I mentioned the nose, taste and finish. These are the foundations for forming an overall opinion on a whisky. It can smell great on the nose but not deliver in taste, it can smell unappealing but then taste great or it can smell and taste great but have an unappealing aftertaste that lingers for too long. If you enjoy all three aspects then you are onto a good thing. There are many videos on YouTube and websites that explain how to assess a whisky. Here is how I approach each of these aspects. I would suggest you try this with a whisky you are already familiar with.
- Nose : I smell from distance from the tilted glass and slowly close in up to the point that I feel I am picking up a few aromas. Don’t go in too quick, the alcohol burn may hit your nose. I smell around the opening of the glass and also switch nostrils. I do this a number of times until I am able to distinguish between the aromas. If I am struggling to describe a range of aromas I add water and give it 5 minutes before I try again. Water can release more flavours. Maybe try smelling and then holding your breath and release through your mouth, you may get a taste of the aromas. Don’t worry if you are really struggling, it may take a few attempts or a few whiskies before I started to get the hang of it. You will see from my reviews how my ability to nose and taste progressed as my notes become more detailed.
- Taste : I tend to take a small sip first and hold it in my mouth for a few seconds or until the alcohol begins to have a numbing effect on my tongue, then swallow and breath out. I look for the overall taste left in my mouth to pick out the key flavours. I then takes slightly larger sips and swirl around the mouth and taking my time doing so. If I am struggling to pick any flavours, then I consider adding water and giving the whisky time to open up some more.
- Finish : Once I have swallowed the whisky I hold my breath for a few seconds and then breath out. I look for the overall aftertaste on my tongue and around my mouth. I also feel for the flavours at the back of my throat and for how the whisky feels down my throat. You may hear about short, medium and long finishes. This is quite subjective but my view is if there is hardly any aftertaste then it’s short, if I can taste something for a couple of seconds then this is medium and if the taste is lingering for up to 5 seconds or more then it is long. There aren’t any rules to this, you decide for yourself.
Forget about colour : Distilleries and some of the critics out there makes some effort in describing the colour of a whisky. Now, if I know for definite that a whisky has not been coloured with E150 then I would assess the colour too as it can tell you something about the casks that were used and the number of refills. However, if it is not specifically mentioned that it is not coloured then I would advise not to bother. In Germany the law stipulates that E150 colouring must be noted on the label so one way of finding out is by checking German whisky retailers online.
Other opinions : It is easy to be influenced even if you are consciously trying not to be. I used to read the distillery, critics, bloggers and vloggers tasting notes before I assessed a whisky to help guide me. This helped at first as I was able to use the vocabulary used by others and identify them in what I was smelling and tasting. However, as I became more confident in my own ability to pick up aromas and flavours I stopped doing this. I assessed a whisky first and then cross referenced my notes with those from the distillery and a few vloggers/bloggers (mainly Serge Valentin and Ralfy). I would check if there were any commonalities and I would usually find that I would be picking up some of the main flavours that they were. I must repeat though, this is subjective, so it’s not about trying to find as many flavours as others do but use it as a way to sense check that your senses are not wildly off. I get reassurance that I am picking some similar notes but am not bothered if I don’t. It is also important to be single minded, it is OK not to like whiskies that the critics like. We all have different tastes. Don’t feel like you need to be picking up X amount of flavours because others are.
So that is how I assess a whisky and it works for me. Other approaches may work better for you, take the approach that makes its easier for you to describe a whisky.