How to Taste a Scotch Whisky Like A Pro
One might joke that the one way to taste whiskey is to merely pour a glass and drink it, but there is so much more to appreciating the various flavors that can be found, depending on the region its made in.
Single Malt vs. Blended Scotch
There are two broad categories for Scotch whiskies: “single malt,” which means that the bottle comes from a single batch made by a single distiller, and “blends,” which is derived from mixing and matching a variety of whiskies into a specified taste and style. While single malts get a lot of attention, blended varieties represent the majority of all whisky sales globally.
What Scotch Is Made From
Single-malt whisky is made primarily of three things: water, malted barley and yeast. Additionally, there are three things that influence them: whether the malt is peat-smoked, the shape of the stills used in the distillation, and the composition of the actual casks used for aging. Finally, the terroir (the particular climate, soil and terrain) plays a vital role in the final taste of the whisky.
Before we start, here are a few comments about the tasting glass that you should consider. Ideally you need a stemmed glass in order to avoid transferring heat from your hand to the contents of the glass and to provide some distance between the whisky and any odors from your skin. Also, the bowl of the tasting glass should not be too deep so that the heaviest of the compounds can rise to the top of the glass.
Taking the Mystery out of the Art of Tasting
Some people try to overly complicate the tasting process and make it too clinical, but we like to keep it simple to allow for a more enjoyable experience. You should approach whisky tasting just like when tasting wine, with all your senses.
The tasting process simply comes down to three things; what you see, what you smell and finally what you taste. Follow these simply steps and you’ll look like a pro:
1. Eye the color
The very first step is to look at the color. Simplistically, color can help give an indication of the age of the Scotch. Generally, when whisky is first introduced into the casks, it is clear and only develops a golden hue over time. The use of American oak produces a lighter golden hue whereas European oak produces a darker color.
Additionally, swirl the whisky in the glass and watch the sides of the glass as the whisky falls. If the “legs,” as they’re called, that remain on the side of the glass are long and thin or narrow then it suggests that it has a high alcohol content. If the legs are thicker and take longer to fall back to the surface, then it implies that the scotch is fuller bodied and flavorful.
2. Nose the whisky
Next, put your nose into the glass as far as you can and take in just the tiniest amount of air through your nose. This in part is to protect your eyes from watering from the alcohol fumes. On the nose you might pick up smells like a sweet dessert, or citrus notes, or even smoky notes. There are eight major smell categories: Floral, Fruity, Winey, Malty, Spicy, Woody, Smoky and Peaty. From these primary categories, you can dive deeper into common smells that can be applied to Scotch. When nosing the whisky, you’ll also find the heavier earthy, smoky and woody aromas near the bottom of the glass, whereas the fruity and floral aromas will be detected near the top of the glass.
3. Taste the whisky
Take a small sip and hold it in your mouth for a few seconds, just enough time for it to cover the taste buds on your tongue. It’s important to place the whisky at the front, centre and back of the tongue in order to realize the different effects. The primary tastes are sweet, salty, bitter and sour. If you find it too strong, take a breath of air in and slowly continue the process. Swallow, and then exhale deeply through the nose. And finally, taste it (from the sip you’ve taken). Describe the dominant first punch. Then the middle, after you’ve paused for a moment. And, then finally the “finish,” and the taste that you’re left with. Did it disappear quickly, or did it linger on? Some Scotches will have long length to their finish.
4. Now, add a few drops of water
Here is the crucial step in tasting whisky: Ironically, adding a few drops of water (preferably distilled water) to the whisky doesn’t water down its flavor, instead, it opens up the spirit and releases even more nuances. There are some flavors in whisky that are soluble in alcohol but not in water, so we start to see them coming out in the tasting.
Enjoy the process
It’s really important that you don’t approach whisky tasting as if you’re taking a test. There are really no right or wrong answers when you’re describing the flavor notes that you pick up. Besides, your preferences related to whisky is highly personal, so enjoy the exercise.