How to Taste Whiskey

We’re pretty sure that whiskey is made by magic. That being said, learning how to taste whiskey basically makes you a wizard.

How else can you explain barley or rye, water, and yeast turning into such a wide variety of gorgeous liquids in so many different cultures and styles? Yup. It’s magic.

To get a sense of just how magical it is, you have to taste it. A lot. By sampling and comparing your Canadian whiskies to your bourbons to your scotches to your Japanese whiskies and so on, you can get a sense of just how versatile it really is.

Unsure where to start? Check out the following steps in the basic tasting technique. Give them a read before you visit a local distillery so you can hang with the pros.

The Tasting Process

Yes, there’s a little more to properly tasting whiskey than just tossing it back. Here are the steps to properly tasting the nectar of the gods:

1. Start With the Right Glass

A rocks glass is fine for drinking, but we’re tasting here. So you need the appropriate whiskey glass. Look for a Glencairn, which is tall, thin, and tulip-shaped. It also has a stem on it so you can hold it from the base without affecting the temperature of your whiskey.

If you don’t have a Glencairn, a wine glass will do in a pinch.

2. Sniff Gently

Whiskey is high in alcohol, which is only one of many reasons why we love it so. If you take a big ol’ whiff, you might singe your nose hairs. And you’ll definitely risk overwhelming your olfactory senses. So take a few shallow, delicate sniffs to get a feel for the aromas.

Now swirl a bit and sniff again. The aromas aren’t the same at the top of the pour as they are at the bottom, so a swirl will help you experience a wider range of smells. See what memories or associations come to you. If you’re having trouble placing a scent, you can refer to your aroma chart.

What’s an aroma chart? Keep reading …

3. Take a Good Look

Texture and color are important parts of the experience, too. As you swirl and sniff, observe how viscous the whiskey appears on the sides of the glass. The slower the liquid falls down the sides, the higher alcohol content it has.

Next, look at the color. Usually, the darker the whiskey, the longer it spent aging in its cask. Of course, that’s assuming the distiller didn’t add any caramel coloring. This is legal for some whiskeys but not for bourbon or straight American whiskeys.

4. Take a Sip

Time to taste! Take a very small sip, and just hold it in your mouth for a moment, rolling it around. Pucker up like you’re sipping through a straw and bring some air into your mouth. This will help open up the flavor.

What do you taste — besides alcohol? Since most whiskeys have a high ABV, it’s normal to just get that alcohol burn at first. As you continue to taste (both in each individual tasting and across your journey to whiskey connoisseur), you will become more accustomed to that burn and find that you can identify more flavors.

5. Note the Finish

Follow your sip all the way down as you swallow. That continuing burn down your throat is the finish. Some will have a much longer, more intense burn, while others will be smoother and seem to disappear as you swallow.

6. Add a Drop of Water, and Sip Again

Use a straw or a pipette to add just a couple of drops of water. Then repeat the tasting process. Water can help to open up the flavors and aromas. Your second tasting may reveal entirely new notes.

The Aroma of Whiskey

whiskey tasting notes
There’s a saying in the whiskey world that tasting just confirms what your nose already told you.

Whiskey tasting is really a sniffing game.

Not all tasters will agree 100% on how to categorize the different aromas and flavors of their favorite whiskeys. But that’s okay! Tasting whiskey can be very personal.

Still, as you get started, it may help to refer to a whiskey aroma chart or aroma wheel to help give you the language to describe what’s in your glass.

The tasting wheel from Whisky Magazine is a great place to start. It breaks aromas down into eight categories and includes some common flavors you might find in each.

The first six categories include the flavors that come from the distillation process, while the last two arise during the cask aging.

  1. Cereal (hops, mashed potato, bran, corn)
  2. Fruity (apples, raisins, lemon, fruit cake, zest)
  3. Floral (perfume, florist’s shop, grassy, sage, mulch)
  4. Peaty (moss, earth, shellfish, incense, tar)
  5. Feinty (yeast, leather, tea, tobacco, honey)
  6. Sulfury (cabbage water, hot sand, pencil eraser, spent matches)
  7. Woody (oak, sandalwood, cigar boxes, toffee, coffee grounds, burnt toast)
  8. Winey (port, walnuts, bitter chocolate, almond oil, chardonnay)

As you sip your dram, you can refer back to a flavor wheel to help you identify what you’re smelling and tasting. If you’re a bourbon buff or a Scotch stan, you can also look for tasting wheels specific to those types of whiskey:

Fun fact is the aromas and flavors of whiskey are very much like the terpenes that dictate the aroma and flavor of cannabis.

Host a Classy Tasting Party

If you want to get some practice before tasting at a distillery, why not throw a little whiskey tasting party? Invite some friends over, print up a few aroma wheels, and see what you can smell. When you’re done tasting, turn your relaxation dial up another notch with a great cannabis pairing, like the Do-Si-Dos strain or Fire OG. You can use our hand made flight paddle to show off and serve your guests during your tasting.

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Wooden Flight Paddle
100% Locally sourced Canadian walnut, live edge. 22” long, 1” thick Width varies between 5” - 7” due to the natural wood shape. Holes are 2 1/8” dia. Perfect fitting for a Glencairn whiskey glass Finished with all natural, food safe finish

What’s Most Important Part of tasting Whiskey?

Enjoying yourself and enjoying what’s in your glass.

Whiskey in all its forms is something we’re lucky enough to be able to enjoy. In the words of Mark Twain, “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.”

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Brooklyn native, accent-having, travel lover, wordsmith and bud enthusiast. Versed from the streets of NYC, mixed with some world influence, writer/editor and medical user extraordinaire, JJ is here to tell you like it is and guide you to the finest. Brooklyn's favorite feminine stoner, your neighborhood contributor, wrapping leaves like a bandage and bringing you along for the ride.

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