recount of the number of phenols he tasted.
One of the running jokes in Robert Raymond’s whisky circle is a review he once read of Ardbeg 10, years before any of them developed the palate to drink it let alone taste the nuance:
“The seaweed turns to kelp. Medicinal. Band-Aid throughout.”
When they cracked a bottle to try it, they could find all of these flavors, albeit not desirable ones. So, you should go out, get yourself a dram, and taste it. Then read a detailed review from another enthusiast and see if you can identify the flavors described.
You can discover our own whisky reviews too!
Now that you have read our guide to tasting whisky, you should be a pro! However, you may be interested in boffing up on a number of other whisky-related topics: