Guide for tasting whiskey

How to taste whiskey?
Usual taste of whiskey

Whiskey tasting is a nice experience if you know a trick or two to make it better. Usually when you’re starting to get into the world of whisky more closely, you start to seek for a guide on how to taste whiskey. Remember not to take whiskey tasting too seriously. After all, it’s supposed to be fun. But there are few pointers you should know about. So that you can make the tasting of uisge beatha (water of life) more enjoyable.

First thing you should think about: whiskey glasses. Proper glass won’t change the taste of whiskey but it will certainly do justice for good aromas.

I previously made an article about the best whiskey glasses for tasting. I recommend reading it.

Few tips on how to taste whiskey

You can find useful videos about tasting whiskey. Gerry Tosh of Highland Park and Sir Richard Paterson of Whyte & Mackay can guide you through each step of whiskey tasting but first, here are the tips in bullet points:

  • Swirling the whisky is not mandatory. You’ve probably seen experts do this, Richard Paterson for example. You can do it but it’s not necessary because whiskey is so strong. It doesn’t need swirling to spread the aromas better.
  • Whiskey shouldn’t be too warm. Store your bottles properly: vertically and not in a hot or humid place. Don’t warm your tasting glass either (with your hand).
  • Add water to your whiskey. It usually changes the tone of your dram: water opens up the whiskey. Water can improve your whiskey or sometimes it may not get the best out of your dram. But at least you’ve experienced how water changes the dram. Just few drops will do it, or with cask strength whiskey you might need more than few drops.
  • Take your time with the dram. Whiskey evolves in the glass, let it rest and do everything with anticipation. Take your time while nosing and tasting it. Use both of you’re nostrils one after the other and remember to take two or three more sniffs after the first one. And you can keep on doing this whole night if you want to. Worst thing you can do is not give that aged spirit enough time to open up and give its best to you. Same goes with tasting the whiskey: chew it and let it leave an impression on your palate. After all, it’s been matured for years in oak casks so it wouldn’t be right to chuck it fast.
  • Concentrate on the aftertaste. Best whiskeys leave a mark right there in the finish. Most memorable aftertastes come many seconds after the gulp.

Warning! As informative as Paterson is, there is entertainment involved. Even though a glass for whiskey tasting has to be clean, I personally am not throwing away my drams. Not on the carpet at least.

What whiskey usually tastes like?

“Whenever I drink whiskey all I taste is the alcohol”. A common complaint which is very understandable. To this day I sometimes come across with very bad whiskey, something that’s close to petroleum. Even though I nowadays know much better how to avoid bad stuff. And even though my palate has seen it all and due to that, has evolved. In other words, my palate is so badly burnt that it can’t detect much bad notes. <- Little bit of humor.

There are some notes that come up quite often when tasting whiskey. Taste is always personal and people find different things from same batches of whiskey. Still, there are some major notes that are present with different types of whiskeys, aromas and taste-wise:

Other fairly popular notes:

  • Ashy
  • Chocolate
  • Coffee
  • Corn
  • Crispy
  • Grains
  • Licorice
  • Minty
  • Peppery
  • Rye
  • Roasted
  • Sour