There are few better ways to enjoy an evening of spirits and sophistication than a whisky tasting session.
With such a vast breadth of regions, ages, flavours, and finishes to explore, dedicating an evening to sampling some whiskies is the perfect way to improve your knowledge and hopefully discover a new favourite bottle, whether you’re a bona fide expert or complete beginner.
Although this liquor’s notorious complexity may seem intimidating, it’s surprisingly simple to host your very own whisky tasting session. And to make things even easier, this comprehensive guide will tell you everything you need to know to deliver the perfect at-home tasting night:
- Which bottles to select (the important bit!)
- How to take notes
- What the look of your whisky tells you
- How to appreciate the ‘nose’ of your whisky
- The Sip – how to taste your whisky and make full use of your palate
So, gather your friends, family, or favourite whisky lovers and follow these simple steps to host a professional-standard whisky tasting from the comfort of your own home.
The most important aspect of hosting a tasting session is choosing a selection of spirits.
If you’re a beginner, we’d recommend choosing three to five whiskies that vary in where they’re produced, how long they’re matured for, and what flavour profiles they offer.
Tasting a selection of markedly different drams offers the perfect opportunity to identify the unique character of each blend, sharpen your palate, and decide which style of whisky will become a staple of your liquor cabinet.
Here are our picks for a top tier tasting:
An excellent introduction to Scotch, this classic single malt delivers a traditional fruity palate with sweet hints of toffee and vanilla. Endlessly sippable with a long, gentle finish.
Produced in the world’s most awarded distillery, Buffalo Trace is the epitome of good Bourbon. Darker and richer than most whiskies, this blend carries mellow flavours of spice, brown sugar, and molasses.
A brilliant example of how maturation processes affect the final product, have a go at identifying the intricate layers of this single malt from The Balvenie.
After being aged for fourteen years in traditional oak casks, the liquid is then finished in barrels seasoned with Caribbean Rum, imparting a truly distinctive tropical flavour profile.
Similarly, this standout Irish Whiskey from Jameson is finished in casks from a local brewery that previously contained another Irish classic, dark Stout. Top notes of apple and pear are carried over a deep, complex finish.
This set of three 5cl miniature Glenfiddich bottles delivers an entire tasting session in one easy bundle. Containing their 12, 15, and 18-year-old expressions, this gift set is the perfect way to discover your favourite dram from one of the most revered whisky brands on the market.
Here at VIP Bottles, we stock an exceptional range of 5cl miniature whiskies.
Our Build Your Own Mini service allows you to choose up to four mini whiskies to be delivered to your door in a premium gift box, providing the perfect size for sampling a dram without splashing out on multiple full-sized bottles.
If you feel like fashioning your own collection, browse our full selection of miniature and full-sized whisky bottles here.
So, you’ve got your whiskies, now what do you serve them in?
If you want a truly authentic sip, the industry-standard whisky glass is designed for maximum appreciation of the tasting experience.
Originally known as the “Dock Glass”, these glasses have a wide, rounded base that provides an excellent view to your dram’s colour, body, and oiliness.
More significantly, their distinct tulip-shaped bowls enables aspiring malt masters to swirl their whisky without spillages while retaining aromas and directing them towards the nose.
If you don’t have a set of traditional glassware at hand and don’t fancy buying any, don’t worry – your drams will taste just as good in a tumbler or small wine glass.
The final (and most fun) necessity for a whiskey tasting session is a pen and paper to write down your tasting notes.
If you’re new to profiling and describing alcohol, it may seem daunting – or perhaps a little unnecessary – to come up with a series of adjectives for each stage of the tasting process, but it soon becomes second nature and even begins to assist you in refining your palate.
Something in the quality of naming the flavours that appear to you somehow works to bring them in to focus, highlighting previously subtle tones and drawing you further into observing how your palate responds to the whisky.
Your experience of a dram may differ greatly to the person next to you, meaning you can compare your responses and try to identify any notes they picked up on, as well as tracking your personal tastes.
The Palate Is Personal
It’s important to remember that there are no wrong answers when it comes to whisky tasting. While there may be a great deal of science that goes into spirit production, a tasting session is nothing if not sensory.
Indulge in paying close attention to the shades and sensations that each whisky brings and enjoy working with those around you to define that near ineffable chord of smokiness just surfacing at the back of the tongue.
Get your pen and paper at ready, it’s time to begin tasting!
How to Taste Whisky
First, pour a dram (roughly ½ an ounce or one finger) of whisky into your glass and leave it to sit for several minutes.
If your liquor has been bottled for a long period, it’s important to let it ‘breathe’ and develop its flavours at room temperature before sampling.
Once your dram has settled, begin by inspecting the appearance of your whisky. The look of a whisky reveals a great deal about its taste, texture, and character, so it’s worth spending a moment appreciating its unique appearance and taking a guess at what flavour profiles you might expect.
Hold your glass up to the light and observe the colour of the liquor. Is it straw yellow? Deep gold? Burnt umber? Generally speaking, lighter whiskies tend to have been matured in bourbon casks and carry mellow, fruity notes, while darker shades indicate an older, more complex blend that has been aged in sherry or port barrels.
If you’re struggling to describe the colour of the dram, look to familiar objects that you can compare it to. The whisky may remind you of a certain type of wood, foods such as nuts, coffee, and chocolate, or perhaps it’s the same shade of dirty blonde as your favourite pet cat from childhood.
Get creative and work towards being as descriptive as possible for maximum effect!
An equally important feature to consider when inspecting a dram’s appearance is its body and viscosity. Carefully swirl the whisky so that it climbs the sides of your glass but doesn’t spill over the rim. You’ll notice that, as the whisky moves back down into the base, streaks – or “legs” – begin to form.
If these legs run quickly down the sides of the glass, your dram probably carries a relatively light and crisp texture. Conversely, thicker and more slow-moving legs signal an oily blend with a full, voluptuous mouthfeel. Spend a moment studying the movements of the liquid and take note of its texture in order to compare it to later samples.
Now that you’ve eyed your dram, you can examine the aromas of your whisky. The olfactory senses are a highly sensitive system that, according to experts, are more responsive to the full character of a spirit than the palate itself. In fact, some claim that tasting a dram is only functional insofar as it confirms what the nose has already told you.
To begin, give your dram a quick swirl and hold the glass a little way from your face. The high alcohol content of whisky can easily anesthetise or overwhelm the senses, so it’s best to keep a bit of distance at first.
With your mouth slightly ajar, take a slow, deep inhale through the nose while gradually moving the glass closer towards you. Repeat this process three or four times, coming closer to the glass with each inhale until your nose is hovering just above the rim.
The scent of whiskey fluctuates greatly depending on category and production, so you can expect to discover spectrums that range from delicate floral perfumes to bold motions of peat and oak.
It’s also worth considering the “nosefeel” present in the dram: is it eucalyptic and cooling or peppery and warm?
When describing the dram in your notes, it can be useful to visualise the perfumes you’re met with. What picture does the scent bring to mind?
Whether green meadows or a crackling fire, an image can be a brilliant starting point to identify and articulate a whisky’s flavour profile.
Having come up with some initial impressions of your whisky, the next step is to sample it on the palate. Enjoy making this a lengthy and relaxed portion of the tasting, taking small sips from the dram and mulling over its character for a good while.
Only very small mouthfuls are required to sufficiently taste a whisky and, while there’s definitely no need for a spittoon, a successful tasting is concerned more with familiarising yourself with a nice spirit than getting a little soused.
For your first sip, bring your whisky into the mouth and let it coat the palate, gently using your tongue to draw the liquid around the cheeks and up to the roof of the mouth.
After holding the dram for a short while, swallow slowly and savour its unique expression.
When meeting the whisky, focus on the broad flavours that first appear to you and make a general categorisation of its profile, be it sweet, rich, aromatic, woody, or bitter.
Having noted several loose descriptors, further examine the dram’s qualities and identify some specific notes. It may present soft shades of citrus, honey, cream, and vanilla, or an earthier blend of charcoal, molasses, allspice and tobacco. It may even take you on a journey between the two.
Now, pay attention to the mouthfeel. What texture does the whisky bring to the palate? Is it warm, drying, smooth, refreshing, or rounded? You can also take note of its structure; whether there is a distinct rise and fall of certain features and at which moment notes are introduced.
The final point to consider is the whisky’s finish. After swallowing, the impression of the dram will linger on the palate and develop some new, subtle shades. Observe the length of the finish, whether it is rich, spiced, and lingering, or light, clean, and short.
Having contemplated the full breadth of your dram’s flavours, body, and finish, take another sip to delve further into the expression.
Whisky Tasting FAQs
Can I Use Ice (‘On the Rocks’) When Whisky Tasting?
It is generally accepted by whisky experts that, while a couple of cubes can make casual drinking more enjoyable, ice should never be present during a tasting session as its cooling effect constricts and effaces gentle aromas and flavours.
Should I Add Water When Whisky Tasting?
Adding a splash of water to your dram is a great way to open the whisky and explore it in more depth. By marginally reducing the liquor’s alcohol content, previously hidden bouquets are revealed to both the nose and the palate.
Add one or two drops of water to the dram and repeat the tasting process. Assess how the whisky has evolved in being diluted, and whether any surprising chords have risen to the surface.
How Do I Cleanse My Palate When Whisky Tasting?
Water is the only thing you’ll need to cleanse the palate in between whisky samples. Simply swill small sips around the mouth to neutralise the remaining hints of your previous dram.
Of course, if you want a more thorough refreshment, a light fruit sorbet works perfectly (nothing too zesty, though – you don’t want to come away from a top shelf single malt thinking it tastes like a shot of lemon sherbet).
How Do I Cleanse My Nose When Whisky Tasting?
If you’re looking to achieve a completely clean slate, you can take a deep sniff of some fresh coffee grounds to cleanse the nose before moving on to your next whisky with a fresh perspective.