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Appreciating Whisky: a Guide to Nosing and Tasting Whisky

Appreciating Whisky

Prepare Yourself - Choose the glass and hold the water


The best glass is tulip shaped. The narrower top keeps the flavours and aromas of the whisky in the glass, tasting whiskyallowing you ample time to 'nose' and taste the whisky. The classic tumbler, sturdy though it feels in your hand actually does whisky a bit of a disservice. The wide gaping mouth of the glass let’s all the aromas and flavours escape before you get a chance to enjoy them. It also encourages the addition of ice which is the next enemy of whisky appreciation. If you imagine chilling a good bottle of sauvignon Blanc down to just above freezing point, then sampling it, you wouldn't be able to taste it. The same is true of whisky, chilling it or adding ice, closes up the flavour.

What can you tell by looking at it?

Firstly just study it. Note the colour, is it pale straw, deep amber or somewhere between the two? Colour, contrary to popular belief has nothing to do with the age of a whisky; it is all to do with the type of barrel it was stored in. Whisky is stored and aged in oak casks that have had a previous occupant. Hus whisky stored in a fresh Port Barrel will acquire a deep colour fairly quickly, whereas whisky stored in a Bourbon barrel or a cask that has already been filled twice before with whisky, will have a much paler colour.

Now give the glass a bit of a swirl and watch. You will see a swirl line around the glass from which, most times, little dribbles begin to head downwards. These are the legs and can give you an indication of the viscosity of the whisky.

'Nosing' your whisky

Next smell the aromas. 'Nose’ the whisky by moving the glass around under your nose, with your lips slightly parted, breathes normally. Note the fragrances; what do they remind you of? Citrus, grass, vanilla or even creosote are common fragrances.

Tasting whisky

Now it’s time to taste. Take a reasonable mouthful, but not huge, allow the whisky to roll gently backwards over your tongue, reaching all the different taste buds. What do you taste? Note these down too. Remember that while we may all taste some things in common it is not unusual for an individual to find very different thing to someone else. You may notice different flavours on the back palate to the initial contact with your tongue. After you’ve swallowed what flavours remain? Are there new ones? Does the taste disappear quickly or linger. A short ‘finish’ or a long? Whilst tasting, how does the whisky feel in your mouth, is it thin and spirity or is it oily or creamy? This is mouth feel.

When to add water

Finally, if you have a cask strength whisky, or one over about 50% abv, it is a good idea to experiment by adding literally just one or two drops of water. The water will quell some of the alcohol and release more flavours and aromas, so start the nosing and tasting stages again and note the differences.

Finally discuss with a friend, they may be able to ‘open your eyes’ to flavours or aromas that you didn’t notice were there until they mentioned them


Slainte Mhath!