To drink whisky like a gentleman/lady, the first challenge is to remain one once the liquor has passed your lips. This can be a challenge for some, but it is an invaluable skill if you are planning on embarking on a long-term relationship with whisky.
It is important that you have the correct tools for the job; this includes, but is not limited to, the correct glassware, some pure water, a comfortable seat and ample time to enjoy liquid art. There are only really two big no-no’s: ice and the wrong glass.
Ice was introduced to whisky culture in order to mask the harshness of blended whisky and has no place in malt whisky appreciation. This is because it hides around three-quarters of the nose (aroma) and ruins the structure of the whisky on the palate.
A good glass will help you properly nose the liquor and warm it if that is your preference. The best glassware for whisky appreciation is any “tulip” or “thistle” shaped vessel. The Glencairn glass is the finest example of a whisky glass, but as I said, any tulip-shaped vessel including larger cognac snifters or wine glasses will do. The reason for this is that the tulip shape concentrates the bouquet (smell) of the whisky at top of the glass, allowing you to enjoy it. Just like ice, the traditional whisky tumbler was invented for poor quality blended whisky because the open shape of the glass masks the aroma by letting it escape. So, armed with suitable stemware it is now time for whisky appreciation.
Water or no water – Adding water allows the whisky to “blossom”, in other words, it opens up loads more flavours. However, when adding water to a low ABV whisky you have to be careful not to break the whisky down too far, thereby diluting the flavours. I find that whiskies at lower ABV, i.e. below 45% are best left alone. Some cask strengths really come alive with a drop, but then again I have had some that tasted superb at 70%, but fell apart with a few drops of water. It comes down to personal preference, and if you drink enough whisky you will figure out what works for you.
Examining the liquid
It is useful to have a good look at the colour of the dram once you have poured it. American oak barrels tend to produce a lighter coloured whisky, while the fortifieds like port and sherry deliver a much darker liquid. A darker colour can also indicate an older whisky. However, please note that it is really only in a non-chill filtered whisky that you will see the true natural colour of the dram, because spirit caramel may have been added to chill filtered whisky to enhance the colour.
Swirling the liquid to coat the inside of the glass allows you to examine the nature of the “legs” (streaks) travelling down the inside of the glass will tell you about the alcohol content and the viscosity of the whisky. Thicker, more prominent legs indicate a higher alcohol percentage. Slow-moving, sticky legs indicate a more viscous, full-bodied whisky, while thinner, more mobile legs indicate a lighter spirit.
You can tell a hell of a lot about single malt from the way it smells. The smells come in various layers and you generally need about half an hour to get through all of the layers. Whisky tends to open up the longer it sits and it is also useful to warm the liquid, by cupping the glass in your hands. This allows the volatiles to escape while opening more aromas for you to enjoy, and over the course of a sitting, you will notice a surprising shift in the aroma.
Everyone has their own favourite way of nosing a whisky, below is my favourite method:
- Pour a dram and take a good deep sniff without swirling and try to identify some familiar notes, repeat this a few times.
- Give the glass a good swirl, take note of the “legs” and get your nose back in the glass. Note how the nose has changed. You can repeat this step using your hand to cover the glass, holding it there to trap the aromas.
- Cradle your glass in your hands to warm the liquid, this will open up the whisky once more and you will be treated to another layer.
Repeat these steps as you please in between tasting to appreciate the full breadth of aromas.
You should generally look for what experts call the “seven scent groups”, below are some examples.
Sweets – honey, vanilla, toffee, soft caramel
Cereals – malt, wheat, bread, biscuits, yeast
Oils – butter, cream, cod oil, hazelnuts, walnuts
Woods – oak, cedar, pine, birch, beech, sawdust
Esters – fruit, flowers, citrus, pear drops, sultanas
Phenols – iodine, peat, smoke, ammonia
Aldehydes – grass, leaves, hay, heather, mint
This is the really fun part and why we are here. In tasting we are looking for two things, tastes, obviously and mouthfeel. The human tongue only detects four flavours (while we smell around 20 basic aromas) and there are about 3000 taste buds on the tongue, so it is really important to swirl the liquid around and cover all of them. When tasting, try to relate the flavours to things that you have tasted in the past like honey or fruitcake. Pay attention to how many layers of flavour there are, does it go from sweet to smoky for example, and how quickly?
You should also look out for the mouthfeel, how the liquid feels in your mouth; is it dry, silky, harsh or oily? All of this information lets you assess the palate or taste of the whisky. Pay attention to what happens after you have swallowed and put down the glass, what flavours are lingering and how long for. This is called the finish and what we want is a nice long tasty finish.
Finally, take everything that you have experienced into account and consider how well balanced the whisky was, did the flavours meld, were some overpowering, how did the nose complement the taste, mouthfeel, how was the finish?
Try to keep a record of your experiences; this will become an invaluable reference as you continue on your whisky journey. It is wonderful to look back at how you rated a whisky when you return to it a few months later and note how your palate has developed when you pick new flavours!