Whiskey Tasting – How To Conduct A Beginner’s Tasting

A No-Nonsense Guide

By Nik Whittaker

Glencairn glasses and Gelnfiddich Tasting set
The set we used for the tasting

Have you ever thought you’d like to be able to do a Whiskey Tasting? Or wanted to be able to notice the differences between Whiskeys more? Or thought about exploring new areas of Whiskey you haven’t tried before, but not sure where to start? Or simply thought all whiskey tastes the same! Well, read on. Hopefully, you’ll find some information that will help you discover more about whiskey and your own taste buds than you knew before! 

A whiskey tasting can be a great way to delve deeper into the amber liquid, but it can also be a bit daunting. Whilst I have some knowledge of whiskies, and of beverage tastings (from my work in the coffee industry), I have never done my own whiskey tasting, and also have never explored ‘scotch’ whiskey as much as I have Bourbon. So, I thought I would conduct a tasting of Scotch Whiskey, and go through how I do it. Using real notes of what I found on the way. I hope this will show you that anyone can do a tasting, and will pick up more than you may have thought.

You will need:

  • A Tasting Glass. Ideally, a Glencairn Glass as the tapered top helps to funnel the smells, or aromas, of the drink. Any tapered glass can work as well. (Check the current prices of a Glencairn Glass HERE
  • Some Whiskey, not really a shock, but this is vital for the tasting! I recommend at least 2 if not 3 different Whiskeys, as this will allow you to compare them. For my tasting, we used a Glenfiddich gift set (This One). I think these are great as they are reasonably priced and allow you to compare a range that are usually complementary yet different. 
  • Some water. This may seem strange if you’ve never heard of it before, but adding a drop (and we are talking a small amount here) of water to a whiskey can help open up flavours that you wouldn’t notice before. More on this later, but for now just have a small water jug with you, trust me. 
  • Notebook, or something to take notes on as you go. This isn’t compulsory, but it can help if you plan on looking back on the tasting in the future (and the make a note of new favourites!) I used the notes app on my phone. 

How To Drink It:

Now let’s get to the good stuff, drinking the Whiskey!

So, here’s how I do it. Pour the whiskey into the glass. I measured out 25ml into each glass (one for me and one for my girlfriend Kate) and gave it a swirl around the glass and take a look at the liquid first. 

1) Look:

Glencairn Glasses with whiskey in them
The Amber Liquid

Yep, it’s a dark amber colour. There are slight variations in the colour depending on what kind of barrel the whiskey was aged in, among other things, but that’s not what I’m looking at. The swirling helps just get some energy into the liquid (think how when you shake something the smell of it is moved about and becomes a little more intense) but also you’ll notice little streaks on the glass as it runs back down.

This is what is called the ‘legs’ of an alcoholic drink. If you’ve ever heard people tell you that ‘this wine has legs’ or similar and wondered what they were talking about, I’m here to explain. The streaks of liquid are due to the alcohol content of the liquid itself. There’s a lot of scientific explanation about it, but all you need to understand is the faster the streaks run back into the glass, the more water there is in the whiskey, and the slower they run, the higher the alcohol percentage.

This is good knowledge to have, especially if you are doing a blind tasting. For today the Glenfiddich are all 40% so they will all have about the same ‘legs’.

Glencairn glass showing the 'legs' of alcohol
Look closely to see the ‘legs’

For the Glenfiddich, the legs were obvious but not super long, which is about right for a 40%. They were all about the same for all 3 of the variations.

2) Smell:

Next up, smell the whiskey.  Here we are taking a good smell of the aroma of the whiskey. But before you stick your nose in and breathe deeply there are a few things you should remember. This is alcohol we are about to smell, it has chemicals that will actually numb your senses. So if you take a deep sniff you will find your nose numbed and it will be hard to smell anything. Instead, I usually take a small, one nostril sniff first. This is where the Glencairn glasses are great as they help funnel the smells up to your nose, rather than the air around them.

Once you’ve taken one sniff, don’t try and come up with ideas of what it smells like yet. Just let the smells form. Then take a second smell, this time your nose will have adjusted and be able to pick out scents. Don’t overthink, especially if this is one of the first times you’ve tried a tasting. Chances are the first thing that will come to mind will be ‘it smells like whiskey’. This isn’t wrong as that’s what it is! But see if you can get any other smells and make a note of what they are, even if they are vaguer (like ‘sweet’ or ‘spicy’).

This is why we look at doing comparison tastings. When you move onto the second taster, you will smell differences and this is where you will start to notice the smells even more! Trust me! 

The Glenfiddich all had variations of the same theme, but broke down as follows;

Glenfiddich 12 Year -Sweet, Pears, Apples and Caramel notes

Glenfiddich 15 Year Solera Cask – Apples and Caramels

Glenfiddich 18 Year – Fruits, Raisins, Sherry and Honey

As a mainly Bourbon drinker, the notes were familiar but more fruity and less sweet than those of Bourbon. However, there were a few similarities, mainly in the caramel notes that were clear in all of the scotches.

3) Taste:

Finally! The part you’ve been waiting for, taking an actual sip of the Whiskey! Now, as with the smells, the alcohol is going to slightly numb the tongue. I advise having a small sip and letting it swirl around your mouth. Chances are you’ll feel the alcohol burn tingle around your mouth. This is fine, once you’ve done that, take a second sip. The key things to look out for here are;

Weight:

This is the ‘body’ or ‘mouthfeel’ of the Whiskey. The best way to think about this is to compare the liquid to other drinks; does the liquid have a thickness to it like a straight cordial or runny honey? Or thinness like water? Finding the level of this can help understand the drink. 

Acidity:

This is something that I learnt from my coffee tastings. The tingle that you get on the side of your tongue is what indicates the citrus or acidity of a drink. The higher the tingle, the higher the acidity. Think how your tongue fizzes when you have something lemony and compare the feeling to this. 

Flavours:

As with the aroma, it’s ok to just pick out sensations and overall notes you feel you can pick out. In whiskey, there are common notes (caramel, oak, vanilla) but don’t aim to find these. Your mind will almost create them as it’s what it thinks there should be. Instead, just try to identify the notes you can taste. Make a note of anything you can pick up, no matter how silly it sounds. I’ve heard drinks be compared to everything from ‘a tennis ball can’ to ‘the dew on a spring morning’ so trust me there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer. Just what you pick up. At the end of the day, you are tasting for yourself and looking to see what you can find. 

Glenfiddich 12 Year – Not harsh, smooth with a burnt oak/smokiness running through.

Glenfiddich 15 Year Solera Cask – Heavier mouthfeel, more smokey and sweeter than the 12 years. Apple flavours are more dominant too. 

Glenfiddich 18 Year – More Peppery and Caramelly

4) The Aftertaste

Now, once you’ve enjoyed the taste of the whiskey in the mouth, swallow the sip. Make sure you still pay attention and feel for the ‘aftertaste’. This is where you look for the lingering flavours that stay once the drink has been left your mouth. Often these are more subtle and can be more difficult to pick up on, so don’t worry if you don’t notice them straight away.

5) Adding Water

Adding a drop (and I mean a small drop) of water can go a long way to ‘opening up’ the flavours of a whiskey, as it helps to dilute the alcohol content of the drink and raise the profile of some of the more hidden flavours. I usually add a drop once I’ve done, and taken note of, the above points, then redo them again. By doing this you will see if there are any other notes and flavours you pick up. 

Glenfiddich 12 Year – The water increased the sharpness and acidity in the drink

Glenfiddich 15 Year Solera Cask – Sweetened the profile and the earth notes 

Glenfiddich 18 Year – Increased sweetness

Adding water gave all the scotches a sweeter taste as the alcohol content was lowered, this was interesting, but we preferred them pre-water overall.

Extra Notes:

Make sure you’ve made notes on each part of the whiskey tasting, keeping track of what you thought and tasted. Not only for comparing now but also for the future. The more tastings you do, and the more you identify the flavours, the more you’ll develop your ability to pick out more nuanced notes. Like anything the more you do it, the better you will become at it, also you’ll have a nice list of what you like and don’t like to make sure you find new favourites as you go! 

Return to Step 1!

Now that you’ve done this with your first whiskey tasting, it’s time to reset and start on the next. It’s best to have some water and take a moment before moving straight onto the next to help ‘reset’ your palate and be ready for the next drink. Then repeat the steps again, this time you will notice many differences. I remember doing a comparative coffee tasting for people who said that ‘it all just tastes like coffee’ but when I got them to try two different ones they were amazed at how different they tasted.

At the end of the day, doing a whiskey tasting is a fantastic way to learn about the flavour differences in drinks, comparing them to variations and developing your palate to pick up new and interesting flavours. But remember, it’s about learning what you like and how you taste things, we are all unique and it’s a personal preference and opinion, so enjoy what you like, appreciate other people’s opinions, and explore new things whenever possible. 

I admit I was surprised at how much I enjoyed all of the Glenfiddich. My memories of scotch are few and far between, and usually from nights of multiple drinks from my younger years. Here I found I appreciated the flavours and the smokiness. They got more fruity as we went through the years, with the 12 years coming in as the favourite for both of us.

Inventory Round-Up:

  • Glencairn Glass – See the ones I used HERE
  • Tasting Set –  Like these
  • Water
  • Note-Taking Ability

To see my other posts on Coffee and Whiskey Click HERE

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