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How to Appreciate and Taste Scotch Whisky

You don’t understand scotch. OK, that was harsh. Maybe you do.

Perhaps you pretend to understand it. I did. I pretended I knew why I liked it so much.

Hell, I might have been happy, though naive, continuing to drink and enjoy it. That is, until I visited multiple scotch distilleries and the “Scotch Whisky Experience” edu-tainment tour in Edinburgh, Scotland. There, I got me a boat-load of proper learnin’ (and humble pie) that makes me appreciate scotch at least tenfold! Lucky you! You’re about to learn this knowledge too (without the pie)!

What you’ll learn here is how to appreciate, taste and enjoy scotch whisky. You’ll pick up on the finer details of what the “flavor-masters” of the distilleries spend their careers designing. You’ll also learn a little bit about whisky in general. 

Even if you don’t like whiskey, I recommend trying this out. It will guide you around what puts most people off of whisky, and give you a start in fine tasting activities usually reserved for wine connoisseurs.

All information in this article, all this wonderful knowledge, comes from the wonderful tour guides at the wonderful Aberfeldy scotch distillery, and “Alistair”, the young, hairless, self-proclaimed “Scotch Geek” and tour guide at the “Scotch Whisky Experience” in Edinburgh. 

Perhaps the dear reader has noticed the missing “e” in instances of the word “whisky”. In Scotland, that’s how they do it. Scots don’t call it “scotch”, either. When they refer to “whisky”, it’s implied that it’s scotch. They also call it “malt” sometimes in bars or pubs.

What exactly is scotch?

Before we even get into what to do with it, we should first be clear about what we’re discussing. 

Scotch is … Aw hell, just look it up at Wikipedia.

All you really need to know is that it’s made from the malted barley, which is germinated and sometimes dried by burning peat (where certain scotch whisky’s smoke taste comes from), yeast and water are thrown in, alcohol gets made, and then distilled. Lastly, and most importantly, it’s aged and flavored in used oak barrels either previously used for bourbon in the USA, or sherry, or other booze, from France or elsewhere. This aging process must be at least 3 years long, as dictated by some scotch law somewhere. Otherwise, you can’t call it scotch whisky!

Sometimes you’ll hear of grain whiskey. This is not the same as scotch whisky, which you’ll remember has to be from malted barley only. Grain whiskey is made from whatever grains the distillery prefers. Often grain whiskey is used as a cheap and supplement when making a scotch whisky blend (but don’t think that blends are worse because of this!).

Prepare

Yes, this is a hands on activity. Put scotch on your grocery (or booze) list. Go out and get some. Come back to this article when you have scotch!

There are many many types, and while the fun is had trying them all, it’s probably best to start with a mild whisky, from the “Lowland” or “Speyside” region of Scotland. The more smoky and sharper flavors found in “Islay” scotch whiskies might come across as too harsh and turn beginners away. More on regions here.

I recommend (but am not paid to recommend): Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, or Macallan. Many blends are good as well.

Pour one shot (about 2 oz. or 50 mL) of the room temperature whisky only into a small tumbler or glass. Nothing else should be in the glass. No water, no ice, no club soda or fizzy water. Calm down. This rule won’t last forever.

It’d be great if your glass was clear. And clean. Residue from the dishwasher, soapy water or even strong tap water will affect the taste of the whisky.

You should end up with something like this:

Take a deep breath. Relax. OK. Let’s do this.

Remember to take these steps slowly. You’re here to enjoy the whisky, not chug it like a college freshman.

Step 1: Examine the color

Hold the glass up between your eyes and the nearest light source. Look at the color of the whisky:

  • Whisky aged in American bourbon barrels generally will appear as a lighter gold or yellow in color. These colors generally mean smooth taste, and not too complex.
  • Whisky aged in Sherry barrels appears as a darker gold or amber color. From these darker colors, you can expect richer and heavier tastes.

Also, whiskies tend to be darker the longer they are aged. A longer aging process means more flavor has been absorbed from the wood of the barrels into the whisky. That means you get a richer taste.

Step 2: Examine the whisky’s fluid characteristics

Swirl the whisky around in the glass. Watch it run down the inside surface of the glass, creating “legs”. These are seen commonly in glasses of wine

The whisky will react similarly to the glass as it will with your tongue and mouth:

  • If the whisky legs run immediately back down into the rest of the whisky, the whisky will go quickly and smoothly down your throat, leaving little and light aftertaste.
  • If the whisky legs stick to the inside surface and run down more slowly, the whisky will stick to your tongue and mouth longer, and the aftertaste will last longer. This behavior indicates a more complex combination of oils and tastes in the whisky, possibly giving a richer taste.

Don’t let any whisky spill out of the glass when you swirl! That’s liquid gold, son!

Step 3: “Nose” the whisky

Some of the dear readers may recall a negative reaction to smelling a strong liquor especially during a hangover (“Dude, ugh, don’t even say the word ‘vodka’, I might hurl”). 

Well, get ready to overcome that sensation!

Part of the nose’s job is to keep the rest of its human away from noxious substances. It will alert you when you sniff high-alcohol-content liquid and persuade you to get the stuff away from your face. The alcohol fumes force the nose to constrict its blood vessels in a sort of protective measure. In this state, your nose is less sensitive to repeated noxious reactions. This is the key to getting to the subtle flavors of the scotch.

Let your mouth hang comfortably open. Breathe freely through your nose and mouth. An open mouth will allow the aromas and flavors traveling through the nasal passageway to mix with the air in your mouth and have an effect on your taste buds.

Stick your nose in the glass and slowly take in a deep breath through your nose… Ack! You should get the “shock” of the alcohol affecting the nose at this point. Breathe out. You won’t likely get the full effect of the flavors at this point. So let’s do it again! 

For a second time, stick your nose in again and more slowly take in a deep breath. This time the shock will not be nearly as severe. You nose should start to identify the flavors of the whisky. Breathe out slowly. 

Remember to let that mouth hang open!

Third and final time: smell the whisky slowly. The shock should be gone, and the subtle array of smells and flavors will be available to your olfactory senses.

Attempt to recognize the aromas, and think of what they remind you of. Wood? Fruit? Chocolate? Smoke? Malt? There’s special language to describe what you’re smelling. I won’t go into that. I usually just try to have fun with the aromas.

Step 4: Taste the whisky

Yes, finally, we get to put the whisky in our mouth. 

Take a good sip of the whisky, hold it on your tongue, then roll it all around your mouth. This should not last more than five seconds. Swallow. 

Your goals should be to:

  • Examine the texture of the whisky: if it attacks the tongue or if it’s smooth. Is it rich? 
  • Recognize the flavors and aromas. Are they similar to what you smelled?
  • Notice the change of flavors over time and different parts of the mouth. 
  • Judge the combination of flavors and aromas. Do you like the taste?

I’m told also that certain connoisseurs sip whisky, and carefully breathe in through their mouth, let the air bubble through the whisky, then exhale. This apparently gives a stronger aroma and effect that involve both the nose and the mouth. I’ve tried this and can’t say it improves the experience enough to offset the difficulty of doing it. Please practice with caution! It’s easy to get a spray of liquid whisky in your lungs if you’re not careful. It only takes one of those to ruin your day.

Step 5: The finish and aftertaste

Once your sip of whisky goes down the hatch (by this I mean your throat, for the lay readers), pay attention to the taste and olfactory senses for the following few seconds. This is the last of the taste experience. Notice how long it lasts and if different flavors arrive at this point. 

Step 6: Repeat steps 3, 4, or 5 until satisfied

At this point, you’ve enjoyed your scotch and created a mental profile of its flavors.

Now do it all again. There’s a good chance your senses became acclimated to this new liquid, and your next tasting will result in a better detection of flavors.

For a slightly different taste profile, pour a few drops of purified water into the glass and swirl it. This is supposed to break apart the whisky’s oils and release new flavors or strengthen existing flavors and aromas. It’s important that the water be purified and not have too harsh of a chlorine component, as this will affect the taste in an unintended way. Also, the few drops should be sufficient. 

And that’s it!…

Using those steps, you’ve just successfully tasted and appreciated your whisky! Each whisky is different, and is waiting for you to come try it!

Oh, what’s that? You feel constrained by this rigid method of drinking whisky? You want more freedom from the tyranny of the “flavor-masters”?

I suppose I could let you in on the last, most important tip on enjoying whisky…

Step 7: Enjoy the whisky however you want!

Some high-nosed whisky drinkers would scoff at those who put ice in their whisky, or much more insidious… cola! 

The bottom line is you bought the whisky, you have the absolute freedom to enjoy it however you like! The makers of whisky are happy for you just to buy the dang stuff! 

For those who can’t stand to drink it neat (straight), there is an ever-growing list of scotch based cocktails, and if anyone tells you you can’t dilute your scotch whisky with something, you should tell them you’re gonna use your fist to dilute their face! Don’t actually do that. No good would come from doing that. Rather, just kindly remind them you can enjoy the drink however you like.

The end

You now carry the knowledge of how to appreciate the fine gold liquid that is scotch whisky. I leave you with a final suggestion: don’t be a snob. Don’t say or start articles with statements like “you don’t understand scotch”. Be welcoming and excited when others want to try or enjoy scotch, and just enjoy scotch for your sake, not for the sake of impressing others.

OK! Go try those scotches, tiger!

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