Tasting can be done on your own or preferably with a group of friends and whisky clubs are a great way to experience whiskies you might not know about at a reasonable cost. Usually, a flight of five or six whiskies will cost around £20 – £35 on an organised tasting. If the club wants to experience a “special bottle” joining with others might not avoid paying £50-60 for the dram, but at least you’ve tried it, and the experience is always enjoyable.
Tasting with a group of fellow whisky fans can be very educational, you will gain greater insights in to distilleries, learn how to interpret the nose, palate and finish and realise that there is considerable variation in how others experience a whisky. It is very rare for a unanimous vote on the best whisky of the night. Often the room will be split between two or three whiskies and those who are new to whisky will very rarely vote for the “peated” one. An almost certain bet is as their experience of whisky increases over the years, this lack of enthusiasm for peated whiskies will change.
Take your time and plan your tasting
One could write a whole book on tasting whisky, there are numerous factors and nuances that can affect how a whisky tastes. Your impression of a whisky can change on a daily basis, depending on what you’ve eaten or drunk for example. These differences can be subtle and make a whisky great or just okay on the day. This article is not about those complicating factors but how you should approach tasting a flight of whiskies, or simply extract the most amount of information from a new bottle, so you get the maximum enjoyment from them and can easily decide which is the best for you.
If you’re being pedantic, you should not eat or drink any strongly flavoured products for a few hours before. As I do not like drinking on an empty stomach, I try to eat the same foodstuff before every tasting and drink some water. The water helps cleanse the palate. I will often note down what I’ve eaten or drunk previously, if it is not my “usual” as it might help explain why when tasting a whisky, a couple of days apart, I may get a completely different impression. Although you also need to recognise that once a whisky bottle is opened it might change slightly over time.
Indeed, with older bottles, it is always worth letting them breathe before drinking. It can make the whisky “open up”. How you wish to approach a tasting is up to you but ensure you are consistent with your approach. Downing a whisky as a “shot” is not the same as savouring every sip. And if you are drinking a flight of whiskies, make sure you drink water between each whisky. Whilst this helps to cleanse your palate, it also stops you dehydrating from the diuresis caused by drinking alcohol. If you’re unsure what the term diuresis means google it.
Order your whiskies correctly before tasting
The first step in any tasting is deciding on which whiskies you want to try. The second is deciding on the order. In general, the order should be based on how strongly flavoured the whisky is with the strongest flavours last. This will be based on variables such as the cask or finish (e.g. bourbon – sherry – peated), strength of ABV and which regions the whiskies are from (e.g. lowland – highland – Islay), but this will not always be so. In say, an hour long tasting flight, it is pretty hard to stop the previous whisky influencing the next, so getting the order right to minimise this is important.
If you are in a bar, ask the server for a suggested order, if you are in a whisky shop ask the retailer for information. As your knowledge of whiskies increases you will find you will get better at getting the correct order yourself. The importance of getting the order right can easily be confirmed by trying the same flight in different order. You will spot the difference, probably decide on a different winner, although it will still likely be within your favourite drams of the night from previously.
Glassware can make all the difference
The type of glassware is also important, whiskies will taste slightly differently depending on the type of glass. Pick your favourite and stick to the same type throughout the tasting. This will help you compare whiskies more accurately. Either use a clean glass for each whisky or rinse and dry thoroughly between whiskies. Even the slightest drop of water or residue from the previous whisky can have a large impact on the nose, palate and finish of the next. If you think about it, this is partly how blending works and you can experience it at home by creating an infinity bottle – adding the last drops from a bottle of whisky to others and explore how the flavours vary.
If possible pour the whisky before the tasting so as to give it time to breathe and allow it to warm up. If the glass feels cold or the whisky is “cold”, warm it up by cupping it in your hands. You will be rewarded by waiting a couple of minutes before drinking. You can spend that time nosing the glass and spotting the changes in the aroma.
Make sure you have something to write any notes as you go along. It is highly unlikely that you can taste five cask strength whiskies and remember the differences at the end. It may even be that as you drink the whisky your thoughts change. It is worth recording your initial impression of a whisky and then writing any further notes when finished.