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Tasting whisky: a guide by The Glenlivet

Get more out of your malt. Here’s how to nose and taste like a pro.

In the 200 years since we started distilling whisky, we’ve tasted a dram or three. We’ve created this guide to demystify the tasting process and help you get the most of the flavours and scents just waiting to be released in the dram that started it all.

THE LOOK

First things first – take a look at your dram. You can tell a lot about the whisky in your glass from the way it looks because the colour of single malt whisky is heavily influenced by how it’s been matured. For example, our Nàdurra First Fill Selection expression is matured in first-fill American oak casks and is light in colour, with bright, lemony shades. At the other end of the spectrum, The Nàdurra Oloroso is matured in ex-sherry oak and has a rich, amber shade.

To judge the colour of the whisky, simply hold your glass up to a neutral background and look closely. By consulting the colour chart below, you should be able to match your whisky to one of the shades on here.

THE NOSE

Once you’ve taken a good look at your whisky, it’s time to smell it. Nosing a whisky isn’t just for show – it’s vital to the tasting experience. We’re told by our experts that almost 80% of our taste sensation comes from our sense of smell, with the human nose being able to recognise up to 35,000 smells and detect aromas diluted to one part in a million.

So to get the best out of those delicate instruments, you should always nose a whisky more than once. Your first inhalation will usually be a rush of alcohol, while your second will start to reveal the different characteristics of the whisky. As the bouquet opens, you’ll experience a full journey of aromas: fruity, floral, spicy, woody, creamy, sweet… Adding a little water to the dram can actually aid this process.

Choose a tulip-shaped glass for nosing single malts. It both traps the aromas and releases them through the small area at the top.

THE PALATE

Take a mouthful of whisky, hold it for a moment and then swallow it as slowly as you can. First, you’ll notice how it feels in your mouth – this is the “mouthfeel”. You’ll detect the liquid’s viscosity, pungency and smoothness. At this stage, whisky is often described using terms such as clean, crisp, rich, creamy or silky.

Pungency is apparent in very strong spirits that may sting your nose and tongue. Once you’ve tasted the whisky, you’ll discover new aromas in addition to the ones you identified when nosing.

At this point you’ll also detect the numerous flavours of the whisky. They may be generally categorised as nutty, sweet, spicy, fruity, or smoky, but more specific flavours will come through too, such as honey, toffee apples, oranges, cinnamon, hazelnuts and raisins. For guidance, see the tasting notes for each of our expressions.

THE FINISH

At the distillery, we like to talk about the “finish” of a whisky. This is simply the length of time the flavour lingers in your mouth once you’ve swallowed the whisky. In older whiskies, this can last for a long time – hours, even.

Depending on the expression, the finish might be described as warm, clean, sharp or dry. New flavours might also come through at this stage, perhaps vanilla, liquorice, chocolate or ginger.

THE WATER

Adding water to a dram can help to release scents, but everyone will respond differently to different amounts of water. There is a scientific reason for this: extra water reduces the solubility of some long-chain compounds, such as esters. Some drinkers may only require only a few drops, while others will need a healthy splash.

The effect of adding water is similar to when you walk in the countryside after a rain shower: it smells fragrant and you can smell the blossoms. Water mixes with the whisky and there’s a slight exothermic reaction. This reduces the alcohol strength, so rather than having the alcohol burning your nose, you get the fruity, floral flavours.