During the interaction between ourselves and whisky, the impression we form involves a synthesis of information from at least four different senses: Smell, taste, touch (or mouth-feel) and sight.
However, by dividing the activity of whisky tasting and focusing on its component parts, it is easy to forget that sensations from these parts must at some stage become unified then 're-presented', and it is the brain which provides us with the final, unified tasting experience. Therefore, perception, persuasion, education and past experience also contribute to our overall impression of whisky. This doesn't mean that tasting is a completely subjective enterprise. On the contrary, one of the joys of whisky is our sharing of experience through a common culture of appreciation that enables a degree of calibration of perceptual representations to occur. In particular, we develop a language for sensory terms. With a little practice one can soon learn to break flavours down and identify constituent parts. Some of the most common and easily identifiable whisky aromas and flavours are outlined below, along side a more comprehensive list in the form of a Whisky Flavour Wheel, as developed by the Scotch Whisky Research Institute.
Smoky: peaty, phenolic, medicinal.
Fruity: apples, pears, bananas.
Floral: heather, rose, geraniums.
Vanilla: toffee, vanilla pods.
Cereals: hay, grass, porridge.
Sulphury: rubber, drains.
Whisky tasting is done principally with the nose - a far more acute organ than the tongue. Aromatic volatiles are detected by a small fleshy bulb called the olfactory epithelium, located at the back of our noses which has a direct link to the brain. While there are at least five primary tastes, there are many more primary smells and probably infinite combinations. Both smell and taste interrelate when the sample is in the mouth to create a 'flavour' profile, via the transformation of chemical and tactile information into electrical signals to the brain. The tongue and mouth also detect what are sometimes termed 'mouthfeel flavours' - not flavours actually, rather they refer to the temperature, viscosity and texture of the fluid we are swallowing - as well as that essential dimension in spirit evaluation, 'oral pain', which can also be picked up by the nose. In whisky tasting, this is usually experienced as pungency, prickle or heat, particularly in very strong spirit, which may sting your nose and tongue and induce temporary anaesthesia. One has to be careful when nosing whiskies that have been bottled at natural cask strength (i.e. undiluted prior to bottling). Sniffing a glass of water on the side can help to refresh the nose.
When pouring your whisky, firstly make sure your glassware is clean and free of any detergent smells. Measure about 30ml or a generous finger's breadth. Hold the glass to the light, or against a white napkin, and observe the whisky's colour, depth and clarity. New spirit is water-like while twenty years in a cask that's previously held sherry may turn the whisky the colour of treacle. Between these poles is a spectrum of hues. Since the colour comes from the wood, a whisky's appearance should be a guide to how it has been matured, and for how long. Or should it? In fact, distillers are allowed to add small amounts of colouring (in the form of caramel) in order to ensure that each batch looks the same as the next. (Most claim this is tasteless but it's actually quite bitter, and whisky writers like Jim Murray have long been crusading against it). To further complicate the matter, unless you're drinking whisky which has been drawn from a single cask, a number of different casks (from three to three hundred) containing whiskies of varying colour will have been vatted together.
So while a whisky's colour may be a very general indicator of age, unlike wine, its colour or appearance has little bearing on whisky quality. Even visual faults that would be negatives in wine evaluation can actually be positives in whisky. For example, many whiskies are 'chill-filtered' prior to bottling, whereby the spirit's temperature is reduced close to freezing, in which state a number of 'impurities' can be filtered out. The main reason for this is that these 'impurities' cause the whisky to go very slightly cloudy when water (and especially ice) is added. Unfortunately, the 'impurities' are also flavour elements, and would sometimes be better left in. A very coarse filtration may leave 'unattractive' particulate matter in the bottle or make the whisky appear slightly opaque, but enhance a whisky's overall flavour. It should be noted that filtering per se is not always a bad thing. It can be a distiller's last opportunity to ameliorate a slightly imperfect distillate before bottling.
Many professional noses don't taste at all. They get all the information they need from sniffing. To maximise the aroma, briefly cover the top of the glass with one hand then sniff it. Warming the glass with the palm of your hands can also help release aroma molecules. Different whiskies cause slightly different physical effects, especially when they are at cask strength: experts refer to sensations such as 'nose prickle', or 'nose drying', or even 'nose burn'. The cardinal, characteristic aromas of the particular whisky will be present - you should note them down, if you can identify them - but they may well be subdued, spirity and vapourous.
In tasting room conditions, professional tasters typically reduce the spirit to around 20% alcohol by adding still water (the purer the water the better). Be very careful, however, with very old (over 20 years, say) or very sherried whiskies. They can be 'damaged' by too much water; the aromas 'break up' and the flavour becomes flat. In ordinary circumstances such whiskies are likely to be drunk as digestifs, and often, like fine Cognac, no water is added: in effect, your saliva acts as the dilutant. Peaty and very spirity whiskies can take a lot more water. The answer is to experiment: add a little water - take a couple of deep sniffs of fresh air, then plunge in again until you feel the whisky is giving its best aromatically.
Take further notes - as whacky as you like: it can be very difficult to put words to smells, but great fun when you let go. You'll find that when you come up with an accurate descriptor, the rest of the company will respond immediately and enthusiastically! Rest from time to time: with continued sniffing, the intensity of the aromas you perceive will fade quickly - so it's pointless to nose a single sample for too long.
When tasting whisky, take a large enough sip to fill your mouth, then roll it over your tongue - even 'chew' it. First you want to register the 'texture' of the whisky. It may be smooth and silky and viscous, spirity or astringent and dry. Then you want to identify the primary tastes - the immediate flavours your tongue collects - sweet, salty, sour, bitter or umami. Most whiskies will present a mixture of one or more of these flavours, sometimes beautifully balanced, sometimes less so. What other flavours can you detect? Are they consistent with the whisky's aroma, or have new elements appeared? As with wine, you can sometimes encounter whiskies which have a wonderful nose, but a rather insipid palate - or vice versa. Note your impressions. Over the course of tasting, you might also notice that the flavours change for better or worse - and sometimes quite dramatically. A truly great whisky, like a great wine can seem to be endlessly complex. Aromas and flavours dazzle the senses defying simplistic descriptions. Once swallowed or spat out, the length of aftertaste is another defining characteristic of a great whisky. Is there any after-taste at all, is it pleasant or unpleasant? Does the flavour linger in your mouth like a northern sunset, or does it fade rapidly like a shooting star? Are there any echoes of former tastes or aromas? If you are being really analytical you could measure the intensity of these sensations on a numerical scale.
It's usually difficult to appreciate more than a half dozen whiskies in one session before nose and palate fatigue set in. Remember to take your time and keep plenty of water on hand to refresh your senses.
Cask Strength Single Malts are a blend of whiskies of the same age, from the same distillery, bottled undiluted at the whisky's natural strength. As Whisky matures the proof reduces from around 70% Alc./Vol. following distillation to 50-60% after 15 years of maturation in barrel. This is because alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than water.
Pros: Cask strength whiskies give you the option of tasting whisky at it's natural strength, arguably a more 'authentic' experience, or diluting to your preferred strength. They're also generally bottled with minimal filtration, which can add an extra intensity of flavour. Depending on the alcohol content and price, Cask Strengths can represent great value for money when compared to bottlings diluted to 40%.
Cons: With the extra 'intensity' of flavour, one must take the good with the bad.The extreme alcohol can anaesthetise the mouth, resulting in a less pleasurable experience. These bottlings can also be excessively pricey, usually due to the high tax/alcohol ratio.
Single Cask Single Malt is malt whisky taken from just one individual cask, the product of just one distillation run from just one distillery. It's also usually sold at cask strength. The information on the label is typically extended to include the cask number, date of distillation, date of bottling and even the number of bottles produced from that cask. A very coarse filtration before bottling ensures the flavour is not compromised. When evaluating a Single Cask Whisky it's important to remember that almost everything that turns a whisky into the drink we recognise as whisky happens in the barrel. Every barrel is slightly different in the same way that no two trees are the same! As such, growth rings are different, porosity is different, therefore not even whisky from two barrels filled on the same day from the same still and stored side by side will taste the same.
Some of the most exciting and memorable whisky experiences to be had are from Single Cask Whiskies. They offer a unique and never to be repeated glimpse into Scotch whisky in its most elemental state. Independent Single Cask bottlings from companies like Cadenheads, Adelphi and Mackillop's Choice are all available online.