Enjoyed in the company of good friends (or new ones) or sat in front of a blazing fire on a cold winter night, Scotch whisky is one of life’s little pleasures. Single malts are as much for appreciation as they are for drinking. Whether you’re a novice who has never tried a dram or a connoisseur of Scotland’s finest single malts, being able to unlock the secrets of whisky is a skill we all have. If you can’t get to an organised tasting, simply follow our ‘how to’ guide to become an expert.
Before you begin
The key to Scotch whisky tasting is to relate everything to your own personal experience, whether it is the colour, the aromas on the nose or the taste on your palate. Each characteristic will probably prompt a memory or recollection in your head; the colour of a door knob, the smell of fruit or flowers or the taste of Christmas cake.
Before you start, make sure you have a clean, tulip-shaped nosing glass and a jug of still water at room temperature to hand. Although it is more practical to drink from tumblers normally, a tulip glass traps the aromas in the bulbous bottom of the glass and is ideal for nosing.
Step one - look
Hold your glass up against a neutral background and first appreciate the colour. Scotch whisky takes on a light gold, amber or dark ochre colour depending on the wood finish of the cask it is stored in and the length of time it has been aged in it.
Darker coloured whisky usually indicates that it may have matured in an old Spanish sherry cask or that it is an old whisky. Lighter colours tend to tell you that your whisky was stored in old bourbon casks or that it is young single malt. When you start nosing, it will become clearer which is more likely for that particular whisky.
Step two - swirl
Next, take your glass and give it a good swirl so that the sides are well coated. Watch and admire the legs streak down the glass. If the legs run quickly, there are lots of them, and they are quite thin then it is probably a light-bodied whisky and/or a younger whisky.
If the legs take a long time to form and then run slowly down the side of the glass, or if there are very few of them and they appear to be quite thick, then the single malt may be a heavy bodied whisky and/or an older whisky.
Step three - nose
Now, the main event - sniffing. The first nose will be a sharp burst of alcohol vapours so be careful to note the strength of the whisky beforehand. Raise the glass to your nose and take short, sharp breaths. Don’t just do it the one time; do it multiple times, taking the glass away and bringing it back up to your nose. Open your mouth slightly as you breathe so as to circulate and accentuate the bouquet.
This is when you should start to try and identify what you smell. There are no right or wrong answers. Again, your senses play on the familiar or life experiences, so relate to what you know. Depending on the whisky, many people say they can smell things like Marmite, gravy granules, digestive biscuits, lit matches, porridge oats, sweets, seaweed and much more.
Step four - taste
Now, take a drink after adding a touch of water (but not too much). Make sure to breath in and out through your nose while rolling the whisky over your tongue and around your mouth. As do you so, try to pick out any flavours you can remember from sniffing. Even though your tongue is doing the tasting, your nose picks up flavours. Also, before you swallow, try to think about how the whisky feels in your mouth; is it silky smooth, dry, a little syrupy or does it feel tingly on the tongue?
Particularly if it’s a whisky you’ve never tried before, have a sip of it neat before trying it with water. The water is said to help release hidden flavours by giving the molecules and natural oils more room to move around the glass.