The best way to drink single malt whisky is ultimately a matter of personal preference, as different individuals may enjoy whisky in various ways. However, here are some common suggestions on how to fully appreciate and savour the complex flavours of a fine single malt whisky.
The primary consideration is what you’re drinking out of. The glassware. It’s important to use a tulip-shaped glass of some sort. This is to hold the vapours from the whisky from escaping – allowing you to appreciate the delicious smells a good whisky will offer. The classic ‘Glencairn’ shape glass has become a ubiquitous glass in whisky tasting circles, but a wine glass or similar is also good – and much better than a ‘tumbler’ style glass. That’s why when we sign a new member to the SMWC, they get a free Glencairn style glass with their first whisky.
Drink it neat. No mixers or ice. Obviously a mixer (like coke etc) is going to add sugar and other flavours to the whisky. Ice will chill the whisky (as well as diluting it uncontrollably), causing many of the flavours to be dulled or even hidden completely. If you want to drink it chilled, either put it in the fridge for a few minutes (not too much…please!) or, use the ‘cold rocks’ that you put in your freezer.
Adding a few drops of (room temperature) water to a whisky can help open the flavours and aromas. In the case of ‘cask strength’ whisky it is customary to add a few drops of water to a dram in order ‘unlock’ the whisky, releasing volatile compounds that contribute to the overall flavour. If the whisky is too strong for you – don’t be afraid to add more water to dilute it to taste. But do it a little at a time to find your ‘sweet spot’. You want to be able to enjoy it, but also still taste it!
Sip the whisky – don’t guzzle it. Too much is just that… too much! It will just overwhelm your nose and palate! A small sip at first- and let it linger! Roll it around your mouth, over your tongue. How does it ‘feel? Does it coat your mouth like oil or is it crisp and dry?
Relax. Good whisky shouldn’t be rushed. Sit back, get comfy. Take your time, close your eyes.
Now – and this is important – having said all that, just remember that it’s your whisky and you should drink your whisky any way you like it the best. The above are merely guidelines on how to appreciate the whisky itself – not the drink you ultimately make from it (if that is your wont). There are no rules here.
Tasting the Whisky
Once again – these are not hard and fast rules – more of a ‘where to start’ if you’ve never done this before. You’ll get the hang of it pretty quickly – it’s really not rocket surgery after all. There’s no sheep stations on the line here. It’s ‘just’ enjoying a whisky. So relax. You’re not going to change the world tonight. Just yours.
Pour yourself a decent dram (in a Glencairn style glass preferably). If it’s cask strength, add a few drops of water to ‘unlock’ it. Let the glass rest in your palm and swirl the whisky. Some people like to cup the glass with their hands to warm the whisky slightly – releasing more of the lovely aromas. Don’t be afraid to let it rest in the glass for a few minutes before tasting it. It will allow those lovely aromas to develop and escape the whisky and collect in the glass.
Now tilt the glass and put your nose inside – and sniff!. Try sniffing with an open mouth compared to a closed mouth. Sniff the [heavier, oiler] vapours at the bottom of the mouth of the glass compared with the (lighter, more floral) notes you can smell at the top of the mouth of the glass. There’s way more to ‘the nose’ as it’s called than many people realize. There can be smoky notes, sweet notes, salty, meaty and floral notes. Even smells such as nail polish remover, burning rubber and iodine (in the case of a peated whiskies) are not out of place in single malt whisky.
Now, let’s examine ‘the palate’ (or the taste and feel). Take a small sip.. Not too much, not too little. How does it feel in your mouth? Is it an oily, viscous ‘mouthfeel’ – or is it ‘dry’ or even slightly astringent (makes your cheeks suck in a bit – like grapefruit does)? Does the alcohol burn your mouth or throat, or is it nicely ‘integrated’ with the whisky and so doesn’t overpower your mouth (what a lot of people refer to as ‘smooth’)? Now, what flavours can you taste? It’s a bit hard at first as the flavours all seem to present as an overwhelming ‘wall of whisky flavour’. Over time you’ll be able to split that ‘wall of flavour’ into its constituent components. There may be fruit (raw or stewed), biscuit spices, vanilla, charcuterie/savoury/umami flavours, smoke, pepper, chocolate, etc etc.
Once you’ve had the initial ‘wow’ experience of the sip in your mouth and swallowed, what is left in your mouth? ‘The finish’ as it is known describes the ‘afterglow’ of a good sip of whisky. Those residual tastes and flavours, that roll around your mouth [hopefully] long after the dram is deep in your belly. It may change from sweet to savoury or salty… and back again, as you ‘chew’ on every bit that dram has to offer. Is it a looong and ‘chewy’ finish that lasts and lasts.. or is it short and clean with very little residual tastes. Is there lot’s of pepper or chilli spiciness as the flavours abate. Chocolate, espresso coffee and caramel notes are also common in the finish.
So there you have it – you’ve now tasted whisky! Easy… wasn’t it?