Every bottle of whisky comes with a list of tasting notes. The distillers promise notes of butterscotch, lemon, cinnamon, vanilla, and – brioche? “Yeah, right,” you think to yourself.
When you taste your first whisky, you’re likely to miss out on all of those notes. You can tell peated from unpeated, but not much else. Those tasting notes and aromas do exist, but you need to refine and concentrate your palate to get to them. It takes work – and a lot of different drams. But we know you have what it takes to become a real authority on uisce beatha or uisge-beatha (that’s whisky in Irish and Gaelic, respectively).
A whisky subscription box is a fantastic way to learn more about the world’s best malts and learn to enjoy all the surprises they offer. Here’s how you can use monthly whisky tastings to develop your whisky palate.
How to Taste Whisky to Develop Your Palate
Knocking ’em back may be the start of a wild night, but big gulps of whisky come with a sacrifice. You’re going to miss out on the whisky itself.
So, let’s start with the best way to taste a whisky for the first time. Here’s what you need to taste a whisky properly.
Find the Right Glass
Put your wine glass away. And don’t even think about a high ball glass. The first step to a successful tasting means using the right glassware.
The best way to drink whisky is from a Glencairn whisky glass. It has a bulbous body shape and a smaller rim. The form of the glass allows the aroma of the whisky to become concentrated, and it directs it through the narrow rim, which is perfect for smelling the whisky. And as you’ll see, smelling the whisky is a crucial part of tasting it.
We also recommend starting with a Glencairn because it will help you swirl the whisky without losing any.
If you want to get fancy, you can choose a tulip-shaped glass, which derives from a Spanish sherry tradition. But if you visit a distillery in Scotland, you’re going to get a Glencairn. And if it’s good enough for the best Scottish distilleries, it’s good enough for you!
In a pinch, you can use a tumlber, but you will lose some of the aromas. So, if you’re committing to developing your palate, invest in a Glencairn glass or three. Eventually, you want your sense of taste and smell to work together in unison, and it’s easier to start if you’re not fighting an uphill battle against your glassware.
Look at the Color
Are you ready to try your first dram? Not yet. Your next step is to examine the colours of your samples.
It may seem obvious to suggest that dark colours offer more in-depth, richer flavours and lighter whiskies are immature. But it’s also not true.
When whisky comes out of the still, it’s the colour of the spring water used to make it. The colour of the final product after maturation depends on a lot of factors:
- Barrel type
- Barrel use
- Artificial colours
If you’re drinking Scotch whisky or Irish whiskey, you’ll likely see a yellowish colour from the European oak casks. However, most European whiskey uses cases previously used to make sherry, brandy, port, or bourbon. You’ll even find a red wine cask. These also change the colour.
For example, a ported whisky, like the Tomintoul 15-Year-Old, is almost pink in some lights thanks to the port barrel.
Colours tend to wane when the casks are re-used. The first time a distiller uses a sherry barrel, the spirit reflects more of the colour. Once re-used, the wood becomes less active, so the mark it leaves is less apparent.
Some distillers use E150a to influence the colour of the whisky and even stabilise or create a signature colour. It’s often referred to as caramel colouring, but it doesn’t impart any flavours. Some purists say it does, but at the early stages of your whisky journey, you’re unlucky to have an opinion.
Those with more puritanical whisky opinions consider the use of E150a a violation of the nature of whisky, but Scotch Whisky Act does allow it, so it’s legally kosher in Scotland at least. You’ll spot the distillers who eschew colouring because they will explicitly say their whisky retains its natural colour. There’s no rule saying distillers need to mention their use of E150a on the label.
One of your best friends will be Charles Maclean’s Whiskypedia. It offers a standardised scale for describing colours based on intensity as well as virtually everything you ever wanted to know about this spirit.
Okay, so what does this all mean? Mostly, it mentally prepares you for the next step.
Smell the Whisky
Enough looking. It’s time to start experiencing the whisky. As we mentioned earlier, your goal is for your taste and smell to work together in glorious harmony to experience the full depth of the dram. To do that, you need to learn to smell the whisky properly.
Your first step – and the reason the right glass is vital – is to swill the whisky. Swilling the whisky means moving it around the glass to activate the aromas and send them up to the top of your tasting glass. Once you’ve done that, settle in because you’re going to spend a good wee while sniffing it.
Your initial sniff will point out the obvious. You’ll get the overwhelming spice notes and any peatiness right away. There are some whiskeys (i.e., Lagavulin) that will punch you in the face and become instantly recognisable. Other whiskeys are subtler, so you go in for your second sniff.
On the second sniff, you need to look for the less dramatic notes. These could be fruity, spicy, or grainy depending on your dram. Once you pick out the general category, go back for a third sniff and try to be more specific. If you have a fruity Speyside whisky, try to determine if you’re smelling citrus or stonefruit. Tipping the glass away and then getting your nose close up will help you pick out the sweet notes.
Here’s a tip picked up from a distiller. Don’t just smell with your nose. Why? Because your goal isn’t just to smell the whisky. You’re priming yourself for the tasting. So, smell with your mouth slightly open to take in the full aroma. Plus, when your mouth is ever so slightly open, it stops the rush of alcohol up your nose, which just smells like spirit.
Sip Your Sample
Alright! It’s time to get the show on the road and taste your whisky for the first time. After giving it a good sniff or five, you have a good idea of what to expect – or so you think. Your aromas and tasting notes won’t be the same, but they will complement each other.
So tip your head back and take your first sip.
Your first sip will expand what you already learned during the nosing phase. More than that, you started to get a chance to experience the structure of the whisky. Every dram is like a drama: it has a beginning, middle, and end. During each phase, you’ll experience something different. In the beginning, the mouthfeel could be hot, immediate, and dry. But it could also be soft, rolling, and dry. It might not even be dry at all.
Sit for a while and think about what’s happening in your mouth. What flavours do you get at the beginning? What’s left at the end?
When you’ve had a good think, swallow. The impact of the whisky on your mouth after it’s gone is called the finish. It might be short, medium, or long. You may even find new flavours now that you’re not deep in the throes of the dram.
Add Some Water
Now, it’s time to dispel one of whisky’s greatest myths: you can’t add water to fine whisky. Not only can you add water to any whisky, but those who refuse to do so are missing part of the dram’s story.
You don’t add water to whisky to stop the burning. Though it is a side effect. Water dampens the alcohol to help flavours shine through. In other words, you add water to open up the oils and release more information.
There’s a lot of science behind the importance of adding water. One computer simulation showed that water brings the flavour molecules to the surface of the whisky when they are otherwise evenly distributed. So, once you add a drop or two, give the whisky another smell and then a taste. How do they compare?
Why Trying Different Whisky Develops Your Palate
Everyone has their idea of a perfect dram. Maybe you love the sophisticated, peaty malts from Isaly. Perhaps you find your match in the grainy notes of an Irish whiskey. Your go-to bottle is as comforting as it is precious, but it will hinder your efforts to become a more experienced whisky drinker.
If you drink whiskies that all taste the same, then you’re in for an easy time. The idiosyncrasies of trying many types of whiskies challenge your palate. The challenge is where you grow.
Your first task: try two very different whiskies. Mix a Speyside like Aberlour with an island whisky like Lagavulin. Don’t be afraid to compare countries. Try a Dalwhinnie and a Bushmills, or a Red Breast and an Arran, or a Jack Daniels and a Jameson.
It’s much easier to begin to pick apart the tasting notes when you have two wildly different whiskies compared to trying a 12-year-old Glenfiddich and a 12-year-old Glenlivet.
Yes, drinking a lot (but not too much) whisky is the key to developing a palate that impresses your friends and allows you to enjoy every dram. But we’ve done that already, so we’ve got more tips for you.
Trust Your Instincts
When you get a new sample, you’ll get the tasting notes that go with it. Whether you choose to use them is up to you, but it’s a good idea in the beginning because they give you a sense of what to look for. However, don’t rely on the tasting notes forever. Your goal is to develop and learn to trust your own instincts.
Your experience of the whisky will diverge from the master distiller’s tasting notes. It’s part of enjoying whisky. But your knowledge of the whisky is never wrong – unless you drink it like a shot from a highball glass. That’s always wrong.
So instead of questioning every note, sit with them a while and give them your full attention. You’ll get more from it, feel more confident, and begin to trust your palate.
Taste with Friends
Whisky tasting is a social endeavour, so there’s no need to sit in silence. Invite some friends round to help you through your samples. After all, you don’t need a whole dram for each tasting.
We all have different sensory capacities, which means we experience taste differently. Some people can detect molecules others can’t, and that’s what makes whisky so exciting. Your friend may pick up on brioche, and you may not. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there.
If you have a core group of friends who appreciate the finer things, you can all sign up for a whisky subscription box and starting your journeys together.
Don’t forget to take notes and compare them! It’s a great way to see your progress over the years.
The master distiller at Glenfiddich, Islay or Middleton didn’t become a whisky expert in a day. They have literally lived and breathed whisky for years. So, be patient with yourself as you develop your palate. After all, it’s a life long endeavour.
Get Started on Your Palate with a Whisky Subscription
By now, your mouth is probably watering at the thought of enjoying a superior malt. So why not sign up for your whisky subscription? It’s a great way to ensure you try a wide range of whiskies without committing to a whole bottle on every order. Each tasting box contains four miniature bottles of whisky waiting for you to explore.
Click here to order your first whisky subscription tasting box.