Everybody enjoys whiskey in his or her own way - and that's fine.
Well, with one major exception: people who put ice in their whisky.
This is, in my humble opinion, not only stupid - it's an awful waste.
Ice ruins the structure of a malt whisky on the palate, and you
will lose at least three quarters of the fantastic fragrances as well.
If you want to dilute a malt whisky, use distilled (or mineral) water.
Also, the choice of the right whisky glassware is crucial.
The ‘tumbler’ type of glass at the left is commonly described
as a ‘whisky glass’, but it’s actually the VERY WORST glass
to enjoy a good malt whisky from - especially the bouquet...
Instead, you’ll want to be using a ‘snifter’ like the one at
the right. That is actually a 66cl cognac snifter, which can
also be used as a fish bowl in emergencies. It’s perfect
for ‘sharing’ a bottle with friends that you don’t really like...
Fortunately, snifters come in many more ‘civilised’ sizes too.
Setting up a ‘glassware test’ to find your own favourite whisky
glass is worth it. Find out which glass works best and stick with it.
Not unlike some women, a glass of
whisky can look fantastic if the lighting
is just right. But one shouldn’t judge a
whisky (or a woman) by colour alone...
In most countries, adding caramel to
add colour & flavour to the whisky is
perfectly legal. (Exception: Germany.)
Assuming that you do actually do have some friends (and assuming that you
chose wisely so that they are fun to be around), it shouldn’t be too difficult to
convince a few to partake in a whisky tasting. This should also make the tasting
session more fun - with every single glass, more people are getting more drunk.
Once you feel ready for blind tastings (tasting a whiskey without knowing what it is),
you will need some blue tasting glasses and a whiskey collection (and at least one friend).
Collecting all of those will take some time, so I’ll get back to that in the Advanced Guide.
Some people argue that a ‘tumbler’ type of
glass is better for judging the colour of the
whiskey, but quite frankly I'd rather drink the
stuff than look at it. Besides, unless the label
specifically states the whisky is not coloured,
chances are that caramel has been added.
So, you may enjoy the beautiful spectrum of
colours (ranging from pale straw via golden to
dark amber), but it might be just a ‘disguise’.
Fortunately, more and more independent bottlers release (part of) their bottlings without
colouring and/or chill filtration. In those cases, the colour can actually tell you something
about the whiskey. Scotch single malts that were matured (mostly) in bourbon barrels are
usually pale and ‘yellowish’, while wine and sherry casks produce darker, ‘browner’ hues.
Generally speaking, whiskies also grow darker as they age - but less so in refill casks.
So, now you have a few bottles of whisky and some
decent glassware. If you also have access to a fresh
water supply, you now have all the ingredients and
equipment to have yourself a proper whisky tasting.
The next question is: will others be participating?
However, your own ‘whiskey education’ would probably be better served with
a few ‘solo sessions’ first. Later, you can play the wise and experienced host.
Some whisky glasses (like the Ardbeg
glass above) have a little glass lid to
prevent evaporation. However, as long
as you finish your glass within an hour,
you actually want as much oxidation as
possible to experience all aspects of
the whisky. For that, a lid isn’t useful.
One of the advantages of a solo tasting session is the fact that you can
take your own sweet time and reduce possible distractions to a minimum.
That way, you can give the whiskies the time they deserve. If the whisky
spent over a decade getting to you from the stills in Scotland, the least
you can do in return is spend at least half an hour with a glass of it.
Malt whisky changes as it breathes and whenever you add some water.
A vertical tasting compares different expressions (age, price point, type of cask, etc) from the
same brand, distillery, region or country to each other. For example: a session with the regular
12yo official bottling of Dalmore, an older independent bottling and the 1951 ‘Sirius’ OB from 2009.
Experienced tasters can appreciate how different ‘treatments’ shaped the spirit in different ways.
A horizontal tasting is probably better for (relative) beginners. Here, we compare (supposedly)
SIMILAR bottles that came from different origins. For example, you could set up a whisky tasting pitching
the 12 years old official bottlings from Aberlour, Balvenie, Cardhu, Macallan, Oban and Tormore against each other.
A head-to-head tasting (H2H) of two different whiskies is probably the best way to acquire an
appreciation for the very broad spectrum of fragrances and flavours the whisky world has to offer.
And all you need are two different bottles of whisky and two tasting glasses - preferably identical.
A hopalong H2H compares two expressions to each other, switching one of the bottlings with the
next one on the list for the next ‘flight’ - and next that one is matched against the next bottle, etc.
The tongue also plays a role at a whisky tasting, but it is secondary.
Via a back way, your nose actually generates most of the flavours that you ‘taste’.
Until recently, most people (who didn’t live in Japan) were aware of only four main
tastes: sweet, sour, salt and bitter. Now ‘umami’ has been added to the old quartet.
It has been described as a ‘savory’ or ‘meaty’ taste found in soy sauce and cheeses.
Different parts of your tongue register different taste sensations and
he average tongue has only 3000 papillae, each detecting one taste.
There are only 5 primary tastes, but more than twenty primary aromas.
And as anybody who has ever visited a fish market at the end of a hot
summer day can tell you, the human nose can distinguish much more
than those twenty basic aromas...
There are masterclasses as well - usually organised at at bars, at whisky festivals or even at the distillery itself.
I’ve found that the usefulness of these sessions depends greatly on the ‘master’ hosting the classes - and on the
sponsors backing the event or the location. My worst ‘masterclass’ experience was actually at the Famous Grouse
Experience in Scotland at the Glenturret distillery. However, I’m afraid that this is a tale for another time.
But, as you can see, it’s about time to move on to the practice with whisky tasting in the next chapter...
A visitor of MM pointed out
that taking small sips can
make whisky a tad “easier
to swallow” for beginners.
He wrote: “One of the reasons
people don't like whisky is due to the burn (high alcohol).
I have found that most people tend to sip too much from
the glass and swallow almost immediately. Beginners are
likely to be used to diluted spirits and/or lower alcohol
drinks (beer or wine). Therefore, I find it useful to remind
a beginner to take VERY small sips (literally a couple of
drops at a time) so that they can coat their tongue with
the liquid for a few seconds without getting a nasty burn.
By swallowing too quickly you loose most of the beauty
of single malt whisky”. Good point! Don’t forget it...
I’d like to stress once more that adding water in several stages is important.
Even if the whisky is at just 40% or 43% ABV, it can usually stand a few drops of water.
Many Scots dilute their malts back to 20% or less....
This will utterly destroy some malt whiskies, but
those are ‘acceptible losses’ if you look at all
the extra layers of depth and complexity that other
malt whiskies have to gain from adding a little water.
By the way, this is also a reason why buying big bottles
of whisky is preferable to miniatures or drinks at a bar.
After a few glasses from the whisky bottle you’ll know
what the optimal amount of water for that whisky is...
If you are a person, you probably have feelings.
I guess that’s often unavoidable, but
during a serious whisky tasting session,
having many feelings should be avoided.
A smell can trigger a memory or emotion,
but it works the other way around as well.
The olfactory bulb (bulbus olfactorius) is the part of the brain that deals with ‘olfaction’ - which is
a fancy word for our sense of smell. It is part of the ‘limbic system’ of your brain, which in turn has a
fast track to the amygdala - the part of your brain that’s supposed to properly processes emotions.
Add the hippocampus, associative learning, conditioned responses and alcohol to the cocktail, and
you can see how environmental smells or social distractions can distort your perceptions.
It’s virtually impossible to completely shut out your emotions, memories and the outside world.
This is one of the reasons that the very same whisky can taste slightly different
from when you tried it a few nights before. Perhaps the meal you enjoyed at
dinner was spicier this time, or perhaps somebody has been smoking in the
room shortly before. And obviously, if you are suffering or recovering from
the flu or a cold making serious tasting notes is out of the question as well.
As a result, a malt whisky can smell (and taste) different depending on the circumstances.
That’s also why buying a big bottle of whisky is better than ‘dwarf dramming’ with samples
or miniatures - it gives you the opportunity to sample that whisky under different conditions.
An overview of the Scotch whisky industry, divided by the ownership of distilleries.
A list of the major Scotch whisky bottlers - both independent and industry-owned.
There are far more malt whisky brands than there are malt whisky distilleries.
An overview of all active and recently closed whisky distilleries in Scotland.
The whisky regions of Scotland have lost much of their significance these days.
As the ugly red-haired step-sibling of malt whisky, grain whisky is rarely mentioned.