Unlike wine, whisky does not have an accredited sommelier certification, although there are courses offered by WSET and The Whisky Ambassador company which covers all aspects of Scottish whisky. Most whisky experts, like Jim Murray (author of the comprehensive eponymous Whisky Bible), have learnt their knowledge through hours of tasting and distillery visits.
For whisky investors, whether you are at the start of your journey and looking to buy a cask of whisky or are in the market to sell your whisky cask, knowledge is essential. Distilleries will send you samples of your cask and being able to taste it properly means you’ll have a better understanding of where your money is invested.
So, what are the three steps you need to know to become an expert whisky taster?
It sounds simple, but this is the first step in tasting your whisky. Look at the colour of the spirit. Is it golden? amber? Generally, the darker the whisky is in colour the more mature it is and the richer the wood influence. It is important to remember that new-make spirit when it is first distilled is clear and colourless. The natural colour comes from the cask’s wood, the two most commonly used oak types produce different colours:
American white oak gives a reddish colour whereas European oak imparts a golden yellow colour. If a cask has been heavily charred on the inside, it will create a larger surface area for the whisk(e)y to penetrate and can contribute to increased levels of vanillin and spice.
The previous contents of a barrel can also affect the colour of the final whisky. Ex-sherry casks give a russet colour, ex-bourbon casks give the whisky a light golden hue and ex-port casks can sometimes give the spirit a slightly pink appearance. How many times the cask has been used will also impact on the final colour, a first fill cask has many more extractives to give as opposed to a barrel that has been used several times.
Lastly, it is legal to add artificial colour to whisky. Plain caramel E150a is used by some producers (usually blenders) to give a consistent colour to their final product, this is important for mass-producing brands who need every bottle to look the same. ‘Straight’ whisky like bourbon or rye is not allowed by law to add any colourant at all, whereas other American whiskies can have up to 2.5% caramel colouring added.
Swirl the whisky, bring your glass up to your nose and take a variety of long and short sniffs for 30 seconds to a minute, keep your mouth open as this stops the whisky aroma burning your nose and enables you to distinguish more aromas. Focus on the different scents you can identify. You might be able to discern fruity, sweet and grainy notes separately. Holding the glass at different points may help with this:
Referred to by experts as the ‘nose’ in whisky tasting notes, experts split the three distinct areas of tasting into nose, palate and finish. We’ll explore palate next.
The next step is to taste the whisky, start with small sips at first, move the spirit around your tongue before swallowing slowly.
The first taste lets you appraise the texture or the ‘mouthfeel’ of the whisky. It might be creamy, silky, velvety or full-bodied. You might feel it as a light coating on your palate. The second taste is where the initial flavours are determined, the tongue is able to pick up sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami. Additional flavours are picked up at the rear of the nasal passage.
Determining the finish of your whisky. This is the flavour that is left in your mouth once you have swallowed the drink. You might want to consider how long the flavours remain, this is known as the length of the finish. Dry oak, salt and vanilla are common finishes, but the possibilities are endless – it might be fruity, smoky or malty for example. You’ll come up with your own descriptors!
Do consider making notes about the drams you sip to help define your personal likes and dislikes. You might find that you consistently rate sherry cask matured whisky highly or that your preference is for peated whiskies.
Wherever you are in your whisky journey – beginner, investor or enthusiast we do hope this simple guide helps you to understand the whisky you are buying in more detail.