7 Secrets of Tasting Scotch Whisky Like a Pro

Those of you who visit us regularly must have strange expressions on your faces when you read this. Why on Earth did they put the “P” word in the title! Maybe because it googles great? Err… no. Or maybe to annoy people who only read the feeds’ headings? Nope. Because we are insane? Rather not. We simply did it because we love the sound of it. “I’m a pro!”, “he’s so pro”, “like a pro”, “pro, pro, pro”. Poetry! Do you not have a secret desire to be a pro whisky expert with an expertise of a pro? No?

Never mind. Just follow my 7 steps.

1. Think

Make sure you use your grey matter all the time. Be fully conscious of what you are doing. This is the single factor that differentiates tasting from drinking.

2. Choose the right whisky

Choices, choices...Make a good, educated choice when buying your Scotch. Do your homework and, for Christ’s sake, don’t judge whisky by the bottle. There are hundreds of websites offering tasting notes and reviews, surely you will find something that appeals to you. Whisky blogs (like this one) and forums are also extremely useful. Ignore what the whisky A-listers say. They are almost always politically correct and that is not what you want when your money is at stake. Their tasting notes are very accurate but their ratings are often ridiculous. If you don’t have time or confidence to choose, simply ask at your local specialist retailer. Don’t ask wine merchants though. Most of them can’t tell single malt whisky from ice tea.

And now the bad news. No matter what you choose, you may not like it. I know everyone says that and it’s boring but it’s true: whisky is a personal thing!

3. Choose place, time and company

Pros would tell you that whisky should be tasted in the morning, when your palate is fresh, preferably in a scent-free lab. Forget about this. Whisky tastes best after a long, tough day. To appreciate it fully you need friends around, music and ambience. Don’t forget about a comfy leather chair.

4. Get the glass right

Good old swirlThere are many different whisky glasses available. They range from horrid crystal tumblers to sophisticated snifters. It can be quite confusing sometimes but don’t worry. All you are looking for is a glass that is tulip or pear-shaped to keep aromatic vapour inside as well as possible. My favourite one is a large snifter from Spiegelau, made from really thin and smooth glass (you can see Chris using them on the pictures). They are expensive and hard to source but worth the hassle. If you don’t want to buy special glasses or you are in a bar that does not have them, have your whisky served in a wine or cognac glass. Most bars will be happy to do it for you and surely you have some at home.

Now this is going to sound petty, but make sure your glass is washed with detergent, thoroughly rinsed and dried. You don’t want Fairy soaping up your dram. Oh, and whatever you do, wherever you are, don’t use tumblers! They simply don’t do the job. Not to mention that they are outrageously passé.

5. Take your time and nose it

Nosing actionHaving worked in a whisky bar, I have seen enough fine drams being knocked back. That is pure evil. Take your time nosing your whisky. First give it a good old swirl and then stick your nose in the glass and just go for it, don’t be shy. First a few deep sniffs, then put it down for a while, then go back to it and put it back down again.

If your whisky is very pungent or sharp, inhale through your mouth with your nose in the glass, it will help you to get accustomed to the smell. Make conscious comparisons of different aromas carried by your whisky to things you know well, but don’t get carried away. It’s supposed to be fun and pleasure, not an exam. Whisky “experts” like to show off at this stage. If someone says to you ‘bananas’ and you totally don’t get that, don’t panic. If you like that person, politely disagree. If it’s one of the pros, just say ‘roasted fenugreek’. That should shut them up for a few minutes and give you time to focus on what’s in your glass.

Keep repeating the mantra, a few sniffs and put it down. Your whisky will start unfolding, it will reveal itself to you in a way you perhaps did not expect. Remember, whisky is like a shy but beautiful woman. It requires patience and persistence but it’s usually worth it.

Only when the pleasure becomes too great (and turns into torture) you move on to the next stage.

6. Taste it

Tasting at lastExactly that: taste it. Don’t swallow it straight away. Let it enter your mouth slowly and then coat your tongue and palate. Chew it a little. If you are brave enough you can air it like you do with wine. When it starts prickling too much, swallow. And now concentrate. The finish of your whisky is often more flavoursome than the palate itself. People like to speak of the duration of finish. Is it short, medium or long? This is a tough question. Dave Broom (a rare example of a laid back whisky writer) once attempted to establish how long is a “long finish”. He failed but in good style. My conclusion is that if it’s gone before you started thinking about it, then it’s short, and if it’s there the morning after, then it’s Ardbeg.

7. Don’t let them patronise you

Job well doneNever let people tell you what to think about your whisky. Every time you taste something, you are your own, personal Jim Murray (maybe except for the suitcases of money). From the sensory point of view, you know everything about what’s in your glass. Be confident, trust your nose and you’re flying. Your opinions are just as good as those found in super flashy-glossy books.

Good luck!

Sláinte,

Lucas

Comments

  1. Thanks for the tips, guys! This comes just at the right moment as I’m hosting a tasting session with 6 friends tonight!

  2. Great post, Lucas & very well-written. Sensible advice, and I’m very jealous of that smart-looking HdV bar – wish we had something like that in London :(

    Keep up the good work.

  3. Good work mate. i especially like the photos :)

  4. Thanks for the great tips! I think that at some point I might become a highly acknowledged student in the whisky subject… Was never an ‘expert’ in this field. But from now on… ‘roasted fenugreek’ rulez! …eee… i mean at points when feel a bit out of track of course!
    Cheers guys.

  5. Great Post, I failed at no 1 thou :-)

    Macdeffe

  6. My husband really loved whisky and I wanted to get him something whisky related for his birthday. In the article you recommended getting a glass that is really fine and thin for when you are drinking whisky. I’ll have to find a glass like this online, so that my husband can enjoy a nice glass on his birthday.

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