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Gregor’s Guide To Whisky Tasting

Here’s a hypothetical situation – the tasting you planned to attend has been cancelled, you’re staying indoors for the foreseeable, and you have some new whiskies in the cupboard. It’s time to have a tasting at home, but where to start?

Over the years I’ve come across several different ways to taste whisky, so I’m here to help by introducing the technique I use when tasting cask samples with a view to bottling.

There are a wealth of techniques used for evaluating the quality and characteristics of different wines; and with a few tweaks, these techniques can easily be used to evaluate whisky.

Step One: Preparation Time

Firstly, you’ll need paper and pencil to take notes on each whisky you taste. This will help you identify the differences between each whisky, and even better, will give you a written record of your dream dram.

Secondly, you’ll need a jug of clean water and a spittoon (another jug will do). This will allow you to water the whisky during tasting; and will let you rinse and empty your glass between tasting. A pipette can be handy for precisely adding drops of water to your whisky, but if you don’t have one, that’s OK. Just be careful to not be too heavy handed when adding water from a jug.

Thirdly, you’ll need a clean tasting glass. There’s a lot of debate around the best type of glass to use for tasting whisky, and whether to use a Copita glass, a Glencairn glass, or the more unusual NEAT glass is often a case of personal preference. If you don’t happen to have a specific tasting glass, then even a wine glass will do, provided that the shape narrows towards the brim – this will allow the aromas of the whisky to gather in the glass for your waiting nose.

Finally, and more personally, you’ll need to start the tasting with a clean palate, so ensure that you’re not going in having eaten a strong-tasting food. If you’ve just eaten smoked fish, that’s all you’ll end up tasting, so save it for afterwards.

Step Two: It’s All About Appearances

Pour your first whisky into your tasting glass and take a good look at it. With the common use of chill-filtering and caramel colouring in the whisky industry, appearances might not give you much of a starting point in terms of what you’re going to eventually taste. If your dram has been chill-filtered; the fatty acids, esters and proteins from the whisky will have been removed with the aim of creating a clearer liquid with a ‘better’ appearance. Furthermore, if caramel colouring has been added (often with the aim of creating a consistent appearance between batches), then colour won’t give you much to go on either.

But if you have a single cask, non-chill filtered bottle of whisky in your arsenal (such as one from Lady of the Glen!), then appearances can tell you a lot. Give the glass a gentle swirl and you’ll begin to get an idea of the viscosity and body of the whisky by looking at the “legs” of spirit that remain on the sides of the glass – the thicker the legs, the heavier the body. Colour also has a part to play when tasting a single cask whisky, and can give you an idea about the cask in which the whisky was aged – our 9 year old Bunnahabhain was fully matured in a first fill Olorosso Sherry cask, which naturally darkened the whisky as the sherry soaked wood met the new make distillate.

Step Three: The Nose Knows

You’ve given your whisky the eye; next comes the nose. 

When I nose a whisky, I’m looking to recognize how pronounced the flavours are while avoiding any alcohol burn. Generally speaking, the more pronounced ‘desirable’ flavours there are, the higher the quality of the whisky. The nosing stage of a tasting should last the longest and should come in three stages.

  1. A quick sniff
  2. A more drawn out waft under the nose
  3. Nose fully in the glass

If you’re having to work hard to nose anything, then try warming the spirit in your hands; however there is every possibility that you’re tasting a very straightforward whisky which doesn’t have a lot going on, which can be an indicator of poor quality.

See what familiar scents you can pick out during each nosing. You should be able to detect characteristics from the original distillate, from the cask, and from the length of maturation. Are there woody, peaty or fruity tones? Feel free to use a tasting wheel if you’re having difficulty putting a name to an aroma – this can only help in the identification process.

Step Four: Tasting Time

The moment you’ve been waiting for – the first taste.

Take a small sip of your whisky, letting it roll around your mouth. What type of mouthfeel does the whisky have? Is it light, or is there an oily heaviness? Once you’ve moved past the initial alcohol burn, see what familiar tastes you can identify, whether they be floral notes, chocolatey dessert tones, or rich meaty savouriness. Are these flavours similar to what you had nosed, or have they become something completely different? If different, did you enjoy this change? It’s all a matter of personal opinion.

It can help to score your dram based on the following:

  1. Is it balanced?
  2. Does it have a good length or after taste?
  3. Does it have intensity of flavour?
  4. Is it complex?
  5. Are these flavours I like or want or expect?

The answers to these questions will determine your evaluation of the spirits quality

After your first sip, and once you are satisfied with the taste of the neat spirit, add a little water, swirl the glass, and go back to the beginning of the process. How has the water changed the flavour? Has it brought out new characteristics? Do these changes affect your overall impression of the whisky? Take a note of your scores, rinse your glass, and it’s time to move on to the next dram.

And there you have it; a guide to tasting at home. These experiences are always best shared, so please let us know how you got on through our social media channels or by email; and keep an eye on Facebook for an upcoming video on whisky tasting from our Director, Gregor Hannah.


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