Whisky Tasting Masterclass 2: How To Taste Whisky

by Fraser Robson

‘The first thing to know when learning how to taste whisky is: there are no rules. Whisky’s meant to be fun. It’s about testing your own palate and senses, experimenting and enjoying. There are a few tips to help you but my best advice is: Never let anybody tell you how to drink whisky. On the rocks, with a mixer… just enjoy it whatever way you want to enjoy it.’

1. If It Contains Less Than 40% Alcohol, It’s NOT Scotch 
All Scotch whiskies are fairly strong as by law all single malt Scotch whiskies must contain at least 40% alcohol to be called ‘Scotch’. It’s the most tightly regulated and protected drinks in the world and anything with less alcohol content must be called a spirit. In addition, to be classified as a Scotch whisky, the liquid needs to have been matured and distilled in Scotland. This has earned it worldwide respect – something that we, as Scotsmen, are extremely proud of.

Fraser says ‘The effect of the strength is subject to individual differences and can depend on which other drinks you’re used to. If you aren’t used to drinking straight spirits, the alcohol intensity can seem harsh initially but don’t give up. Place another glass on the table with some water and a pipette so that, if you need to, you can dilute the Scotch with several drops of water. It works really well and, don’t worry, after the initial intensity hits you, it will subdue so you’ll still be able to taste, smell and enjoy the delicious flavours and aromas of the whiskies.'

2. Swirl The Glass 
Before sipping the whisky swirl the beautiful amber liquid. This will open up the flavours and reduce the numbing effect of the alcohol.

3. Try It Neat 
Sip the neat whisky first. If you haven’t tried it, you won’t be able to tell if it’s too strong, which mixer it will complement or if it’s perfect on its own. You wouldn’t add salt to your food without tasting it first so why should whisky be any different? Then, if you feel it is a bit strong, add some water droplets to taste.

Fraser says ‘The first sip of the whisky is always the strongest (unless you increase the alcohol content slightly). It only gets better after that as the more sips you take, the more your taste buds will adapt and the flavours will come through.’

4. Gently Smell The Whisky 
Before tasting the whisky, smell it. Are there any aromas that stand out? Spicy? Fruity? Honey? Earthy?

5. Taste 25ml Shots 
Tasting whisky is different to drinking whisky socially. You want to taste the different flavours, focus on identifying and indulging in the aromas and, importantly, you’ll be trying several types of whisky, all of different strengths. Usually you’ll sample 3-5 different varieties so that amounts to between 75-125ml. You want to be able to enjoy each of the whiskies, right up to the last one without getting inebriated or numbing your taste buds too much as otherwise you won’t receive the full enjoyment of the experience, which is why 25ml is the perfect measurement.

6. Try The Most Expensive Whisky First 
This is particularly good advice when tasting whisky as a common mistake people make is to taste the least expensive whisky first and save the best one until last. However, by doing that, after tasting 4-5 shots, their taste buds become slightly numb from the alcohol and they aren’t able to appreciate the best whisky as much. Tasting it first solves this problem.

7. Pour The Whisky 5-10mins Before You Drink It 
When you first pour whisky from the bottle, it releases many volatile vapours. Pouring it 5-10mins before you plan to drink it allows it time to settle down and you’ll be rewarded with a much better flavour, aromatic and sensual tasting experience.

Remember: There’s nothing wrong with taking your time with the whisky and savouring it so, just before you drink it, smell the whisky to see if it’s ready; then enjoy.

8. Store Your Whisky Away From Sunlight & Direct Heat
When whisky is first distilled, it’s a clear colourless liquid of approx. 70% alcohol. This is then reduced to approx. 63% and placed into the cask to mature. The alcohol content continues to reduce throughout the maturation process, which for a Scotch whisky lasts 3 years, if not longer. 

The evaporated whisky is called the ‘Angels’ Share’ but, don’t worry, it only continues to reduce whilst in the cask. Once in the bottle, as long as it’s stored correctly (i.e. away from sunlight and direct heat), that’s absolutely fine. It won’t go off or evaporate and you can keep it for many years before the flavour changes.

9. Pairing Whisky With Food
Whisky goes well with cheese at the end of a meal as cheese has the strength to balance and compliment the flavours. It also goes well with meat and fish selections, particularly strong meats such as wild boar or fish such as wild Scottish salmon; chocolate and smoked almonds.

Chocolate can be used as a palate cleanser between whiskies during tasting sessions. Eat the chocolate, then sip the whiskey. 

10. Experiment    
If you want to get into tasting whisky, the best advice is to taste as many varieties as possible, from many parts of the world. There are so many and each country has its own distilling processes, maturation processes and casks which influence the whisky, changing its colour, flavour, aroma etc. so it can be really exciting.

In a bar, it’s the perfect time to experiment as you don’t need to buy the whole bottle like you would in a shop. Most bars have a selection of at least 10-15 malts (we have over 400 varieties, ranging from the standard varieties to extremely rare ones) so try the one you’ve never had before. This will enable you to compare the whiskies, learn how to identify the aromas and flavours more acutely, and learn how to describe them to other people.

Want to learn more? Fraser recommends visiting some of the local Scottish distilleries where you can learn about the processes involved in making whisky. He says‘The more traditional distilleries are always the most interesting to see. They have some enormous, stunning copper pots in which the whisky is distilled which, for many people is a big draw, and they show you how the whisky is made from start to finish: ‘From Barley To Bottle.’ It’s very interesting.’

‘I recommend visiting:


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