Whisky should not be swirled, nor taken as a shot. It can also be written as whisky, whiskey, or whisk(e)y—depending on whether it’s Scottish, Irish, American, or Japanese.
However, regardless of the lack of an “e,” added “e,” or “(e),” the fact of the matter is there’s a wide wide world of whisk(e)y out there. Boundless, really (in Scotland, alone, there are 11 million barrels of Scotch—that’s more than double the population of the entire country). This makes not only knowing which whisky to buy, but how best to enjoy it—particularly if you spend money on the single-malt stuff—rather nebulous.
To learn more about tasting whisky, selecting whisky, and even the glassware you should get, we talked to Ewan Morgan, brand ambassador and head of whisky outreach (and former master of whisky) for Diageo.
How to Taste Whisky
To taste whisky, first, grab a Glencairn glass. This type of glass features a bulb and a fluted upper portion, which serves to concentrate the whisky’s aroma up toward the nose. After pouring whiskey into the glass, tilt the glass slightly, so that the whisky’s depth is in the bulb. Then, rotate the glass three or four times before turning the glass upright to observe the liquid’s viscosity (a light source is particularly helpful for this). “If it’s fast, then you’ll get what we call alcohol flash or bloom because it’s typically a higher strength,” Ewan says. (Hinting that it’s about 80 proof.) You should also observe the color. A lighter, golden hue indicates the whisky comes from an American cast, while darker notes signal European influence.
Now, it’s time to smell. If the glass “is a clock face, you start your nose just above the 12 position,” Ewan says. “Then, keep your mouth open and then move down to the six.” Don’t shove your nose in the glass, though: this is how you go “nose blind,” making it challenging to discern smells. (If you do find yourself with nose blindness, Ewan recommends smelling the crook of your arm—as long as it’s cologne/perfume-free—which resets your senses.) Instead, you want your nose to go on a journey—what Ewan calls a “nasal amuse bouche” of what you’re going to taste. Whisky has lighter notes that get carried up by the alcohol vapor (what you’ll smell at the 12 o’clock position) and heavier notes that you’ll be able to detect as you move your nose downwards.
After viscosity, color, and smell, you’ll embark on retronasal olfaction. Or, more colloquially, actually tasting the whisky. To do this, take a small sip and hold the alcohol in the center of your tongue. Then, gently move your head from side to side. “I want you to wash the spirit on both sides of your cheeks because you’ve got receptors on both sides of your tongue,” Ewan says. Tilt your head forward and let the whisky flow in front of your teeth. Finally, slowly swallow, closing your mouth and breathing out of both nostrils for as long as possible. “This is the retronasal olfaction portion of it,” Ewan says. “We’re circulating air in the back and it’s going out of your nostrils and going over your olfactory bulb. And as it’s doing that it’s pulsing signals and your cerebral cortex is saying this reminds me of this, that…it should be evocative like wine.”
How to Cheat—and Know What a Spirit Is Made From
While this trick isn’t essential, it’s pretty dang fun. To know what a spirit is made from, pour a drop into your palm (truly!). Then rub your hands and “keep rubbing them until you feel the heat, which means the alcohol has burned off,” Ewan says. Then, cup your hands and inhale. You’ll smell the whisky’s grain (for example, malted barley).
Should You Dilute Whisky?
The short answer: yes—especially if it’s cask strength. Dilution can not only make whisky easier to drink but also alter the flavor of it. “Within whisky, 0.1% makes up 100% of the flavor, but within that .1% you have all these things, they’re called congeners,” Ewan explains. “Congeners are the impurities in the spirit that make whisky whisky.” They can taste like smoke, vanilla, caramel, and so on. “Some of these are free-floating, and they just sit there in the liquid and you can smell them and you can taste them. And then there are others that are trapped in bonds called ethanol micelles,” Ewan says. Once you add dilution and take the whisky below 47% alcohol, these bonds are released, allowing you to smell and taste more. To dilute whisky, you can use a pipette, teaspoon, or even just a bottlecap to add a little water. If you don’t have a steady hand, a pipette might make things easier.
Whisky to Try
As far as what makes a “good” and a “bad” whisky, the answer is less concrete. “If you like it, then it’s a good whisky,” Ewan says. “It’s as simple as that.” And price doesn’t always map with quality: “There are some very, very good value whiskies out there that I drink also and people within the whisky industry see as industry-standard liquids that are a very affordable price point and haven’t really moved,” Ewan explains. “They’re almost like the Costco hotdog, where they won’t budge on price.” (This includes one of Ewan’s favorites, Johnny Walker Black Label.) In essence, changing the price of these bottles could make them inaccessible for long-time drinkers.
However, if you’re looking for a range of single-malt scotch whisky—an entry-level tasting experience, if you will—Ewan has some suggestions. These five bottles are great ones to try, representing a solid gamut of flavors.
Ewan describes this as a “grassy light Speyside style with no smoke.” On the nose, it smells like orchard fruit (Granny Smith apple) towards the top and honey and toffee at the bottom.
A recreation of whisky that came out in 1992, this is a “quintessential Sherry bomb and Scotch nerds love to use that phrase,” Ewan says. It’s rich and slightly tannic. It has tasting notes of honey, apricot, and caramelized sugar. “It has almost a slightly savory, umami characteristic to it as well, especially underneath the tongue,” Ewan explains.
This maritime whisky (just a tiny bit of brine here) has a whisper of smoke to it. It has notes of ginger, biscuit, and cereal, as well as some wonderful citrus and oaky vanilla.
A new Distiller’s Edition comes out every year and is done batch by batch. “Basically what they do here is they take Talisker 10-year-old,” Ewan says, “and then re-cask it into these Amoroso casks” (a type of sherry cask) for about six months. This makes the color much deeper and transforms the spirit into something with a “sherry cloud,” softening the edges of the whisky. On the nose, it smells like sea air at the top and salted, candied nuts on the bottom (and “European fruit cake,” Ewan says). Tasting it, it has notes of dark chocolate, brine, pepper, and espresso. In fact, it makes for an excellent addition to hot chocolate.
“Probably one of the most iconic Islay single malts ever,” Ewan says. “It came out in 1988 and has been going strong ever since. I also describe Lagavulin as having a beach bonfire and throwing fruit cake on it.” Thus, you’ll smell floral, sweetness, smoke, and brine. On the palate, it may taste like soft smoke and black tea. “Everyone gets something different from it,” Ewan says. “And that for me is one of the most wonderful things about whisky—it’s a different experience for everyone.”
What else should you have on hand for tasting whisky?
Ewan recommends having good, still, spring water from a bottle to dilute your whisky and sparkling water to help cleanse your palate. (If you want to be really extra, Vichy Catalan is wonderful.) And, of course, have something in your stomach.
What’s the best glass for tasting whisky?
You can’t go wrong with a Glencairn glass (or three). There are other whisky-nosing glasses out there that are great, too, like the long-stemmed glass from Wonders of Whisky and wide-based Tom Dixon glasses.