First off, let's take a look at what you’ll need to organize a Whisky tasting:
Taste them in flights of 3, and up to a maximum of 6 samples. If you wish to compare spirits, it's best to choose them from the same family, i.e. taste Whisky only (or Vodka, Tequila, Rum, Bourbon, etc.).
There is some preference towards tulip shaped glasses that concentrate the aroma towards your nose and work really nice for swirling.
Do yourself a solid & check out this visual guide to best Whisky glasses from Scotch Addict. You can also buy Holy Spirit Limited Edition Glencairn Flaviar glasses and coasters.
If you're coming up short on glasses, however, any decent wine glass will do. The most inappropriate glass to use for Whisky tasting is the tumbler, which doesn't allow you to properly savour or smell the liquor.
The shape and quality of the glass make some difference, but at the end of the day, the real business has already happened in the barrel, so don't make too big of a deal about the glass. It's well known that a majority of Whiskey's flavor profile is influenced by the barrel it was aged in.
If your aim is really tasting the spirit, use ice sparingly, as it numbs the palate and inhibits the aromas. However, it can be helpful in chilling your Whisky (more tips on Whisky serving temperature) or simply tasting how drinking Whisky neat vs. on ice changes it.
You could also provide snacks to experiment a bit with food pairing to your spirits.
How would you describe the color? Spirits can range from being competely clear through light, medium and even very dark mahogany tones. Sometimes it's a lot easier to compare colors of a few different spirits and discuss where they come from, than trying to describe a spirit's color in absolute terms.
Here's some guidance on how color typically relates to the spirit's aging process:
- Herbs macerated in the spirit after its distillation are usually green or brown in color.
- New/Bourbon casks: usually honey, golden lemony and pale in color.
- Port, Sherry casks: usually dark, black-red, amber and mahogany in color.
The intensity of the color indicates whether the cask is on its first, second or third filling.
It’s then time to give your wrist a solid workout and swirl the spirit (careful! don’t spill!) around the glass, carefully checking the legs and tears that form inside.
If they’re thick and run slowly, it’s probably a heavier style of spirit, and possibly older. If they're thin and run fast, it has to be a lighter and/or younger spirit. A nice pair of long legs usually indicates that a spirit is high in alcohol content.
Whatever your technique, take your nose away from the top of the glass after each sniff. Trust the messages coming from your brain, believe the first thing that you smell, then repeat and the other layers will slowly reveal themselves.
What you’re trying to do with this is identify any familiar smells. Can you name them? How strong are the aromas?
The primary aromas are the raw materials, while the secondary aromas are from processing - herbal, floral, citrus, spice... Finally, the tertiary aromas are from the ageing - wood, vanilla, chocolate, caramel, coffee, sherry, soy.
If you find it difficult to describe them, glance over the tasting notes that come inside Flaviar Tasting Box, or, if you prefer something more visual (cough... less old-school...cough) look up the Flavor Spirals of your drinks in the Flaviar App. They are a quick, clear and visually-appealing way to repesent a drink's flavor DNA.
Be aware that after a while, you will become acclimatised to the bouquet and it can be harder to detect newer characteristics. So give your nose a little break; get some fresh air and then you’ll be ready to go again.
Taste / Palate
- Metallic: copper, iron.
- Herbal: lemon, tea, artichoke, spearmint, mint.
- Fruity: banana, olive, almond, cherry, pear, apple, grapefruit, lime.
- Spices: aniseed, pepper, clover, cinnamon.
- Floral: rose, orange, blossom.
The aging of the spirit will also bring out flavors depending on the wood used: vanilla, tobacco, chocolate, caramel, coffee, sherry, soy…
So, to get started on your Whiskey tasting odyssey, just take a small sip and let your taste buds be immersed - roll the spirit over your tongue and around its sides, then all throughout your mouth. Savor the flavors and start identifyng them. What are they? Are they weak or strong? Clean or musty? Herbal? Woody? Floral? Chemical? Fruity? Spicy, perhaps?
At the same time, take note of the mouth-feel, which refers to both the texture and intensity of the spirit. It describes its weight or thickness and can vary from a very light, thin, dry, or fresh sensation, all the way through to creamy and warm and up to a very thick, heavy, rich and full sensation.
Install Flaviar App to see The Flavor Spiral in action for yourself. Each Flavor Spiral is a digest of opinions from across the fine Spirits community, combined in a single image. All it takes is a tap on the screen in the Flaviar mobile app and presto, The Flavor Spiral reveals itself!
To fully understand and analyse each spirit, you will want to repeat the whole process a few times. With each sip you’ll be able to identify new smells and tastes that you might have missed out on the first time around.
After some practice, you might want to upgrade your spirits tasting routine. Over time you’re guaranteed to improve your ability to describe the different aromas and tastes, as well as distinguishing between the subtle nuances of different spirits.
Just remember: Tasting is Believing!