Taste Whisky Like a Pro (Part 1): The 4 Things to Look Out For when Drinking Whisky
Note: This is part of our series on how to Taste Whisky Like a Pro. To really look like an expert and impress your dates, please also read Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5.
There are many ways you might have drunk alcohol. You might have slurped a flaming Lamborghini and singed your eyebrows at 18. You might have inhaled 20 Jäger bombs at your university hall party. On your 21st birthday you might have downed enough vodka shots to kill a small village.
If, at the dignified age of 29, you repeat the same with neat single malt whisky, you could end up in a coma. It could also be a terrible waste of good Scotch!
Image Source: Michael Fassbender in Inglourious Basterds (2009)
There is no right way to drink alcohol. But good whisky deserves to be mindfully savoured. Their distilleries see themselves as artisans who put in extra effort to create a distinctive product, like Picassos of the alcohol world. They hope drinkers would give them a little more thought than unthinking teenage kids would.
To comfortably drink whisky, you need 4 things:
If you can’t make up your mind and would like recommendations, take a browse at the Bamboo Post
- Decent glassware
Have with you a short transparent glass cup so that you can smell and inspect the contents. There are also special tulip-shaped glasses made for swirling the stuff and then directing the whisky vapours towards your nose, but they are not necessary
- An unblocked sinus
Without your nose you could miss out on 90% of the subtle flavours in a whisky.
- Pen and paper to write tasting notes (Optional but always recommended)
Writing tasting notes while we are drinking help us chart our course through the subtle flavours and textures of a whisky. The exercise helps us articulate our tasting experiences and compare it with an expression you have tried before (assuming they are not available).
- the appearance or colour of the whisky
- the nose
- the palate
- the finish
1. Appearance or colour
The first thing to consider is the appearance and colour of your whisky.
Hold up the glass and observe the colour. Is this a lighter coloured whisky or a darker / reddish one?
While there are always exceptions, lighter whiskies tend to be more crisp and tend to be aged only in ex-bourbon casks. Darker ones tend to be aged in a mixture of both ex-bourbon casks and some sherry casks. Darker whiskies are also generally infused with more wood.
If you want to be fancy, swirl it a little and check out the “legs” of the whisky too.
Gold-coloured with a set of nice legs. (Image Source: VinePair Inc.)
Right after you swish the whisky in the glass, quickly observe closely the inner wall of the glass. The “legs” refers to streaks of whisky droplets trailing back down into the bowl which give us some indication of the spirit’s body. The thinner, more rapidly the legs run down the glass, the lighter-bodied the whisky would be. Thicker and slower legs would indicate a more viscous and heavy-bodied whisky.
2. On the nose
Here comes the most important part of assessing a whisky. Give the glass a swirl – a thin film of whisky clings to the inner wall of the glass and evaporates to release the aroma.
Don’t breathe in the fumes so quickly unless you want to singe your olfactory system with wasabi. Gently bring your nose above the rim of the glass and inhale slowly for 0.5 to 1 seconds, slowly pulling away before the alcohol sensation gets too overwhelming and prickly. Take a second to think what you are detecting. Then repeat- nosing and pulling away several times. Remember to write down your thoughts to articulate your experiences as you do this!
Search your mind. You might encounter distinctive scents that are not unfamiliar to you- where have you last encountered this scent? Scents are intricately linked to memories, and can trigger pleasant and nostalgic reminders from years ago: parents’ new car (fresh leather), old school library (wood, age, mustiness), Christmas with the family (fruit cake, wine, chocolates and dried fruits), army field camp (wet grass, earthiness, wood), an outdoor BBQ party (salt, smoke, meatiness), an ex-partner’s perfume, soap or laundry detergent (boo hoo hoo).
Spend some time meditating on the aromas and ideas you have access to. Then, consider discussing the same with a friend, or referring to a set of tasting notes. Tasting notes improve your experience by suggesting the vocabulary to concretise your tasting experiences so you could get your “Eureka” moment.
3. On the palate
At some point, you’re going to have to drink the whisky. But do not guzzle it like Gatorade after your Army Half Marathon.
To comfortably taste whisky neat, just take a small sip of it as you would a hot coffee. Then let the liquid sit on your tongue and flavours develop for a good 10 seconds or so. If you are comfortable with the alcohol level, take a deeper sip.
Much of the character of the whisky would already be revealed to your olfactory system. Indeed, scientists say that our taste buds usually confirm what our noses already sort of know.
Apart from confirming your nasal assessment, pay attention to these 3 main dimensions of flavours:
- Basic flavours of sweetness, smokiness, bitterness or saltinesqs (common amongst those made in coastal distilleries)
- Alcohol – how does the alcohol present itself? Is it soft and subtle? Smooth and well integrated? Does it warm your throat (and makes you taste “spiciness” or pepperiness)? Is it harsh and painful?
- Body and texture – how does the weight and viscosity of the whisky feel in your mouth? Is it light and crisp? Do the flavours somewhat cling on to your tongue (and feel “oily”)? Or is the whisky so full-bodied that takes over your entire palate and lingers?
Once again, remember to write down your thoughts! Refer to the aroma chart below if you are struggling to put your finger on a particular flavour. Professional whisky reviewers themselves occasionally refer to such guides.
Your palate will also tell you how the whisky is structured. Certain expressions have a straightforward structure with a consistent flavour throughout. More exotic expressions might have greater complexity (perhaps with some age- though age isn’t everything), with different layers of flavours that develop and evolve on your palate. There could be different tastes at the beginning, middle and end to the story.
Does the story have a satisfying conclusion?
After swallowing the sip of whisky, you are left with the fumes or the “finish” so to speak. Some flavours will linger on your palate for the last few seconds. Is the finish short or long? Smooth or dry? Do you sense any new flavours now that the louder parts have quietened down a bit? Once again, write down and describe your thoughts on the finish.
… so as I was just saying, you shouldn’t drink neat whisky like this. But Michael’s character was in the middle of a shoot-out you see.
Do I add water?
To get more out of your whisky, consider adding a small splash of room temperature water, and then repeat everything mentioned above.
Ultimately, it is a matter of personal taste whether you like to always have whisky with water. Some people like introducing water because it forces flavour compounds locked within the alcohol to be released into the air, which amplifies the aroma of the whisky and by extension the flavour profile. For more exotic expressions, water also unravels the complexity in its flavour and help you identify constituent elements more easily.
Do I add ice?
Just kidding. There is no wrong way to consume alcohol. That said, longstanding whisky distillers always craft their whiskies and balance their flavours with a view to you drinking them neat. Lowering down the temperature to close to 0°C confuses the carefully balanced flavours, so your tongue won’t pick up all these intricacies.
If you are going to spend some money on a nice single malt, but still want to have ice, we recommend pouring more whisky and putting in a single ice cube. This helps you enjoy a more refreshing dram without losing all the complexity.
(Image Source: Ron Swanson in Parks and Recreation)
Share your tasting notes and experiences!
So there you go – our little guide on drinking whisky like a pro.
No good whisky should be drunk in solitude. Gathering with friends to drink and compare notes is the best way to savour every drop of enjoyment from a good dram. Here at 88 Bamboo, we are always talking about the latest enjoyable dram we just had. You are sure to encounter good whiskies that you have to tell somebody about. Please share your latest favourite dram and your tasting notes with the 88 Bamboo community. We would love to hear from you.
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