Whiskey is a drink steeped in history and tradition. Many people want to know more, and they especially want to learn how to taste whiskey. Generally speaking, whiskey tasting is similar to wine tasting, for those familiar with the latter.
It doesn’t have to be done at a prestigious distillery. It can be done in your own home, in the comfort of friends. Let our seven step guide take you through the different stages of tasting. We'll give you some useful vocabulary and information to turn you into a whiskey tasting expert…
Step one: The whiskey glass
The first step to tasting whiskey is the glass. There are several types of whiskey glasses to choose from and some are better than others for tasting.
Copita or tulip glass: The Copita glass is a type of Spanish sherry glass. It has a wide base, a stem and narrow sides to the top, ideal for ‘nosing’. The stem allows the taster to keep the whiskey from warming in their hand. The tulip shape of the glass allows the alcohol vapour to dissipate, without overwhelming the more subtle aromas of the whiskey.
Nosing is the action of smelling the whiskey to discover its aromas, characteristics and ‘personality’.
Glencairn whiskey glass: This glass is also well adapted for nosing. The Glencairn is specifically designed for swirling, observing and drinking whiskey. Like the Copita, the shape of the glass allows the taster to appreciate the delicate smell and flavours of the drink in hand.
Snifter glass: Snifters are the most common way to serve a whiskey straight. The bowl-like shape of the glass means it does not tend to filter out the alcohol vapour in the same way as the Glencairn or Copita. This means it’s harder for the taster to discern the more ethereal notes and aromas, resulting in a somewhat flatter tasting session.
Tumbler and Highball: These glasses are not designed for tasting. A tumbler or highball are best for when you simply want a good whiskey on the rocks, whiskey soda or a whiskey-based cocktail.
See what the most popular whiskey sales are here.
Step two: Let the whiskey breathe
Just like with wine tasting, you need to let your whiskey breathe outside of the bottle. Pour the whiskey into your glass of choice and let it rest. There's no need to fill the glass, tasting only requires roughly 15ml of spirit to be poured. By letting the whiskey breathe you will unlock certain aromas, unreachable straight from the bottle.
Once we've left it to breathe for several minutes, we're ready to continue...
Step three: Observing the whiskey
You can tell a lot about a whiskey just from its appearance. Hold up the whiskey to some light and examine its colour. Is it a vintage oak? Tawny? Pale honey?
The shade of colour can tell you about its production and concentration. A darker whiskey is usually more concentrated in flavour. A lighter colour could be a sign of a young whiskey. Its colour can even be affected by the type of grain. Malted barley produces a deep amber colour in whiskies.
Now let's look at its legs.
Step four: Whiskey legs
Contrary to popular belief, whiskey legs aren’t what you get after an evening of drinking whiskey. Whiskey legs are the transparent remnants of alcohol that coat the sides of the glass and ‘walk down’ after swirling your drink.
The whiskey legs tell the quality and age of your whiskey. By observing how quickly they run down, you can determine the viscosity of the whiskey. This may only take a few seconds, but you will know whether you have a good or bad whiskey and its age. If the whiskey has ‘quick legs’ then it’s lighter and younger. ‘Slow legs’ means it’s heavier and much more mature.
Whiskey and people aren’t so different after all.
Step five: Nosing the whiskey
According to Nature Magazine, the human nose has 400 different scent receptors that can identify over a trillion different scents. This is perfect for whiskey tasting. With this much smelling power, you’re ready to taste different aromas and new flavours.
When you nose the whiskey, it should be done in stages.
The first nose is probably going to be very alcoholic, which will hide many of the subtle notes the whiskey is holding. Don’t inhale for too long here because you’ll be smelling the alcohol for a while after, otherwise.
The second, third and forth noses will now give you more of an idea of the characters. Let your mind go blank before nosing. Allow your nose to take over your senses. Smell is a very nostalgic sense, so let the whiskey tap into your memory. What does it remind you of?
Whiskey can have so many notes to discover. Does the whiskey remind you of the salty air of a seaside walk, a damp walk through an oak forest or a family member’s old smoking pipe? Always nose repeatedly. Your nose, like your tongue, works in stages of flavours. The flavours you pick up initially may change after the fourth nose.
Don't know which whiskey to buy? Read our guide on whisky prices to find your whiskey for tasting.
Step six: Add a splash of water
Despite what the whiskey purists say, adding a few drops of water to your whiskey can improve the experience. Add a little still water into your glass to dilute the alcohol and bring out its incredible flavours. It’s a good way to get a real handle on your drink and understand it better.
We wouldn’t recommend adding ice for whiskey tasting, however. The ice dilutes the whiskey too much and chills the nose. Chilling your nose dampens your sense of smell, not ideal for nosing.
Let's move onto the last step now.
Step seven: Tasting and savouring
Step seven is the final step and the fun bit. It’s time to sip, savour and swallow the whiskey. Try to identify the different aromas in the whiskey.
On the first taste, take a small sip. Let it sit on the tongue and allow your palate to take it in. Swirl it around the mouth. Keep taking sips of the whiskey, so your palate wakes up and starts to process the flavours. Think about the tastes you are experiencing each time.
Different types of whiskies have so many notes to discover. Does your whiskey have bite? Is it a sweet tasting single malt Scotch whisky? Does the Irish whiskey have notes of seaweed? Is the whiskey smooth or salty? Light or heavy?
Try to think independently and find the hidden flavours. Use our whiskey tasting terms below to help you with this stage.
Want to know if you're tasting WHISKY or WHISKEY? Don't worry! Find out how to spell it correctly with our 'what is whiskey' post, as well as many more whiskey facts.
Whiskey terms glossary
When tasting notes, it’s easy to sound like a whiskey tasting expert. We’ve developed this helpful whiskey terms glossary when tasting. You’ll also find short descriptions for each term, so you can exactly pinpoint the flavour.
Remember that you can be poetic. Tell people what the drink reminds you of and how it makes you feel. If you want a good excuse to taste whisky and be poet, consider Scotland’s Burns Night. Our whisky expert guide on drinking whisky explains all about this celebration for you.
Here are some terms to use when tasting.
Balanced -The flavours have been blended well and the taste isn't particularly overwhelmed by one flavour.
Youthful - Light, bright interesting flavours, but hard to define and distinguish. Can be light gold in colour.
Mature - Smooth, well blended, distinctive notes and flavour tones.
Light - Easy to drink, refreshing, and open to other flavours.
Sweet - You can smell vanilla or even a bit of malt. Can be easier to swallow. Swirl the whiskey around your mouth to pick up every note of sweetness.
Smoky – Somewhat present in a peated whisky. These notes taste of a bonfire and oak trees. Slightly earthy. When making whisky, the oak casks help develop this special flavour during maturation.
Fiery - It has a bite or a kick in the mouth. Perhaps a stronger taste of alcohol than you would prefer.
Bready - Perhaps the whiskey has an element of wheat. It reminds you of French baguettes and freshly baked bread.
Dry - Less fruity with very little sweetness. You might ask for a glass of water afterwards to wet your mouth.
Fruity - Sweet, fresh and light. You feel refreshed after tasting it. It’s up to you to discover the kind of fruit that is coming through. Apples? Citrus? Cherry?
Citrus - Can you taste notes of orange or lemon? Usually paired with a light whiskey.
Peaty - You can taste smoke and earth, reminding you of the Highlands. A peated whisky also has these notes.
Seaweed - A taste of the ocean. Takes you back to times of rockpooling. This is probably a whisky from the islands or an Irish whiskey.
Salty - Some whiskies have a salty or brine-like quality. These whiskies are normally produced near the coastlines. It’s a very subtle flavour.
Malty - A malty flavour is most commonly found in Scotch whiskies. Malt whiskies take you back to where the whisky journey begins – the barley harvesting season. Malted barley offers hoppy notes, almost like beer. Check out our page on 'what is Scotch' here for more facts.
Vanilla - Almost sweet in flavour. Creamy and lights can be expected in its aroma too.
Now you can impress your friends and family with your expert knowledge of whiskey tasting!
Take it a step further and learn how to marry these incredible flavours together with other drinks in one of our EBS Bartender Courses. Alternatively, if you're an avid whisky lover, why not check out our hands-on Scotch whisky expedition experience.
Eat whilst whiskey tasting! Find out what food goes with whiskey here.