There’s a plethora of information out there for wine drinkers on how to taste wine, so why isn’t there a guide for beginners on how to taste the sweetest of nectars – Scotch whisky? Here’s a quick guide to get you experiencing the best of your Scotch and understanding its unique tastes, flavours and aromas.
Scotch is much like most other whiskies that have been aged for at least three years in oak barrels, but Scotch has the distinction of being made in Scotland with the highest level of expertise. Scotland not only has a rich heritage of creating the best whisky, it also has some of the best conditions for maturing whisky in the world.
Single malt scotch is whisky that has been distilled in a single Scottish distillery from malted barley. Newly-born scotch doesn’t have its distinctive taste yet – in fact it’s clear and tastes a bit more like vodka. It’s when the whisky is left to age in oak barrels that it picks up its unique flavours. This is why the choice of barrels used can make such a big difference to the taste of the final product, and why some Scotch whiskies can be so much more coveted than others.
Blended scotch is usually a mixture of malt whiskies from multiple distilleries paired with grain whisky. Grain whisky is essentially any whisky that is distilled from grains other than malted barley.
Any good whisky deserved to be tasted and appreciated instead of just being thrown back! First start with an appropriate glass – brandy snifters, wine glasses and tulip glasses are good options. You’ll want to pour at least 1.5 ounces of scotch (about the same as you get in a shot glass) into this glass. Give it a gentle swirl and see how viscous the scotch is.
Much of the pleasure of drinking scotch is in the smelling – the ‘nosing’ of it. Scotch whisky is such a complex liquid, with hundreds of thousands of different compounds all competing for your olfactory senses. With your nose about an inch above the tilted glass, draw air in slowly. If you feel any burning in your nostrils then pull back a little. Likewise, if the aroma is weak feel free to bring the liquid closer to your nose or put your nose further into the glass.
Concentrate on the aromas, and try to pick out some of the unique flavours that the whisky has picked up. We call these ‘notes’. Don’t rush this process – spend at least a minute savouring the flavours as you’ll pick up different notes with each sniff. Try occasionally swirling the golden whisky to release more unique flavours.
Resist throwing back scotch like you see in the movies. Your first taste should be just a sip, and hold it in your mouth for an extended period. Ten to twenty seconds is about right.
If you’re a beginner you might find your tongue burns a little and your eyes might water. Resist the urge to swallow and this sensation will abate, leaving you to really taste the flavours of the scotch. Swirl it around your mouth, paying particular attention to covering your tongue, and again concentrate on the different notes that you can pick up.
As you’ve held the scotch in your mouth for a while you’ll find that when you swallow it there’s none of the throat burning associated with throwing back a shot. After you swallow, open your mouth and breathe out. New flavours are often detectable (the ‘finish’). Breathe in again, and you’ll pick up some more! Some of these aromas can last for hours!
Now you’ve got the basics down, you can experiment a little with your scotch. A different glass might bring out more flavours. Breathing in while you have scotch in your mouth releases a lot of flavour too, but remember to breathe gently! Even adding water to your scotch can change the flavours available. Welcome to the wonderful world of tasting scotch whisky!
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