You can enjoy whisky any way you like, but when bringing together a group to explore new bottles, it’s important to keep in mind the distinction between tasting and drinking. Your first duty as a whisky tutor is to illustrate the difference. Drinking is about the act of consumption, and places an emphasis on the destination. Tasting, on the other hand, is about the journey. It employs your senses of smell, taste, and even sight to their full potential. You can actually taste without ingesting the whisky at all. Tasting is what happens before you swallow, and becoming a better taster is the single best way to improve your understanding and enjoyment of great whisky.
Whisky clubs are all about having a great time, but getting everyone involved in a tasting helps maintain the distinction between a pursuit and a party. If you are already a competent and confident whisky taster, make it your mission to bring everyone on board, assuming the role of train conductor rather than college professor by guiding, not lecturing. By breaking the process down into steps, you’ll keep your whisky tastings on the right track.
Before we get into formal tasting, let’s start with some light training. Pour a whisky of your choice for yourself and other tasters—about an ounce, or enough to taste a few times.
1. See It
There is debate regarding the relevance of color, particularly because some whisky categories, like scotch, allow color to be added. Does the label say “no color added”? Is the whisky visibly darker or lighter than others on the shelf? Tilt the glass and look toward the edges of the liquid. Hold it up to the light to observe more closely. In some cases, a whisky’s color can reveal the wood impact, or suggest the type of cask, especially if it previously held wine, for instance.
2. Swirl It
Swirling your glass aerates the whisky, increasing the amount of the liquid’s surface area that’s exposed to air. As the whisky interacts with air—and water if you choose to add it—certain aromas may become more apparent. Also look at the way the whisky clings to the glass after a swirl—observe how its “legs” drip down the side of the glass. Do they suggest the whisky will be light-bodied, or more viscous?
3. Sniff It
Now, on to the nose. As anyone who has tried to enjoy an otherwise tasty meal with a head cold can understand, our sense of smell is critical to pleasurable tasting. Therefore, a focus on nosing is often the best way to reframe someone’s concept of tasting—not drinking—whisky. Aroma is the knock on the door, the façade of a building, giving you a sense of whether you’d like to venture in or not.
Approach the glass with caution, starting with your nose a fair distance above the rim. While swirling the glass, smell the whisky; keep your mouth slightly open as you breathe in. Take a deep sniff. Encourage tasters to name the aromas they’re able to identify. This can be challenging for new tasters, so feel free to suggest flavors to look for. In bourbon, vanilla, caramel, and butterscotch are easily identified. Scotch can offer dark fruit flavors if it’s been aged in a sherry cask, or intense smoke if peat has been used. Take your time and dig deeper with each sniff.
4. Sip It
It’s finally time to take a sip. Use the first sip to coat your mouth with the whisky, to introduce the alcohol and flavor. The real analysis begins with the second sip. Hold the whisky in your mouth for a few seconds and consider its mouthfeel: texture, weight, and viscosity. Look for aromas that carry over to the palate. If anyone is having difficulty, encourage them to revisit the nose, then taste again. Often one can inform the other. Sometimes it is especially powerful to smell the whisky as the liquid sits in the mouth, or smell with the mouth open. Experiment with different ways of welcoming the whisky into your nasal passages and throat.
If anyone is having trouble assessing the palate or handling a whisky’s heat, now is the time to add some water to temper the alcohol. Water can also reveal new aromas and flavors. Whether or not to add water is a personal decision, but many whiskies are improved by water.
5. Savor It
Finally, there is the finish, or the aftertaste: the lingering flavors on the back of the throat. Consider the length of the finish. It may be fleeting, or can linger for minutes. Now note the flavors. Are they consistent with the nose and palate, or does the finish take a surprising turn?
While the act of tasting initially requires focus, with some practice the process becomes automatic. Once someone understands how to taste whisky, they’ll begin to apply these lessons and quickly develop a style and approach to tasting that works best for them.
Taste Like a Whisky Advocate Editor
When rating whisky, Whisky Advocate editors taste blind—that is, without knowledge of the whisky’s identity. However, these lessons can apply to both blind and non-blind tasting.
Let’s start with prep. We typically taste six whiskies in a single session, although you may want to start with fewer. It’s always a good idea to taste at least two whiskies so you have the benefit of comparison.
Provide a pour of each whisky in the same size and shape glass for everyone in attendance, since the glass can impact perception. We use one glass per whisky, with an extra glass provided to compare the whisky with and without water if desired.
And do have plenty of water available. Eyedroppers or straws allow you to add a precise amount of water to the whisky. Beyond the purpose of adjusting the proof of a whisky, offer water for drinking to reset the tasters’ palates. Oyster or water crackers also help on this front, cleansing the palate while having a minimal effect on flavor perception.
Whisky Advocate editors taste with an empty cup available for spitting whisky. You can do the same, or offer an ice bucket or other large container for dumping and spitting tasted whiskies.
Taking notes as you taste is critical. We refer to them when writing our final reviews, and they will encourage you to taste with focus and intent. We dedicate a page per whisky, leaving room for the following: first impressions, color, nose, palate, finish, and overall impressions. We also have space to assign a score of 0 to 5 for peat, oak, spice, floral, fruit, and nutty characteristics. Whisky Advocate editors assign a score using a 100-point scale. You can choose to use a simplified scale, or simply note your favorites.
After about an hour of tasting in silence, Whisky Advocate editors discuss our likes or dislikes about each whisky. Often there is consensus, but occasionally a whisky will prove perplexing or even divisive. Everyone is encouraged to state their opinions. Over time, tasters become aware of their personal preferences, which must be set aside in order to be as objective as possible.
After roughly 30 minutes of discussion—and only once scores are cemented—we reveal the identities of the whiskies tasted. The reveal is sometimes surprising, other times expected, but always an education in tasting.