Whisky tasting is done principally with the nose - a far more acute organ than the tongue, although the two interrelate as the sample is swallowed.
While there are only four primary tastes, there are 32 primary smells. These are aromatic volatiles, which are detected by a small fleshy bulb called the Olfactory Epithelium, located at the back of our noses and having a direct link to the brain.
As well as registering the primary tastes when Whisky tasting, the tongue also detects what is termed 'mouthfeel' - the viscosity, texture and smoothness of the fluid we are swallowing - and 'pungency' (which is essentially an evaluation of pain - from irritation to unbearable - and is also picked up by the nose).
In whisky tasting, pungency is particularly apparent in very strong spirit, which may sting your nose and tongue and induce numbness (temporary anaesthesia).
So you have to be careful when nosing whisky at full strength - i.e. as it comes from the cask.
In Whisky tasting the flavour is actually a combination of three factors: smell, taste and feeling.
Our noses detect scents - nuances of flavour from volatile aromatics - and pass this information direct to our brains.
Our sense of the smells that surround us are recorded unconsciously, yet smells probably trigger memories more effectively than sounds or sights: they are the most evocative of experiences.
With a little practice you can soon learn to break smells down and identify their constituent parts. Putting names to them is more difficult, and will be explored later in this section.
Primary tastes are registered by little sensory receptors on our tongues and palates. These are broadly arranged so that sweet flavours are picked up on the tip of the tongue, sour and salt flavours by the sides and middle and bitter flavours at the back.
The Whisky tasting process will encompass the time it takes to stimulate the different areas of the tongue which varies.
With the bitter receptors taking the longest, so it is important when tasting to hold the liquid in the mouth and to make sure it coats the tongue thoroughly.
Aromas from Production
The key characteristics arising during production are:
Esters (fruity, fragrant, pear-drops)
Phenols (from wood-smoke to tar, iodine to sea-weed)
Aldehydes (leafy, grassy scents, sometimes like Parma violets)
Feints (leathery, tobacco, beeswax)
The last is the most difficult to describe.
They are generally unpleasant, but they are essential to the character of Scotch whisky and are present to a greater or lesser extent in all malts.
Aromas from Maturation
Feints are mellowed and transformed by maturation, and the wood itself layers another range of aromas over those occurring during production.
The most obvious scent is sherry. New wood (not commonly used) lends resinous, pine-like aromatics. Bourbon wood (i.e. casks which were previously used for maturing bourbon) is the most common and a good, first-fill Bourbon hogshead bestows all the lovely rounded, vanilla-like, nutty, cigar-box aromas which make well matured malt whisky such a fine thing.
Very old whisky may become 'woody' or musty - not generally desirable characteristics.
Pour in a measure of whisky - about an ounce or a generous finger's breadth. Hold the glass to the light, or against a white napkin, and admire its colour, depth and clarity.
New spirit is gin-clear; 20 years in sherry wood may turn the whisky the colour of treacle. Between these poles is a spectrum of hues.
The whisky's appearance should be a guide to how it has been matured, and for how long, since the colour comes from the wood.
A very dark sherry will almost certainly have been matured in a first-fill oloroso cask; a very pale one suggests a third or fourth fill bourbon hogshead.
Remember that unless you are drinking whisky which has been drawn from a single cask, a number of different casks (from three to three hundred) will have been vatted together.
To confuse the issue further, 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.
They claim this is tasteless; many people think otherwise.
When you start your Whisky tasting swirl the whisky in the glass and sniff it cautiously.
If it has been bottled direct from the cask it may be as much as 63% alcohol, and too powerful a sniff can anaesthetise your sense of smell for a short time.
Different whiskies cause slightly different physical effects, especially when they are at cask strength (i.e. un-reduced prior to bottling): experts refer to phenomena such as 'nose prickle', or 'nose drying', or even ’nose burn'.
The cardinal, characteristic aromas of the particular whisky will be present - and when conducting a more formal Whisky tasting you should note them down, if you can identify them - but they may well be 'closed': subdued, spirity and vapourous.
Now add a little water.
In Whisky tasting room conditions, professional tasters reduce the spirit to 20% alcohol - in other words, a fraction over the same amount of water as the whisky in standard UK bottlings.
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 Whisky tasting, or as drinking socially, 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.
When Whisky tasting the answer is to experiment: add a little water - nose - taste - add a little more - until you feel the whisky is giving of its best, aromatically.
Spirits are evaluated more by nose than taste, unlike other drinks. Indeed, professional noses don't taste at all. They get all the information they need from sniffing.
Take a couple of deep sniffs of fresh air, then plunge in again.
Take further Whisky tasting notes - as whacky as you like: it is 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 is pointless to nose a single sample for too long.
Then onto the actual Whisky tasting. Take a large enough sip to fill your mouth, then roll it over your tongue.
First you want to register the 'texture’ of the whisky. It may be smooth and viscous, spirity and vapourous or astringent and dry.
Then you want to identify the primary tastes - the immediate flavours your tongue collects.
There are only four: sweet (on the tip of the tongue) salty and sour (at the sides) and dry/bitter (at the back).
Most whiskies will present a mixture of these flavours, sometimes beautifully balanced, sometimes less so.
If you are being really analytical you should measure the intensity of these flavours on a 1-5 scale. Note your impressions
What other flavours can you detect? Are they consistent with the whisky's aroma, or have new elements appeared?
A well-made whisky will deliver in flavour what it promises to the nose.
As with wine, you sometimes encounter whiskies which have a wonderful nose, but a rather insipid flavour - or vice versa.
Note your impressions.
Over the course of time, you will notice that the flavour changes - for good or bad, and sometimes quite dramatically - if your glass remains uncovered between sips.
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? Is there any after-taste, pleasant or unpleasant?
And finally the most enjoyable part of the Whisky tasting process
Now set down your pencil, pour yourself a second dram, suspend your critical judgement and, in the words of Oscar Wilde, "revitalise the soul with the senses, and the senses with the soul"!
© Copyright 1997 Distillers.com Ltd.