Whisky FAQ & facts
How to taste, describe and compare scotch whiskies. Answers to commonly asked questions about whisky. The information is derived from various sources on the Internet
The Nose
Whisky tasting is done principally with the nose – a far more acute organ than the tongue, although the two interrelate as the sample is swallowed.
While there are only four primary tastes, there are 32 primary smells. These are aromatic volatiles, which are detected by a small fleshy bulb called the Olfactory Epithelium, located at the back of our noses and having a direct link to the brain.
The Tongue
As well as registering the primary tastes, the tongue also detects what is termed ‘mouthfeel’ – the viscosity, texture and smoothness of the fluid we are swallowing – and ‘pungency’ (which is essentially an evaluation of pain – from irritation to unbearable – and is also picked up by the nose). In whisky tasting, pungency is particularly apparent in very strong spirit, which may sting your nose and tongue and induce numbness (temporary anaesthesia). So you have to be careful when nosing whisky at full strength – i.e. as it comes from the cask.
Is a combination of three factors: smell, taste and feeling.
Our noses detect scents – nuances of flavour from volatile aromatics – and pass this information direct to our brains. Our sense of the smells that surround us are recorded unconsciously, yet smells probably trigger memories more effectively than sounds or sights: they are the most evocative of experiences. With a little practice you can soon learn to break smells down and identify their constituent parts. Putting names to them is more difficult, and will be explored later in this section.
Primary tastes are registered by little sensory receptors on our tongues and palates. These are broadly arranged so that sweet flavours are picked up on the tip of the tongue, sour and salt flavours by the sides and middle and bitter flavours at the back. The time it takes to stimulate the different areas of the tongue varies, with the bitter receptors taking the longest, so it is important when tasting to hold the liquid in the mouth and to make sure it coats the tongue thoroughly
Does glassware make a difference? The short answer is yes. The long answer is more complicated, and to some extent subjective. There is some agreement that proper nosing requires a glass with rounded bowl as opposed to a straight-sided rocks glass or shot glass. However, whether the glass should be lightly rounded (as in a tulip glass) or highly rounded (as in a brandy snifter) is less clear. Whisky Magazine Issue 24 had a limited comparison of glassware, focusing mostly on “designer” glassware, but ignoring the ubiquitous brandy snifter or balloon, as well as the straight-sided rocks glasses.
Do you add water when nosing / tasting – what about when “just drinking”? The first time a non-spirits drinker approaches whisky, they are likely to be hit by the alcoholic strength of even a 40% ABV whisky. Depending on the whisky, the strength may not be as obvious on nosing, other than as a tingling sensation – but it will likely dominate the palate (and may even be painful). That said, I feel that diluting whisky for drinking lessens the experience in a hedonistic sense; however, if you have even a slight analytical bent or interest, exploring the impact of dilution is very rewarding. Some aspects of the nose (and palate) will not be discernible unless you dilute with water.
How do you describe what you smell, taste, “feel”? How you describe it is up to you. Everyone has different references for similar sensations. With practice, most people with a reasonably functional nose can reliably identify similar sensations with sufficient practice. Note also that environment and context make a big difference as well – even in the simplest case, a single glass of whisky, tasted blind in a colored glass – most people will come up with quite different descriptors for the same whisky if they did the tasting after having eaten different food (or are tasting with food), are in an environment with different background smells (smoke, perfume, cooking), had it after different whiskies (e.g., after Longrow vs. after Auchentoshan). Putting all those variables aside, and assuming assiduous practice such that one can reliably identify adequate descriptors (or malt markers, as Craig says – good term) – there is still the problem of trying to convey that information to other people. One approach is to try and use common, standardized descriptors such as is used in academia or industry, with standard chemical referents for each characteristic. Another is to hit the tasting note books and compare your impressions with that of the “professional” tasters, to try and find common descriptive ground. Finally – there is the approach of tasting often, and tasting in groups of like-minded folks, from different backgrounds. All of these work, and which provides the most enjoyment is up to the individual.
See the page on Classification of Single Malt Whiskies for one approach to developing a consistent approach to description of single malts. See also this 1995 article by Charles MacLean on The Flavour Terminology of Scotch Whisky. See also the tasting wheel and associated notes and pages at Scotchwhisky.com.
Does whisky change in a sealed bottle? If the bottle is truly sealed (which might mean wrapping the top in cellophane paper, or tape, to protect against loose corks / seals) and stored properly (out of direct sunlight, and not subjected to frequent, vast temperature changes) – then not noticeably, for reasonable durations (years, perhaps decades; dunno about millennia). Whisky is much more forgiving than wine to extra time in the bottle, and is also less bothered by storage temperature or location.
Does an opened bottle change? Yes. Sometimes for the better, sometimes not. Rule of thumb – when the bottle gets down to the last 3-4 fingers, drink it soon!