When you enjoy a dram, four of your senses will be able to give you feedback on your experience. While it is true that uncorking or the “glug glug glug” of whisky being poured into a glass can be perceived as the utilisation of your sense of hearing, we will focus on the remaining four. Let us briefly take some time to discuss them and their use during whisky tasting.
To best savour the full complexity of what a whisky has to offer you, the glass is a vital piece of equipment. Glasses come in many forms and shapes, but only some glasses enable you to optimally enjoy the dram in it. For instance, a classic tumbler with the glass on the sides going straight up (or even widening), will have your nose missing out on a lot of the many smells. Therefore, a glass that narrows towards the top, thereby concentrating all the odours into a small area is best for smelling.
Also, when tasting (or nosing) whisky, the ability to gently warm the spirit a little allows you to unleash additional layers of smell that at first might not have been able to shine through. This means a smaller glass that can fit comfortably in your hand will most likely be best. Keeping all this in mind, at ScottishDelight, we have picked the Glencairn glass to be our glass of choice, and in fact, we love it so much that we incorporated it into our logo.
The price of a good whisky nosing glass might seem a bit steep, but if you are seriously looking into learning more about whisky, and you really want to enjoy it rather than just drink it, buying a glass (or a few glasses) will be a good investment.
The use of water
While adding cubes of ice certainly is not recommended, using small drops of water will expose the full bouquet of the whisky. Basically, the addition of water will suppress the aggressiveness of the alcohol in the smell, and allow you to better experience the rest of the bouquet. We recommend you to first nose and taste the whisky as is, and only then adding a couple of drops of water in order to reveal the deeper layers of the dram. Do not use tap water, as most tap water will contain minerals or chemicals (fluoride for example is a common addition to tap water in some countries) that might upset the delicate balance of the whisky. Instead, use bottled water.
The water should not be overly cold, as this might work counter-productive, and might suppress some of the wonderful aromas we are trying to release by adding water. Room temperature usually works perfectly and has the added benefit of slightly warming up the whisky. Pipettes might be useful for limiting the amount of water you add, though a common straw will also allow you to do this.
You can choose to add more water in-between smells and sips to see whether you can discover even more. When you cannot feel the tingle of the alcohol in your nose any more, stop adding water, as the whisky will become too watered down at that stage.
The right environment for tasting
When you go and do a tasting, try and ensure that your surroundings do not add smells. Fires, fresh paint, or recently prepared food might distort your sense of smell. Similarly, perfume and after-shave can get in the way of picking up the smell of the whisky, as will smoking in the same room you are tasting in. Ideally, try and discourage smoking for at least half an hour before you commence the tasting.
On to the senses. We will discuss them in the order you will use them while tasting whisky.
“The colours of Scotland leave you young inside” – Runrig, from the song “Hearts of Olden Glory”.
The main role for vision when tasting whisky is of course to feast your eyes on the bottles and labels. The labels will generally give you a pretty detailed picture, but you can furthermore use your eyes to to identify the colour of the whisky.
When it is freshly distilled, the spirit will be clear. During the ageing process when it is put to rest in wooden casks, the whisky will be coloured by the wood, as well as by the former contents of the cask. As an example, sherry casks tends to make the whisky darker (amberish), while bourbon casks give the whisky a more golden or honey-ish colour.
Unfortunately, due to the use of caramels for adding colour in order to ensure a consistent colouring for the product, this trick does not work for all whiskies. Blends in particular will typically be coloured in order to give whisky produced using different whiskies a consistent colour. There are a number of single malt distilleries, though, that promote themselves by pointing out their whisky contains only naturally obtained colours. The Maccallan team for example pride themselves on sticking to natural colour only, and achieving a consistent colour by mixing an average of about 50 casks of the same malting-batch together.
The best way to admire and determine the colour of the whisky, is by holding the glass either against a white background, or against a source of light. Colouring may vary from Chardonnay all the way to dark amber, with terms like straw, gold, copper and Mahogany as steps in-between.
Another way to use your eyes when it comes to whisky is to form a rough idea about the alcoholic contents or maturity of the whisky. In order to do this, swirl the whisky around in your glass a few times. You will notice that towards the upper sections of the glass, “tears” develop, which turn into “legs” as they travel back to the bottom of the glass. For younger whiskies, the tears will be closer together, and run faster down than is the case with older whiskies, where the legs are further apart, and the tears will be slower to run down. The longer the legs are, the higher the percentage of alcohol in the dram. This is due to the lower surface tension of alcohol as opposed to water.
Unfortunately, once again, there are exceptions to this rule, as for instance whiskies with a Sherry-finish are stickier, and therefore might run down slower. Therefore, just vision is not a reliable method of sampling whisky.
Finally, after adding a sip of water (don’t do this straight away, though. Try nosing first. See above, the section about using water), you can see whether the whisky has been chill-filtered. If it has been, prior to bottling, it was reduced in temperature close to freezing, in order to be able to filter out any impurities. However, sometimes this may also lead to the removal of some of the flavours. If the whisky was chill-filtered, after adding a splash of water, the whisky will remain clear. If it has not, chances are you see some “flaking” happening (particularly if the water used is cold).
Believe it or not, but the majority of enjoyment of whisky is provided by your nose. While our tongue can identify 4 major flavours, our nose is capable of distinguishing roughly 10,000 different smells. On the roof of your nasal cavity, there’s millions of receptors that can pick up molecules contained in the air we breathe in. When these receptors are stimulated, they pass signals almost directly to your brain, which translates them into memories of smells.
When raising the glass to your nose, there are a few tricks to give your sense of smell maximum exposure to the dram. Swirl the glass gently to release the odours. Wrapping it in your hands can ensure the whisky’s temperature rises slightly, which will also release more of the initially hidden smells.
While holding the glass under your nose and taking careful sniffs (to prevent the alcohol from overpowering the other smells), keeping your mouth slightly open will allow you not to just smell, but actually breathe in the bouquet.
As you smell, sniff and savour, take notes of smells you encounter. Depending on the region of whisky, its age, the type of cask it was resting in, and numerous other factors in the distilling process, you could for instance pick up such flavours and scents as Chocolate, vanilla, cinnamon, flowers, engine oil, fruit, or leather. The thing to keep in mind is that there is no wrong in this process, as your nose will tell you what it perceives and link it to certain memories.
It can be great fun to share your findings with the others involved in the tasting, and you will find that when you succesfully identified and named a particular smell, the others will most certainly have similar findings.
One of our favourite ways to smell whisky is a fun little way to truly appreciate all the smells encapsulated by the master distiller. Using a pipette or a straw, drop a few drops of whisky into one of the palms of your hands. Then, rub your hands together, and cover your nose with them. You will find that this way you cannot just smell what you already picked up, but also discover the initially hidden extra dimensions and layers of the dram you are about to savour.
Do remember to wash your hands with non-scented soap if you intend to use this trick for more than one whisky in the same evening.
By the way. Should you question the influence of your nose on tasting, try and hold your nose while taking a sip, and notice the difference.
As you take your first sip of scotch, close your eyes, and let it roll across your tongue. A slow running of the legs on the glass might indicate the spirit to be more oily. This will generally create a more pleasant feeling in the mouth (which could be considered to be the texture of the whisky). Other ways of “feeling” the whisky can give hints about the level of alcohol or the age of the whisky. Cask Strength whisky for instance is non-diluted (not watered down to decrease the level of alcohol), and thus comes across as a lot more potent. This can translate into aggressive tingling on the tongue.
Similar to humans, as age progresses, a lot of the initial temperament dissappears over time. This, of course, can be partially explained by the Angel’s share, where alcohol slowly dissolves from the contents of the casks. In short, your palate can give you some information about the level of alcohol, and the age of the whisky.
Still on the first sip, hold the whisky in your mouth for a bit, and move it around on your tongue. Try and see if you can pick up any of the tastes your nose identified. While actually tasting, your nose will still influence the process, and it will help your tongue out for the tasting purposes. Unlike our nose, our tongue is only capable of picking up a limited range of flavours. The tip of your tongue will pick up sweet flavours, while sour and salty can be picked up by the middle and the sides of your tongue. Lastly, the back of your tongue identifies bitter tastes.
You can chew the sip of whisky to get a better sense, or you can suck in some air between your lips, similar to the way wine is being tasted. Whatever you feel enables you to get your taste buds to perform optimally will be the right way to taste.
Note the finish and after taste as well. Finish is the amount of time you can still feel the flavours after you swallow. Some younger whiskies have a finish that disappears really quickly, while other old drams keep on lingering on and on.
Again, try and write down anything your senses tell you about the whisky. Tastes, feelings, emotions. Keeping a little track record will help you decide which whiskies might be worth buying a bottle of, and can help you concentrate on a specific area or distiller. T
he hints your senses give you, again, are deeply personal, and there is no right or wrong. Some people prefer the mellowness and flowery smells of a Lowland whisky, while others swear by the almost medicinal Islay.
Now it is time to move on to the next whisky. In-between, clear your palate. Drink a few sips of water, eat an unsalted cracker, and if needed, wash your glass to ensure the next whisky can undergo the same process as before.