Learning to taste whiskey properly will help you appreciate its complexity and nuances.



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THALIA DEMAKES is a freelance writer.



March 2006
Updated September 2009

Product Reviews / Main Nibbles / Cocktails & Spirits

Whiskey 101

Page 7: Conducting The Tasting

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Conducting the Tasting

  • Select Glasses: Enthusiasts will tell you that whiskey can only be enjoyed properly when served in the right vessel. Though any tall, clear glass is acceptable (a wine or brandy glass will do), the nosing glass is ideal for tasting whiskey. This style has a tulip shape so that the aromas cannot easily escape, and is said to highlight the color of the spirit as well.
  • Serve A Sample: Select the whiskey you would like to taste, and pour a measure (roughly .5 to 1 ounce) into one of the nosing glasses. Serve the sample at room temperature, as this will allow the liquor to expend the maximum aroma and flavor.
  • Observe The Color: Hold the glass up to the light and note the hue of the liquid inside. The color of the whiskey is determined by the age and type of cask it has been matured in. It varies from a pale straw color to a deep mahogany all the way to a heavy treacle in older whiskeys. While there is an official scale of color-descriptors, beginners will find it easiest to describe the samples in their own terms. Eventually, as tasting knowledge develops, you will become familiar with the “correct” terms.
  • Do The “Swirl”: In order to release some of the aroma, swirl the whiskey around in the glass. Not only will this prepare the whiskey for your nose, but it will also provide much insight about the sample. The height of the swirl, often referred to as the “legs,” is indicative of the potency of the whiskey. Aficionados often illustrate how they can tell a stronger whiskey from the swirl because it has “longer legs.”
  • Go In For A Whiff: After you have swirled the whiskey in the glass, put your nose to the rim and take a sniff. Do not be tempted to inhale too deeply, or you may risk becoming temporarily “odor blind.” Not only would it be uncomfortable, but it would also interrupt the flow. To avoid this, the best way to go about nosing the whiskey is by taking short sniffs. You will notice that the cardinal characteristic aromas of the particular whiskey will be present. See what aromas you can detect, and encourage the others around you to do so as well. Note whatever comes to mind in your tasting notes, regardless of how odd the thought may sound. You may only be able to get a hint of a few of the aromas, as some are more “closed” or subdued, and require the addition of water to bring them out. Write down what you can so you can compare to the diluted sample.
  • Do The Dilute: While it is said that water should be added in equal proportion to the whiskey, we would tend to err on the side of caution. Experts suggest only diluting a teaspoon at a time to avoid potentially ruining the flavor; some older whiskeys lose everything if diluted too much. After all, you can keep adding, but you cannot go back and subtract. As mentioned earlier, diluting whiskey allows for more aromas to be detected. At this point, you should make a note of how the original aromas have changed since your first whiff, and which new ones have been released with the addition of water. While it can be challenging at first, putting the aromas into words can be quite fun once you allow yourself to let go of your inhibitions. Notice the immediate and enthusiastic response from your friends when you hit the mark.
  • Take A Taste: Tasting the whiskey should be the last step of the “tasting” process. Some say you should first try each variety “neat,” or in its pure form prior to diluting with water. They say that this enables tasters to describe the body, texture and mouthfeel of each sample accurately. Use your best judgment in determining whether or not you want to dilute during the nosing stage, or take a taste prior to adding any water. If you follow the advice of only adding a little water at a time, you really cannot go wrong either way. Take a large sip of the whiskey, and let it fill your mouth and roll over your tongue, which will allow each of the receptors to assess the sample. Jot down your first impressions right away. You should be able to tell whether the primary taste is sweet, salty, dry, bitter or a fusion a few or all of them. Can you detect any other flavors? Is there continuity between the aromas you detected earlier and the flavor components you taste now? Note any descriptions that come to mind, no matter how outrageous. Now put the glass off to the side, and take a moment to ponder the finish and the flavors that linger in your mouth since you have swallowed the sample. Do you find that it has a pleasant aftertaste? Does this aftertaste linger a long time, or does it disappear relatively quickly? Note your findings for the post-tasting discussion.
  • Discussion Time: Perhaps the most enjoyable part of tasting whiskey is sharing descriptions and opinions once the tasting has commenced. It can be great fun to compare notes and see what aromas and flavors others detected in the samples. Pull out the snacks, light the fire, and let everyone talk about their findings. 

Be sure to print out a copy of our Whiskey Glossary for all attendees.


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