Whisky Tasting: a Complete Guide
Updated: Apr 13
In this post Mike and I explore whisky tasting. This includes: what it is, how to taste whisky properly, where you can experience trying whisky in a more involved way, and some top tips!
What is whisky tasting?
Whisky tasting is the process of evaluating and analysing the sensory properties of whisky. It involves using your senses of sight, smell, and taste to assess the quality, complexity, and flavour of the whisky.
During a 'tasting', the person or people tasting typically follow a structured approach to evaluate the whisky, starting with the visual assessment of the color and clarity, followed by the aroma assessment of the nose, and finally the taste assessment of the mouth.
Whisky tasting can be done individually or as part of a group, and may be led by a whisky expert or enthusiast who can provide guidance and insights on the whisky being tasted. It can be a fun and educational experience that allows you to explore different types of whisky and appreciate the nuances and complexities of each.
The lingo explained
There is a specific lingo or language used in whisky tasting to describe the various sensory characteristics of the whisky. Here are some common terms that you may come across:
Nose: The aroma of the whisky.
Palate: The taste/s found in the whisky.
Finish: The aftertaste of the whisky, and how short or long it is.
Blind: Tasting the whisky without knowing what it is.
Legs: How much the whisky sticks to the side of the glass, indicating how thick and oily it is.
Notes: The flavours, aromas, and other sensory characteristics of the whisky that you can identify.
Flight: A line up of whiskies to try, usually 10-30 ml of each whisky per glass.
Malt: A type of whisky made from malted barley.
Grain: Refers to any whisky made, at least in part, from grains other than malted barley.
Blend: Refers to a type of whisky made by blending different whiskies together.
Single malt: Refers to a type of whisky made from malted barley from a single distillery.
Single malt single cask: A single malt which is from one cask only.
Age statement: The number of years the whisky has been aged in a cask.
Cask strength: Whisky that has not been diluted with water after aging. It is bottled as it was taken from the cask or casks it was aged in.
Mouthfeel: Refers to the texture or viscosity of the whisky in the mouth.
Cask finish: Sometimes a whisky is transferred into a different cask for a finishing period to change the whisky profile. Often it is sherry casks used for 1 to 3 years after being in ex-bourbon casks.
Peat: A type of moss that is used in the malting process of some whiskies, giving them a smoky flavor.
How to do whisky tasting notes like the pros!
Look at the whisky: Observe the color and clarity of the whisky. The color can indicate the age of the whisky, with darker colors suggesting longer maturation.
Smell the whisky: Hold the glass up to your nose and take a deep breath. Identify any aromas that you detect, such as fruit, vanilla, spices, or smoke.
Taste the whisky: Take a very small sip (like you are drinking a hot coffee) and let it roll around your mouth before swallowing. Pay attention to the flavours, including any notes of sweetness, bitterness, sourness or spiciness. Try to identify any distinct flavors or textures.
Finish: Pay attention to the aftertaste of the whisky. Does the flavor linger, or does it disappear quickly? The finish can provide clues to the quality and complexity of the whisky. Generally a long finish is preferred. Often a lot of the palate or tasting is found in the finish, but it does change and evolve. See what you find!
Add water: Repeat the process with the same whisky and add water. A small amount of water can open up the flavors and aromas of whisky. Add a few drops of water to your glass and stir gently. You can also consider having two side by side glasses, one with water added and one without.
Take notes: Keep a notebook handy and jot down your impressions of the whisky. This can help you remember which whiskies you enjoyed and which ones you didn't.
Experiment: Try different types of whisky from different regions and distilleries. You may discover new flavors and aromas that you enjoy.
Example of whisky tasting notes from @whiskytip
Where to do whisky tasting?
We find there are three options. At a venue, at a bar, or at someone's house. Makes sense!
Bigger cities have lot's of choices, and they will run events which you can join in on. SWMS for example has dedicated venues for whisky tasting, with a code based system for bottles. Whisky retailers also sometimes offer tasting events, so you can check your nearest retailer who sells whisky and ask them, or check their website.
At a bar or pub
Some bars and pubs have a large selection to choose from, and offer flights. This is a great way to try new whiskies and enjoy tasting.
At someone's house
Lot's of virtual whisky tastings are hosted online. Mike and I, both join in on Blind Drams Consortium and do a tasting of blind whisky once a month. It's a lot of fun to host and have friends over and try whisky together taking notes.
Top whisky tasting tips
Choose the right glassware.
We recommend using a copita or a glencairn as this will really help with what you are able to determine from nosing the whisky. If you do not have one of those, then a white wine glass is the best alternative. Here is a full explainer of whisky glasses.
Think about how you nose the whisky
Just bring the whisky glass under your nose for a few seconds and breathe in. Try not to get your nose in it too much, and move the glass in and away from your nose. Much more detail on how to nose whisky here. If you're like us, then you likely will be able to have a laugh at yourself as you do this... then work out what type of whisky noser you are!
Be aware of group think
As much fun as it is to try whisky with others, it does lead to group think. In which case it's perfectly fine to share notes at the end, and also that not all people get the same notes. We find this makes it more fun to sometimes try whisky in person and online with others, and also to sometimes just have a dram to yourself and see what you find.
Master distillers tend to reduce the volume of the whisky in their glass down to 20% to 30% ABV. This helps to bring out more flavours in the whisky. It does change how it feels, but in a very surgical way can help to bring out more flavours. It is worth trying whisky without water, and then also with some water. You should at least once, try diluting a whisky down to 20 to 30% ABV to see why master blenders at distilleries do this!
Try whisky blind!
It is a lot more fun to try whisky blind, where you do not know what is in the glass. This removes all preconceptions and allows you to have a guess at the cask type, region and age of the whisky. Most importantly of all, it takes away the power of branding and confirmation bias. We cannot tell ourselves we love it, simply because it is our favourite distillery, it's old, or we love the packaging!
Let your whisky air before trying it
Leave your whisky to breathe for around one minute per year old it is. You can place something on top of the glass to stop any flies or dust getting in if you want. A bit of air helps open the whisky up.
Most of all we hope you enjoy your whisky tasting journey!