Exploring whisky with Dominic Roskrow
In our new series we’re taking a wide view of the world of whisky and looking at different aspects of it in some depth. This week we thought we’d look at how to enjoy whisky through taste and smell.
If you’re new to whisky you will find some easy to follow guidelines in the features section of The W Club.
A great deal has been written about the right way to taste and nose whisky. Let’s get one thing from the outset: there is no correct way to taste or nose whisky. Once you’ve got yourself a decent glass and a decent malt whisky to put in it, you should approach drinking it in whatever way that most makes you happy.
That said, whisky nosing and tasting becomes more fun and is considerably easier if a few ground rules are observed. Play with them as you see fit, however.
The concept of the tumbler of whisky consumed by a roaring fire in a leather armchair under the head of a wall-mounted dead stag is as out-dated as it is clichéd. You can’t enjoy malt whisky properly if it’s served up in a tumbler, particularly if you live in a country where the standard measure barely covers the bottom of the glass.
We talk about nosing whisky because much of the subtlety and sophistication of a malt whisky is experienced through the nose, which can pick up on a far larger number of aromas than the tongue can pick up flavours.
So it’s important to have a glass that will allow you to smell the contents and that won’t happen with a tumbler.
The ideal malt whisky glass will have a bulbous bottom and a tapered neck, narrowing to the rim so that the aromas are concentrated in to a small area at the top. It may or may not have a stem. What it should have, though, is a base which allows the drinker to hold it without cupping the liquid itself.
There are dedicated malt whisky glasses on the market and they’re not expensive. But if you have nothing else, a red wine glass or a brandy glass is better than chunky square tumbler.
Water or no water?
Don’t let anyone tell you shouldn’t add water to malt whisky. This view is piffle and should be treated with contempt, not least because in most cases the malt in your glass has already been mixed with water to bring it down to bottling strength and if it hasn’t and has been bottled at cask strength, you’ll need to add water to bring it down to a tolerable level to drink it.
About four out of five whisky journalists add water to whisky to appreciate it, and blenders and whisky makers will nose whisky when it is diluted down to 20% ABV. There is a reason for this. Adding water to malt whisky is the equivalent to a spring shower on a rose garden: pleasant enough before, but far more fragrant afterwards.
Adding water to take malt under 40% isn’t for everyone.
There is no right or wrong, though, and the decision on water should be all yours.
Here are a few pointers to how to appreciate malt.
Take notes. These are your personal record and are anything you want them to be. It doesn’t matter if you write a load of drivel as long as that drivel means something to you.
Write down the name of the malt you are tasting, its strength and whether you like it or not. If it reminds you of anything write that down too, no matter how simplistic or strange it might be.
Divide your tasting notes in to the following sections: Colour, nose, palate and finish.
Before you nose or taste a whisky you can get some valuable clues as to what to expect from it just by appearance. Shake a sample of whisky in a bottle and it will form bubbles on its surface. These disappear again quite quickly. But a whisky with a strong alcoholic content will form small bubbles and they will remain longer. Standard strength whiskies as opposed to cask strength ones will form big bubbles and they will disappear quickly.
Once in the glass the liquid can be swilled up the side of the glass. Look carefully where the whisky has been. ‘Legs’ – small columns of liquid – will form and run back down the glass. Slow, thick legs indicate an older whisky.
The biggest clue, though, comes from the colour of the whisky – but it is a clue only. If the whisky has been matured in a bourbon cask the colour will be more golden lemon and straw-coloured. Sherry casks impart an amber-mahogany colour to whisky.
Deeper colours may indicate a greater age but you need to be careful here – relatively old whisky from a bourbon cask will be lighter than a much younger sherried whisky and an older cask that has been used for whisky making before will impart less colour than a first fill cask.
So it’s a clue only. It is worth noting the colour, though, as it will help you identify whiskies in the future.
Whisky should be approached in the same way that you might approach an unfamiliar animal – slowly and with a great deal of respect. Swirl the whisky around in the glass and then smell it from a distance, gradually bringing it closer to your nose.
This is important because high strength whiskies will have an eye-watering nose prickle and your sense of smell will close down if there is too magic alcohol.
Try nosing the whisky with both nostrils at the same time and then one after the other – some people find that one of the three ways of nosing suits them better.
What you’re trying to do is identify any familiar smells in the whisky. Can you smell any fruit or berries, is it spicy or smoky, can you smell sherry or vanilla?
Three points here:
1. Don’t be bothered in the least if you can’t really identify anything particularly at first – it takes a while to get the hang of it.
2. Whatever you identify is personal to you and there are no rights and wrongs in this process, so don’t feel intimidated if others seem to be much more accomplished at nosing and are identifying aromas that you just don’t get.
3: if you think you smell roast beef and Yorkshire pudding topped with English mustard then write it down and stick with it. As long as you recognise the smell again it’s a suitable descriptor for you.
Adding water often unlocks a whisky and releases its rainbow of aromas, so add a small amount of water if you want to. Take a small taste of the undiluted whisky before you do though.
To taste whisky put a sizeable amount of it in the mouth and hold it there before swallowing (you can spit it out but that’s a bit like watching football highlights with the goals removed and unless you’re tasting a lot of whisky, spitting is not recommended).
From the taste you want to try and assess how it feels in the mouth (is it rich and mouth-filling or thin and winey, is it zesty or fizzy in any way)?; does it taste like a whisky and does it taste nice?; and does the taste linger in the mouth when you’ve swallowed it?
The first two points constitute the ‘palate’ and the third, the finish.
Again don’t get too hung up on this early on. After all, how do you know a car is fast or slow until you’ve travelled in a number of vehicles doing a range of different speeds? The more whiskies you try, the more reference points you’ll have and the easier it’ll be. And if that isn’t an incentive to keep tasting I don’t know what is.
There are several books that go in to the subject of nosing and tasting in much more depth, and some people will get immense pleasure out of learning the science of it all and taking it seriously.
But I don’t subscribe to that school of thought. Whisky is an organic, evolving, social drink that should be enjoyed. The fun of tasting whisky is just that; tasting it and finding a portfolio of malts that you like and can return to again and again. When you get down to it it’s as simple as that: do I like the taste of this whisky, and would I want to drink it again?
Read the first Exporing Whisky article right here