When I began to get into whisky tasting I faced a dilemma as to where to start. It helps to have a budget, we all have one. Use your budget to help you prioritise which whisky or whiskies to buy. Maybe start with a whisky that you are already familiar with and like so at least you know you will not be wasting your money from the get go. This time try to assess the aromas and flavours. If your budget allows you to then buy a few more bottles to compare with, this will help you get your bearings in terms of styles and flavours. If your budget doesn’t allow for then try other bottles after you have finished your current bottle.
Over time I have found more often than not that it is possible to classify whiskies into any of these 3 categories which typically carry the following flavours.
- Single Malt Light/floral: vanilla, citrus, tropical fruits, grass, heather
- Single Malt Rich/spicy: christmas cake, cinnamon, dried fruits, roasted nuts, dark chocolate
- Single Malt Full bodied/smoky: ashy, medicinal, sea salt with light/floral or rich/spicy character
Buy a bottle or few: If you are stuck then here are a few single malts that I would recommend to help you on your way. I have intentionally selected to these on the basis that they are easily available at UK supermarkets and are under £50 (at the time of writing this article). Given that they are stocked at the major supermarkets you have a good chance of getting these at a discount.
- Single Malt Light/floral: Glenmorangie 10, Glenfiddich 12, Old Pulteney 12, Auchentoshan American Oak, Glen Moray Classic, Scapa Skiren
- Single Malt Rich/spicy: Aberlour 10, Strathisla 12, Balvenie Doublewood 12, Aberfeldy 12, Aberlour 12, Glenfiddich 15
- Single Malt Full bodied/smoky: Ardmore Legacy, Highland Park 12, Laphroaig 10, Talisker 10, Ardbeg 10, Lagavulin 16, Coal Ila 12
Get hold of a notebook : When I look back over the last few years I recognise this as the most important step I took. I would note down the details of the whisky, distillery/name, age, abv, nose, taste, finish and the date. This helped me keep track of what I had tried and helped as a reminder of what the whisky was like. Looking back at my notes has really helped me in determining the type of flavours I like the most and which whiskies to try next. Taking notes of the nose (how it smells), taste (how it tastes on the tongue) and the finish (the aftertaste) is a really useful thing to do. I use the combination of them to summarise my overall experience and to score the whisky. I intentionally scored whiskies for my own benefit so that I can easily identify the ones I like the most without having to read through all my summaries. I occasionally look back at my scores and notice a relatively high score for a whisky I forgot I had tried and then when I look at my notes I instantly remember the experience and what I liked about it.
Get the right glassware : It is worth investing in a Glencairn or Copita glass. I mainly use the Glencairn but have occasionally used a Copita too. If you compare nosing and tasting a whisky between these and a tumbler I am almost certain you will be able to identify more aromas and flavours compared to a tumbler.
Be patient : Giving the whisky time to breath in the glass can bear fruit. There is a phrase used by Ralfy (Legendary whisky Vlogger) which I use as a rule of thumb. This is “a minute in the glass for each year in the cask”. So 10 minutes for a 10 year old whisky. The idea here is that giving the whisky time to react with oxygen (oxidisation) which opens up the aromas and flavours. The rule has worked for me and it is what I tend to follow.
Be a bit more patient : When I began making notes I really doubted if I would ever ‘get it’. I was struggling to describe the myriad of flavours that were being described by the distillery, journalist and other bloggers/vloggers. It doesn’t happen overnight, unless you have strong senses. I found that the more I tried to assess a whisky the more I got the hang of picking up flavours. There is no substitute for practice on this one.
Use water: If you are struggling to connect with a whisky, then don’t hesitate in using water. This can help open up the aromas and flavours. I am not sure if mineral or tap water makes a difference, some would say it does. I use tap water. Add a bit at a time though, it is easier to add more than to take it back out.