How to Taste Whiskey Like a Pro

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Tasting tips that will have you licking your lips!

Of all the bars, in all the lands … you’re almost guaranteed to find a heated debate going on. Whiskey lovers the world over spend many hours weighing up the many (many) differences between drinking whiskey and tasting it. Drinking it - as our superb piece on the subject points out - is what you do at the pub. It’s the wee dram before dinner, the nightcap before you go to bed, the chaser after you pint. Tasting it the other hand is a completely different matter. Learning to taste whiskey is an important part of the experience; it’s how we distinguish what we like and how we can take our whiskey appreciation from zero to hero in a few mouthfuls.

As whiskey’s image changes over time, so have the tasting tips. We’ve waved goodbye to the days when whiskey was an old man’s drink and said hello to a hip spirit that sells more bottles than gin in the US. Today, whiskey appeals to a younger generation, and these guys and gals want to know everything they can about their favourite drink.

Regardless of whether you prefer single malt or blended, there is really only one way to taste (not drink) whiskey and that’s neat, at least for the first few sips. If you don’t want to be disgraced in taste next time you’re sipping your 16-year-old single malt, read on.

Get the right glass

Before we begin, let’s just say a few words about the importance of choosing the right glass. Glass shape is of great importance for tasting sessions, so please don’t just bung your whiskey into any old glass and expect great results. The right glass must have the right shape so that the aromas are captured. This smell is very, very important and will allow you to better savour the taste. Even if you don’t have a tasting glass (such as specially designed bowl-shaped, tapered, narrow rimmed tulip glass), a traditional rocks glass or whiskey tumbler is better than your common or garden wine glass. However, a traditional whiskey glass has a wide base that makes it ideal for ‘muddling’ cocktail ingredients, or adding ice, but is not the best choice for serious nosers. Getting it right will make a lot of difference, we promise! 

Look and learn

Stare into the glass with romance and desire and imagine the whiskey is the eyes of your beloved. Lose yourself in the dark pool of umber that promises a heady night ahead. Yes, my friends, in order to get the best out of your whiskey you first have to observe it, and preferably against a plain white background. The colour of your drink tells you a lot about it - darker whiskeys tend to be older (although the ageing cask can influence this, the colour is not an exact science when it comes to whiskey age), first fill whiskeys have more colour than those that have been matured refill casks, and clear whiskey, essential moonshine shows it hasn’t touched a barrel. So a good, long look at what you’re about to taste should get your taste buds pumping before you’ve even sampled a drop. 


Next up perhaps the most critical part of the tasting experience. Smelling the drink will give you a few more layers to the lovely aqua vitae in your glass. Begin by holding the glass a few centimetres from your nose. Note this is especially important if you’re a virgin whiskey taster - the alcohol fumes can sometimes be overwhelming. Whether you want to take small, frequent sniffs, or long, soft sniffs is up to you, but our golden rule is to just take your time. Imbibe in the flavours and aromas and let the smell fill up your olfactory system. And enjoy this - it’s lovely.  


Now it's time for tasting. First, take a small sip, letting it rest on your palette. Swallow slowly, then take another one. This second sip will taste different from the first as your palette will have been prepared. Focus on the flavours, noting any particular tastes that spring to mind. Spend a bit of time on this process - we like around 3-5 minutes - and look for hidden flavours as they appear sip after sip. Take down a few tasting notes for reference here: that way you can track your evolution from newbie to fully-fledged taster extraordinaire.  

Add water

To add or not to add, that is the question. Many dyed in the wool whiskey drinkers will shudder at the thought of adding aqua to their aqua vitae. But… we are talking about whiskey for the new generation. And we belong to the school of thought that believes that adding a few drops of water really opens up the spirit. Not only does it lower the alcohol percentage, but a splash of (temperate) water will allow secondary and tertiary flavours to shine through.

But really, whether you want to drink it neat, with ice, with a splash of water or even in a cocktail (mmmm, whiskey highball anyone?), the most important thing about tasting whiskey is how you like it. Happy tasting!

Are you ready to try a bit of at-home whiskey tasting?