It occurred to me today that I don’t have a post in my archive describing the most basic of acts: how to taste scotch (or any whisky/whiskey). I’m sure the large majority of my readers have already heard or read this information – probably several times – but for all the other newbies (noobs!) who come across my site, here’s some scotch 101:
What is Scotch? – Scotch is any whisky made in the country of Scotland, which has been aged for at least three years in oak barrels. The SWA Definition, for more info. Single-malt scotch is scotch that has been distilled from only malted barley at a single distillery. When the “new-make” spirits exits the stills, it is clear and tastes something like vodka. It is the aging in oak barrels that gives whisky its distinctive color and the majority of its flavor. Blended scotch is a mixture which contains some quantity of malt whisky (often from several different distilleries) and some quantity of grain whisky, which is whisky distilled from cereal grains other than malted barley. The following applies to any type of whisky – or really, any type of quality alcohol that deserves to be ‘tasted’ instead of ‘shot’.
Step One: Pouring – Choose a glass that tapers at the top, like a wine glass, ‘tulip’ glass, or brandy snifter. These are among the best [Affiliate Link]. Pour at least 1 ounce (or one shot-glass full: about 1.5 ounces) of scotch into the glass. Swirl it gently, like a glass of wine, to release some volatile vapors and also to see how viscous it is.
Step Two: Nosing – Some say that most of the pleasure in tasting whisky is actually in the smelling of it. There are hundreds of thousands of volatile compounds present in whisky, and many of them can only be detected by our olfactory senses. Position your nose about one inch above the rim of the glass and tilt the glass slightly towards yourself. Carefully draw air into your nose – if you start to feel a “prickle” or “burn” in your nostrils, pull the glass back a little. If you don’t smell much, try sticking your nose further into the glass, or tilting the liquid closer. Concentrate on the smells and try to pick out individual aromas or ‘notes’. Spend at least a minute adjusting the position of the glass and your nose to draw out all of the aromas. Occasionally give the glass a swirl to release more of those volatile compounds.
Step Three: Tasting – For your first taste, just sip a small amount of whisky – only enough to cover the surface of your tongue. Now this is important: Hold the whisky in your mouth for at least 10 seconds! Count in your head if you need to. If you’re not used to straight spirits, this will definitely ‘burn’ on your tongue, and make your eyes water. Stick with it. After several seconds you should notice the burn abates, and you should begin to taste the sweetness of the whisky. Swirl it around your mouth, making sure to cover all of the surface of your tongue. Again, try pick out individual flavors. Now you can swallow it.
Step Four: Finish – If you held the whisky in your mouth for at least 10 seconds, you should notice that it goes down ‘smooth’ – without burning your throat. Even expensive single-malt will ‘burn’ your throat if you sip and swallow immediately. Open your mouth and breathe slowly out. Notice the flavors that remain on your tongue, gums, and the walls of your mouth. This is called the ‘finish’, and can last anywhere from a few seconds to several hours. Now breathe gently in, and notice that some of the volatile aromas can be ‘tasted’ on the finish.
Step Five: Variations – Now that you know how to smell and taste whisky, experiment! See this post on adding water to your whisky to open up new flavors. Also, try holding a slightly larger sip of whisky in your mouth, tilt your head back a little, and breathe (VERY) gently in through your mouth. This takes a little practice to avoid choking, but can illuminate more of the hard-to-identify flavors by aerating them. Try different glasses to see how the aroma varies. Above all, enjoy!