Without shelling out money for a course, without visiting a distillery and even without buying a book on the subject, it is easy to learn how to taste whisky. All you need are a few special bottles of single malt whisky, appropriate glasses to drink the whisky from, a few willing friends and a pen and paper to make whisky tasting notes. Whisky tasting is nearly always great fun and if everyone shares the cost, it can even be relatively cheap.
Best Whisky to Buy
The best whisky for whisky tasting is Scottish (or Scotch) single malt whisky. It has a far more unique and diverse range of tastes than any other whisky from around the world. The leading whisky experts will tell you this, and if you want to learn about appreciating whisky, you may as well start with the best. Scottish whisky also has geographically protected status, so no other whisky can emulate it.
Different Flavours of Scotch Whisky
Scotch whisky is usually widely-sold enough to allow you to have an element of choice. Try to make sure you vary the whiskies as much as possible.
The most obvious factor to look out for is age. A spirit must have to have been matured in Scotland for three years before it can be termed whisky. The longer a whisky matures for, the more highly prized it becomes. As whiskies age, various tastes come into the whisky flavour such as the type of the cask it is stored in (sherry casks add a glorious flavour) and the environment (perhaps it was matured near the sea). Purchase a younger whisky (say ten years old but no less) and an older one (say eighteen years old) to taste the differences.
The other crucial factor that will determine the whiskies taste is where in Scotland it was produced. There are five main whisky regions of Scotland, of which three have defining taste types. The lowlands (the south of Scotland) produces light, aromatic and flowery whiskies. The region of Speyside in Aberdeenshire in northeast Scotland produces most of Scotland’s whisky. The whiskies here are generally considered the world’s finest, including Glenfiddich. The hints of flowers, heather and honey are often apparant. The Hebridean island of Islay produces incredibly peaty whiskies. The other two regions, the Highlands and the Islands excluding Islay produce whiskies full of the flavour of mountainous Scotland, with peat, snow and the taste of heather commonly detected. There are exceptions, but a good usually whisky exhibits all the best regional traits of where it is produced.
How to Drink Whisky
Once you have selected several different whiskies, it’s important to set the scene. The main thing to bear in mind is that you don’t want your senses impeded. Make sure no one present is wearing strong perfume, for example, or that there is a strong food smell coming from the kitchen. It’s also critical what kind of glass you use. Conventional whisky tumblers are a no-no: they’re the wrong shape. Something more akin to a wine glass is much better: the glass should ideally have a wide bottom that tapers to a thin top so the flavours of the whisky are separated as they arrive at your lips. Make sure the glass is clear so you can see what you are drinking. Most experts do add water to whisky. It should only be a matter of drops. Bottled, slightly cool Scottish mineral water is best used for the process: tap water is OK but can have chemicals in which ruin good whisky.
Before you drink, check the colour of the whisky, which can vary from a light red-brown through to dark brown. Write down words or phrases you think describe the colour: the cask used for the maturation (a bourbon cask for example) influences the whisky’s colour. Then tilt the glass slightly so that the whisky runs towards the lip of the glass. It’s at this point that the flavours will reach your nose (known as the bouquet). Sniff first above the glass at the rim, then deeper into the glass itself. Again, make notes on what you smell. Things to “sniff” out for include a flowery fragrance, the brininess that indicates a whisky distilled near the sea and the cereal aroma that comes from the barley used in production.
Tasting Single Malt Whisky
The tasting is of course the most fun part of the process and is worth waiting through the ritual for. Tasting also needs less guidance than other parts of the experience, as the language of taste is more diverse than the language of smell. Try to be as precise as possible when describing tastes. The information in the above subheadings will help you, but taste guidelines include;
The beauty of it is that there is of course no worng answer really. The experts may say one thing but your own taste language is what really matters. Be creative in your descriptions; say what memories are conjured up by the taste. Make sure you compare notes afterwards: there is nothing as satisfying as someone else coming up with an almost identical description. If several of you recognise the same taste, it’s a good sign that you are closing in on the geographical and maturational factors that actually defined the taste of the whisky you are drinking.
Whisky Tasting Map
A whisky tasting map has now even been produced by leading Scotch whisky tasters: however, this is one thing that isn’t available for free! Whiskypedia by Charles Maclean is one book that contains the map.