How To Taste Whiskey Like a Pro

You’re on your way to a whiskey distillery for the first time, or perhaps you’re sitting down to a fancy dinner at a restaurant and fancy ordering something a little different – a whiskey in fact. But wait… Where do you start?

You know not to knock the whiskey back, but how do you actually go about tasting it? Doesn’t all whiskey taste the same? How will you know the difference? What does ‘peaty’ mean? Have you made a mistake?

Relax. We’ve got your back. At Masons we’re delighted to serve some of the most delicious whiskies on the market, and because of this, we’re well versed with what to do. And we’re here to tell you that it’s not as difficult as it looks, and can be really enjoyable. Follow our simple guide to get started.

The glass

Believe it or not, but the glassware that you use to taste your whiskey can make a huge difference to the flavours and scents that you receive. The glass you’re looking for is called a ‘snifter’ – it looks a little like a wine glass but with a narrower opening and a stem that looks more ‘stubby’. It doesn’t just the part, it’s been specifically designed that way to enhance your tasting experience.

Its wide base makes it much easier for the whiskey to be swirled around the glass, while the narrow opening funnels the scents and aromas that are released and concentrates them in one place for easier sniffing. More on this later.

If you’re enjoying your whiskey at a distillery or a nice restaurant then it’s very likely you’ll be served your whiskey in the proper glassware. If you’re at home, a wine glass will do just fine.

The smell

If you’re practiced at wine tasting, you’re probably used to sticking your nose straight into the glass and inhaling deeply. Don’t do that with whiskey. Because it’s got a higher alcohol content, sniffing too much can make you feel woozy and spoil the overall impact that you’re trying to achieve.

Here’s how you really do it:

  • Swirl the whiskey gently around the bottom of the snifter
  • Catch gentle whiffs at the top of your glass
  • Between your swirling and sniffing, take a look at how the whiskey may have changed in colour – is it light gold or deep brown? A darker colour often shows that it’s been aged for longer
  • Does the whiskey drip down the glass slowly leaving lines? That’s a good sign

As you smell, avoid focusing on one single scent. Try and let the smells come to you. Our sense of smell is very strongly linked to memory and can trigger nostalgic moments, so let those guide you and see if the scents remind you of particular memories. If you’re in a group, maybe visiting a distillery, try not to let their thoughts influence what you pick up on.

And don’t just sniff, drink and move on. Don’t be afraid to smell twice or a few times as you will likely pick up on new scents each time. Some experienced whiskey tasters “reset” their nostrils by sniffing their wrist or back of their hand, almost like a palate cleanser.

The taste

Now it’s time for what you’ve been waiting for. When you’ve reached a point where you feel like you’ve smelled enough, it’s time to take a sip. Now you may not believe it, but the shape of your mouth is key here…

Start by taking a very small sip, and we mean very small. Pucker your lips into an ‘O’ shape as you take it in. Touch your tongue to the back of your lips and suck in air as you hold the whiskey in your mouth. It’s almost as if you’re gargling the whiskey – just without the dreadful sound – but what you’re actually doing is ensuring enough oxygen is getting through.

If you’re new to the whiskey-tasting scene, you may experience something of a burning or gagging sensation, but don’t worry, that will lessen with time. Alternate between the gargling action we talked about above and rolling the whiskey around your mouth.

Again, try not to fixate too much on picking up particular tastes; just passively observe what comes up. Try it a few times, just like the sniffing, and once you feel like you’ve gotten a good enough taste, swallow it. The burning sensation that happens as it goes down is called the finish, and be sure to make note of that too as different whiskies leave different finishes.

Should you add water?

The notion of whether or not water should be added to whiskey is one that has been debated back and forth for some time. Some people say you should never ever add water to your whiskey, but if you’re tasting it, we think it’s just fine to do so. In fact, adding a tiny bit of H20 can really make a difference to your experience as it opens up whole new layers of taste and scents. Why not try repeating the “swirl, smell, sip and swallow” process but this time with some added water to see the difference? Just be sure not to pour in a whole bottle; a couple of drops is all you need.

Last top tips

Don’t be afraid to take your time. You could be one ‘swirl and sniff’ away from discovering a whole new aroma. Have a bottle of fresh water to hand to drink in between different whiskies – got to cleanse that palate – and even take sips in between trying the same whiskey. It can make all the difference. And try your hardest to not have your thoughts influenced by those around you. This is your tasting experience, so make sure you get the most out of it.


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