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Your How to Guide to Tasting Whisky (and Other Spirits)

If you want to do Whisky tasting (or, for that matter, Rum, Bourbon, Cognac or any other tipple) properly, Uncle Flaviar has some sound advice on how to best get started.

First off, let's take a look at what you’ll need to organize a Whisky tasting:
 
1. Tasting Selection of Whisky
The Flaviar Whiskey Tasting Box is your starting point, as it is designed for tasting Whisky with friends, but you might opt to taste some other spirits, too.

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.). 

2. Appropriate Glassware
At least one tasting glass per person should be made available. Ideally, each person should have a separate glass for each spirit to be tasted, as this makes it easy to compare them.
 
Generally speaking, if you're looking for a one-size fits all for any spirit, go for a stemmed spirits glass that is narrower at the top than at the bottom.

Which kind of glass is best for tasting Whisky?
Glencairn Whisky Glass - Image: FlaviarAs for tasting Whisky specifically, a simple glass with a wide brim ideal for nosing is the safest bet. 

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. 

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 flavour profile is influenced by the barrel it was aged in.
 
3. Water & Ice
Make sure to have plenty of water and glasses on hand to drink between tasting different drinks. Use it to refresh the palate during the tastings and also to add a few drops to stronger spirits (it's a good idea to have a small jug for this, too). This can take the edge off the alcohol as a primary sensation, allowing your nose and mouth to detect the finer characteristics more easily.

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. 

4. Snacks 
Snack on some crackers when tasting WhiskyServe some unflavoured, unsalted crackers to neutralize the strong effects of the alcohol.

You could also provide snacks to experiment a bit with food pairing to your spirits.
 
5. Friends
Tasting Whiskey is a simple social game and is best done in a small group. That way you can expand your knowledge and challenge your friends to see whose palate or tasting imagination is the most developed.

Let the Tasting Begin!
After you’ve decanted the Whisky for your friends and yourself, hold back on rushing straight to the glass clinking and exclamations of cheers! and bottoms up! Take a moment first to analyse the appearance and aroma of your drinks…
 
Appearance & Colour
Hold your glass in the light or against a white background and assess the colour of your Whisky. This won’t necessarily reveal its age, but it will indicate how the spirit was matured.

How would you describe the colour? Spirits can range from being competely clear through light, medium and even very dark mahogany tones. Sometimes it's a lot easier to compare colours of a few different spirits and discuss where they come from, than trying to describe a spirit's colour in absolute terms.

Here's some guidance on how colour typically relates to the spirit's ageing process:
- Herbs macerated in the spirit after its distillation are usually green or brown in colour.
- New/Bourbon casks: usually honey, golden lemony and pale in colour.
- Port, sherry casks: usually dark, black-red, amber and mahogany in colour.

The intensity of the colour indicates whether the cask is on its first, second or third filling.

What Whisky Colour Tells About the Spirit - Image: Flaviar

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.

Whisky Legs Running Down the Glass
 
Smell / Nose
Approach and nose the Whisky gently - very gently! - or you just might get burned. Some people like to nose spirits with one nostril first, and then with both.

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. 

Aromas in Whisky and Spirits - Image: Flaviar

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 Flavour Spirals of your drinks in the Flaviar App. They are a quick, clear and visually-appealing way to repesent a drink's flavour 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
The final step of spirit tasting is the one we all know how to do best (wink, wink), but here’s a little guidance on how to do it, if you want to properly analyse the taste and finish of a spirit, rather than just get a bit tiddly.
 
The process of distillation can bring out the widest varieties of flavours, such as:
- 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 ageing of the spirit will also bring out flavours 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. Savour the flavours 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.

As for tasting notes, we have to come to believe that they're a bit old school, don't you think? So we invented the Flavour Spiral. 

Flavour Spirals for Scotch Whisky, Whiskey, and Rum - Image: Flaviar

Install Flaviar App to see The Flavour Spiral in action for yourself. Each Flavour 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 Flavour Spiral reveals itself!
 
Finish
The finish refers to the length of time that the taste of a spirit lingers in your mouth (i.e. aftertaste) after you’ve swallowed it. It can be expressed as either short, medium or long, with the best spirits having a lingering and enjoyable finish, and poor quality spirits often delivering a few unpleasant surprises along the way.

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.

Spit or swallow?
We know that professional tasters always spit, but Flaviar’s motto is: We don’t spit, we swallow. We strongly encourage you to do the same.

Happy Tastings!
Just follow these general instructions on how to taste spirits, and soon you will be a real spirits expert enjoying Whisky / Rum / Bourbon / Gin / Tequila tasting parties with your friends.

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!

Tasting (Whisky) is believing! - Image: Flaviar

 

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