Every day we eat and drink many foods and beverages with the sole intention to merely satisfy our hunger or thirst. Rarely do we slow down to really appreciate and ‘taste’ what we are consuming, or to connect ourselves with the process that has been undertaken prior to our feasting.
When it comes to tasting whisky the process is similar to that of tasting a fine wine, we need to engage all of our senses in order to fully appreciate the craft that has gone into making the spirit. There are five main steps that we can follow to explore whisky in detail.
Taste first with your eyes, the color of the whisky can give us clue into the age of a whisky or the type of cask used during maturation. You will notice that Bourbon whiskey tends to be darker in color than Scotch, this is because Bourbon is matured in fresh charred casks so the spirit takes on a lot more color from the wood. Scotch is typically matured in re-used casks so the overall impact of color from the wood will be lighter.
Generally speaking the longer the whisky is left in the cask to mature the darker the whisky will be (as long as there has been no coloring added). Many Scotch distillers who produce on a larger scale may choose to add coloring to give the illusion of an older whisky or for consistency between batches. Most distillers who do not add coloring to whisky will usually state on the label that the whisky is of natural color.
*coloring is not permitted to be added in bourbon.
Many distilleries are now experimenting with different cask finishes and these finishes can also have an impact on the final color of the whisky. A whisky finished in a Port wine cask may take on a deep red tint, or a chardonnay cask may add a golden hue.
Swirl the glass and take a look at how the whisky moves around and sticks to the glass. Looking at the ‘body’ of the whisky will give us an idea of what to expect when we taste the whisky. The thicker the whisky tells us that the spirit may be more full bodied, and that there could be a more oily mouth feel to the dram.
Distillers can make certain choices of when to cut the distillation depending on whether they want a light bodied finish or a more full bodied whisky. A longer distillation process can result in a more full bodied whisky that has deeper aromas and complexity.
Ideally you want to nose and taste the whisky neat first before deciding whether to add water since the addition of water and ice can have a significant impact on the aromas and flavors in the whisky. When nosing the whisky it is best to take short sharp sniffs with your mouth open to stimulate the sensory receptors in the back of the throat.
Bourbon and Tennessee whiskies tend to have more intense caramel, vanilla and brown sugar aromas, whereas Scotch has more of an earthy/malty base to which accents of floral, fruity, salty and/or smokiness may be present. Ultimately the main differences between the smells of Scotch and Bourbon come from the mash bill, Bourbon must be at least 51% corn and Scotch single malt is 100% malted barley. The type of cask used will also have an impact on smell, for example a fresh oak cask will impart a more intense oak or woody smell to the whisky.
There are other choices the distiller can make during the fermentation process to increase those accent aromas in whisky. For example a longer fermentation process allows for a more pronounced fruity and floral finish to the spirit whereas a shorter fermentation may result in a more cereal based yeasty aroma.
Of all the whisky experts perhaps Richard Patterson aka’ The Nose’ is one of the most eccentric in his tasting method.
The average person has about 10,000 taste buds inside their mouth and throat, and there are four tongue zones which correspond to sweet, salty, bitter, and sour tastes.
When tasting the whisky it is important to hold the whisky in your mouth for as long as you can and swirl it around (yes like mouthwash!) in order to reach all of these different zones. Each taste bud contains microscopic hairs called microvilli which transmit the flavors back to the brain; they are then processed and matched with foods which have a similar taste profile. No two people will have the exact same taste experience as everyone processes things slightly differently.
Ultimately this final step brings everything together and refers to the lasting impression the whisky has made on your senses after you have swallowed. A long finish refers to a whisky that stays around a while, sometimes not for the better! Your brain will now process the overall ‘taste experience’ and log what you liked and the elements that you did not enjoy. So the next time you come to taste a new whisky your brain will already have a catalogue of flavors and aromas to be used for comparing and matching based on your likes and dislikes.
Dave Broom Author of ‘The World Atlas of Whisky’ has identified 5 main flavor camps that scotch whisky can fall into. This can make it easier for you to determine the certain styles of whisky you find more agreeable, or ones that you would prefer to avoid.
Fragrant & Floral
o Fresh cut flowers
o Cut grass
o Light & sweet with a fresh acidity
Malty & Dry
o Drier on the rose
Fruity & Spicy
o Ripe orchard fruits
o Custard aromas
o Spicy notes of cinnamon and nutmeg
Rich & Round
o More dried fruits – figs, raisins, dates
o Typically sherry casks
o Sweet & full bodied
o Good after dinner or dessert whiskies
Smoky & Peaty
o Smokey, toasty
o Burning heather