Your 5-step pro guide to tasting whisky
From bright lively fruitiness to fathomless oaky earthiness, the flavours of Australian craft whisky span the gamut. But how do you know what you’re tasting? And how do you make the most of it? Here’s our easy 5-step guide to tasting whisky.
Many top whisky aficionados compare tasting whisky to tasting wine. And there’s a lot of truth to that.
The same elements from wine-tasting come into play when we’re looking at whisky, and there are even a few flavour profiles that are similar too.
But that doesn’t mean it’s a science.
Our sense of taste is unique to each of us, and what tastes good is about as subjective as it gets. It’s what you do while you’re tasting that can really flesh out your opinion of a whisky.
The first (and most important) question you should be asking yourself as you taste is ‘do I like this whisky?’ But the second question should always be: ‘why?’
So pour a little of your Australian craft whisky into your glass, then consider these five elements as you enjoy your dram.
Hold your whisky up to the light or against a sheet of paper. Darker colours often mean there’s been more interaction with the barrel, so there could be more oaky or toasty flavours.
Swirl the whisky a little and watch the ‘legs’ that run down the sides of the glass. The faster the legs run down the glass, the lighter it will feel in the mouth. The slower and wider they go, the thicker the mouthfeel will be.
Here’s a more complete explanation on whisky legs.
Waft your glass under your nose a few times until you can smell the whisky. Don’t push your nose all the way into the glass at first like you do with wine - neat whisky can have a potent alcohol vapour that’s not popular with most.
Does it smell sweet or musty? Can you find fruit aromas? Often there are dried fruit, red berry and stone fruit notes. Can you smell any smoke or oakiness?
Having your mouth slightly open as you smell can help magnify and clarify aromas. I also find closing my eyes helps for some reason!
Take your first small sip and run it around your mouth. There might be a bit of alcohol burn, and tingle on your lips and tongue at first. I promise you’ll grow to love it!
Think about whether the aromas marry up with the flavours you’re tasting.
Taste again. Run this sip around your mouth, rub it into your gums with your tongue and let it play across the sides and back of your mouth.
What other flavours you can detect?
On the third sip, pay attention to the structure and balance of the whisky, and the texture and finish.
As you taste that third sip, think about the texture and mouthfeel of the whisky. Is it light and melts on your tongue? Is it pinchy or spiky? Is it dense and oily? Does it coat your mouth?
As you swallow that third sip, how long does it take for the majority of those flavours to stay in your mouth? Do any new flavours emerge? Does the flavour evolve or does it cut short?
3 bonus tips to super-charge your whisky experience
Now you’ve tried it neat, drop a little water into your dram. Adding a drop or two of chilled water can do amazing things to a whisky. It ‘opens’ new flavours of the whisky and shows a totally different side to your dram.
In some cases it turns what you think is an average whisky into a splendid one.
It’s surprising the difference the shape of a glass can make to your whisky. The sides of the glass shepherd aromas into your nose to where the majority of your tastebuds are.
A cut crystal tumbler is satisfying to drink from, but it might not be doing the whisky justice.
For tasting purposes, the pros prefer the glencairn glass.
Just like wine, you can pair whisky with a multitude of food. After you’ve worked out the flavours in your glass, think about what food would go well with it.
Cheese, chocolate, steak and fish, roast veggies, sautéed mushrooms, even ice cream - they all have their whisky counterparts.
Remember, this is all about enhancing your whisky experience. There’s no right or wrong answer; one person’s criticism will be another’s compliment.