Whisky Tasting Basics

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my interview with John Glaser, founder of The Compass Box Whisky Company.  I mentioned that I would be following up with a tasting of the samples he was kind enough to give me, and I shall do so tomorrow.  Before I jump into the Compass Box whiskies themselves though, I want to give a little primer on how to get the most out of your whisky, no matter what whisky it may be. For a more a complete guide about Scotch Whisky click here.

Tasting Basics – Whisky Glass, Smelling & Water

Ardbeg & BenRiach Whisky

Ardbeg & BenRiach Whisky

First of all, you need some whisky.  As I mentioned last time, a “craft” presentation is always preferable to over-processing.  This means 43-46% vol or Cask Strength, non chill-filtered, and without the addition of caramel E150a coloring.

Often, the so-called Independent Bottlers present a more craft-focused whisky than the big brands themselves.  These are small companies who specially select whiskies from various distilleries and bottle them as they see fit.  These may be ages not typically released, special cask treatments, and are usually presented at a cask strength of 46%.  Some well-known brands, such as Ardbeg and BenRiach, do a fantastic job themselves of releasing the highest quality spirits possible.  Neither of these whiskies has a drop of artificial coloring, and both are 46% with all that great flavor saved from the filter.

Chill Filtering vs. Non-Chill Filtering

Chill Filtering is a filtering process which requires the whisky to be chilled to 32°F or even lower temperatures. The main purpose is to create a clear whisky by removing fatty acids, proteins and esters, all of which naturally stem from the grain. Due to the low temperature, these compounds clog together so they can be filtered. Non-chill filtering on the other hand, only filters coal or wood particles keeping the natural fatty acids. While some argue that chill-filtering does not alter the whisky and just makes it look cleaner, it has been shown that fatty acids carry some flavor and filtering them out simply changes the character of the whisky.

Normally, I would recommend that when you add water to your whisky, (I will talk about that more below) you use room temperature or only slightly chilled water.  To illustrate the chill-filtration though, I have used ice water.  You can clearly see how cloudy the whisky gets once its temperature drops, and this is sometimes called chill-haze or Scotch Mist.  Some people think this doesn’t look as nice as a crystal clear dram, but trust me: what you’re seeing is all that flavor the whisky-maker has preserved for you.

The Glencairn Whisky Glass

The next step is to get yourself the right glass.  Sure, it looks macho to swill a few fingers of dark whisky around in a giant crystal tumbler, but that’s really only one or two steps away from a plastic cup in terms of what it does for the flavor.  Glencairn makes a proprietary whisky glass that I cannot recommend highly enough.  It was designed with the Scotch whisky industry, and is made of Scottish crystal.  The bowl gives the whisky room to breath, and then funnels the aromas into a nice concentrated area.  Otherwise, a small snifter is fine, or even a white wine or sherry glass in a pinch.

Whisky, Water & Teaspoon

Whisky, Water & Teaspoon

Whisky, Tasting Glass by Glencairn, Water & Teaspoon

You’ll also want to have a small glass of water and a teaspoon.  The higher alcohol percentage of quality whisky essentially holds in more flavor compounds, and with the addition of a little water, these get released in your glass, allowing you to smell and taste more.  At forty-something percent alcohol, you’ll be masking a lot of these complex compounds with that slight burning sensation.

So pour yourself an ounce or so (to the middle of the bulge in the Glencairn), and let it sit for a few minutes.  Whisky is inert in the bottle and needs some time to breathe, just like a fine wine would.

Smelling the Whisky

After a couple of minutes, give it a sniff.  You don’t need to inhale very hard, or you’ll just shock your nostrils with the alcohol.  Merely wave the glass in front of your nose.  Do this consecutively two or three times.  You’ll find you get more and more each time.  There is no need to swirl the whisky like you see the pros doing.  If you’re really advanced, this can aerate the whisky and release more compounds more quickly, but if you’re still learning it might overwhelm your nose.

Whisky Tasting Glasses

Whisky Tasting Glasses, Alternatives & Lowball

Tasting the Whisky

After smelling is the part we all wait for: tasting.  Take a small amount into your mouth, let it sit on your tongue for a few seconds, and then “chew” the whisky a little. In other words, swirl it gently around your mouth and take in some air as well.  Then swallow and see how it finishes.

Once you’ve tasted the whisky, add a little water.  Just a few drops from your spoon will be enough as you don’t want to drown the whisky.  Once it’s drowned, you can’t add more whisky to balance it back out.  It’s over.  Thereafter, repeat the above and see how the whisky changes.  Over time you’ll notice it continues to evolve in the glass.  And this is where the real fun begins.


Now, in theory you should know enough for your first whisky tasting event! Tomorrow, I will present you my notes of a recent whisky tasting, where I drank 5 different kinds from The Compass Box Whisky Company.

Whisky Tasting Basics
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Whisky Tasting Basics
In this guide, we explain whisky basics & how to get the most out your whisky, no matter what kind it may be.
Gentleman's Gazette
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2 replies
  1. Easy and Elegant Life says:

    I’ve never been a fan of adding the water to the whiskey. I’ve always tasted it neat, even the cask strength. Do you find it really makes that much difference in bringing out the flavours?

    • Stephen Pulvirent says:

      When just sitting around and sipping I usually enjoy mine neat. I tend to like a bit of burn and the thicker mouthfeel. But, that said, if I’m really trying to get everything out of a whisky I will add a few drops.

      More than bringing out existing flavors, I often find it just changes the profile altogether. For example, that Ardbeg 10 gets more lemony and more floral with some water. In the end though, the purpose of drinking whisky is to enjoy it. I might scoff if you start throwing cubes of ice into some 18 year old Highland Park, but if that’s how you like it, go for it.

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