Tasting Scotch Whisky- a brief how to guide

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The First Thing To Do Is- Prepare Your Palate

When tasting scotch whisky, or any whisky for that matter, in order to get the most out of your tasting it is very important that you have a clean palate. With that in mind when tasting we always have water on hand to wash away all of the impurities that might be in our mouths before each sip. If you know you will be tasting avoid any foods and or beverages with strong flavors prior to your  tasting. For example, garlic, onions, coffee, or soda, these all have a tendency to linger on the tongue. You do not have to go crazy brushing your teeth or gargling mouthwash which could actually destroy your palate for a time.

Next Pick Your Poison

While this article is about Scotch it is also the basis for tasting any whisky, so what’ll be Scotch, Irish, Bourbon, or Rye!

Pour about an ounce and a half into a specialized tasting glass, these are designed to maximize your experience. There are a number of different styles out there, I recommend the Glencairn, it always works for me. 

Next- Look at the whisky

Before you even smell or taste the whisky, look at it. Hold the glass of whisky up to the light and look at both the color and the legs.

Whisky Legs is the way the whisky runs down the glass and can say a few things about the age and quality of your pour. Hold your glass at a 45-degree angle and roll  the glass so the whisky coats the glass walls. Now stand the glass up straight and observe how the whisky runs down the glass.

If the whisky runs down the side of the glass quickly, it can indicate a light, possibly young, whisky.

A slow, oily slide to the bottom of the glass can be an indication of an older whisky. But of course you have the bottle and the age should be displayed on the damn box. We’ll certainly go into the effects that aging has on a whisky in a future article as well as vessel choice for aging.

The color of the whisky can actually foreshadow a great deal about what you can expect when tasting:

Clear or very pale yellow color usually means the whisky is young at a minimum or close to minimum age.

A yellow or light golden can mean the whisky was aged in a new cask or bourbon barrel and the whisky will often be light and sweet.

A deep golden color can indicate an older whisky from a bourbon barrel.

Reddish shades will often indicate finishing in a sherry or port cask.

A brown color can mean some charred character.

Deep dark whisky is usually matured in port or sherry casks that have quite a bit of char.

Now to get a Nose on your whisky

This is important, you need to get your nose in there deep and get to know as many of the different aromas before you have that first sip. This is called nosing.

The only way to nose your glass is to insert your nose into the glass as far as you can without shoving it into the whisky. Give the glass a swirl and then slowly inhale to take in the aromas. Think about the various aromas, add them to your tasting notes while fresh in your mind and hopefully your nose and your taste will resemble each other. Repeat this step, not the writing but the nosing three times.

The first smell should get some ethanol, it can burn, that’s ok.

Your next whiff should bring out some of the true aromas and the burn should be much less present.

Now that you have an idea of what to expect, the third smell should bring out the true essence of the whisky.

Get yourself a whisky wheel to get an idea for aromas and flavors you should be looking for.

The main categories are-

Cereal, fruit, floral, peat, feint, sulfur, wood, wine. Of course there will be more said about the flavors and aromas of whisky down the road.

Finally I get a Taste!

After nosing your whisky, take a sip, swirl it around making sure you cover the whole palate. After you swallow it, take in a mouthful of air, the first taste could be similar to your first scent, full of ethanol and some burn. Cleanse the palate with water, repeat and write down what you get. I like to follow up a neat tasting with a couple drops of water added to the whisky, I literally use an eye dropper, see how that releases the flavor- you’ll be amazed at the difference. 

Here are the 4 types of taste to modify and amplify what you identified in the 8 basic whisky scents, at least for Single Malt Scotch.

Salty (briny, peaty), Sweet (Nectar), Sour (Sherry), Bitter (from aging)

I highly recommend that you create your own tasting notes and description before reading another’s, many of which tend to be overly creative and dramatic.

A excellent gift for the whisky lover in the family.

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