A Geek’s Guide To Whisky Tasting

Here at WGN Tower we firmly believe that as long as you can be passionate about something then you are a geek. Therefore, we asked the gang what other hobbies, outside of films, comics, games and all the usual stuff that they partake in, and which might interest our readers. After we rejected pitches for “Vegetable Peelers Ranked From Best To Worst!”, “The Noble Sport Of Suitcase Flinging”, “Urban Brutalist Photography From The F77 Bus, Leighton Buzzard to Dunstable” and “The Five Tightest Pairs Of Trousers I Have Ever Worn” Paul stepped up and offered to do us something about his admiration of The Wee Dram!


Sláinte!

The above phrase, often used as a toast while drinking whisky, is Irish Gaelic. There’s a little dispute over how it’s pronounced but as we’re all friends, it doesn’t really matter if you say “slorn-chuh” (this is probably closest to the pronunciation in Ireland), “slarn-cha” (closest to Scottish, and my preferred pronunciation) or “slan-juh” – but the meaning is what’s important: “Health”. You may want to expand on that and say “Sláinte mhath” (Good health – pronounced slarn-cha-var).

So, friends, I raise a glass to you and welcome you to my Geek’s Guide To Whisky Tasting!

Wait. Did You Lose An ‘E’?

That depends where you are in the world. If you’re in Scotland, then absolutely not. Whisky is an Anglicised version of the Scots Gaelic word “usquebaugh”, which translates as Water Of Life. This phrase has popped up all over the world in other languages to describe the locally produced moonshine. You may recognise the tipples Eau De Vie, Akvavit or Aqua Vitae – well they all have the same etymology.

Generally, it’s Whisky in Scotland and Whiskey in Ireland. However, due to the large number of Irish immigrants and their descendants in North America, you will find the E is prevalent in USA and Canada too. There are exceptions, such as Maker’s Mark Kentucky Bourbon, which dropped the E to give their drink more of a Scottish feel. And if you’re in Japan, then the E is also missing. The father of Japanese whisky, Masataka Taketsuru, studied chemistry at Glasgow University and learned the whisky making process during his time there, taking it home to Japan with his Scottish bride and founding the Nikka distillery. His former colleague Shinjiro Torii also learned the Scots method, forming Suntory. As a result, they always spell it the Scottish way.

Scotch whisky’s relationship with Japan goes back long before Taketsuru and Torii were born. In the 19th century, as industrialisation started to sweep across Scotland, the architect Charles Doig was inspired by hay drying barns of Islamic and Oriental architecture. For the kiln house of Dailuaine distillery, he created an air inlet inspired by the familiar Japanese cupola design (often incorrectly referred to as a pagoda, which is the name for the whole building, not just the peak of the roof). This allowed for clean, cool air to be drawn in from outside, and hot air and smoke ejected, without the need for complex machinery. If you visit a Scottish distillery today, you will more than likely see a Doig Ventilator on the roof.

What Do I Need To Get Started?

Aside from the drink itself (which I will come to in a moment), the most important thing you need for a basic whisky tasting session is a suitable glass. Some people like to use a straight-sided tumbler, which is fine for enjoying a drink with friends, but for tasting, you need a specially shaped glass with a wide base and a smaller aperture. Some opt for a tulip glass, but I prefer the Glencairn, which is thistle-shaped.

The wider base allows you to swirl the liquid around in the glass without fear of spilling any and the thinning aperture prevents the aromas from escaping quickly, giving you a stronger, more intense smell.

After the glassware, it would be helpful to have a pitcher of still water, preferably mineral water, but tap water will do if you have none. The water performs two functions: Firstly, you will need to refresh your palate after each tasting so that the flavours of the previous whisky don’t interfere with the next. A swig of water swirled around your mouth should help with that. Secondly, and perhaps more controversially, you may want to add small amounts of water to the drink. Some believe that the drink should remain untainted, but others, myself included, believe that just a few drops of water to a dram can drastically change its qualities, adding sweetness and removing fieriness.

Aside from water, some like to keep a few fingers of plain Scottish shortbread to hand for clearing the palate (any excuse to eat a biscuit!) and others like to use a bowl of ground coffee, which can be sniffed to clear out and refresh the nasal passage.

Choosing A Whisky

So, you’ve got your glassware, shortbread, water and coffee grounds. So what should you drink? Here the choice is entirely yours. You could do a tasting where you try all different sorts of whiskies, or maybe you want to compare a bunch of similar ones. That’s up to you. But there are lots (I’m serious there are LOTS) to choose from. And that’s before you even leave Scotland.

To get an inkling of which ones you want, it’s best to start by reading the back of a bottle (or tasting notes on whisky websites like Master Of Malt or The Whisky Exchange). Just like wine, the label will give you a few notes on what to expect from their whisky. The label may also tell you something about the manufacturing process, like which barrels it was stored in. The flavours of the barrel’s previous occupants will infuse into the whisky over several years, so sherry casks might add richness to a whisky, whereas bourbon casks might infuse it with a hint of sweetness and vanilla notes.

This grid might help you choose a bottle which caters to your own personal tastes:

And then you have regions to consider. There are several whisky-producing regions in Scotland, all of which have their own distinct attributes. Speyside, in western Scotland, is renowned for a lighter, more floral drink due to the relatively clear mountain waters of the river Spey, while the springs of the Hebridean island of Islay filter through peat bogs, adding a rich smoky flavour and dark colour.

The whisky-producing regions of Scotland are:

  • Highlands – These whiskies tend to have a sweet start with a dry finish, and maybe a hint of heat and saltiness to them. Notable malts include Glengoyne, Dalwhinnie and Oban.
  • Speyside – This is really a section of Highlands but as over half of all distilleries in Scotland are in this region it is regarded as an important sub-region. Sherry flavours with a sweet finish are popular here. Notable malts: Too many to mention, but I do like  Macallan, Glenfiddich and Cardhu.
  • Islay – An island off the south-west coast of Scotland. Appearance is dark, almost tea-like, and flavours are peaty, smoky and medicinal. Notable malts: Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Bunnahabhain.
  • Islands – All islands except Islay fall into this region. Less peaty than Islay, but still smokier than mainland whiskies, with a hint of the sea-salt about them. Notable malts: Tobermory, Talisker and Highland Park.
  • Lowlands – Incorporating Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee, the lowlands produce a lighter coloured, mellower malt which is drier and less fiery than its highland neighbours. Notable malts: Auchentoshan, Glenkinchie and Bladnoch
  • Campbeltown – Once a major region, but now only home to three distilleries, Campbeltown produces distinctive malts which are similar in peatiness to its neighbour Islay, but with a saltier finish. Notable malts: Glen Scotia, Longrow and Springbank.

The age of a whisky may also help influence your choice. When you see a bottle with 12 Year Old on the label, that doesn’t mean that the whisky was started 12 years ago (although it could have been) – it means that the whisky matured in the cask for 12 years. That’s where the flavour develops and the whisky takes on the flavours of the water and casks used. The longer it’s in the cask, the more flavours it takes on. Older whiskies also tend to be richer, smoother and a little less fiery in flavour.

Malt, Grain Or Blended

You’ve heard me mention the phrase “Malt” a few times. This is a shortened form of Single Malt, which refers to the fact that barley, from one source, was used in the manufacturing process of the whisky. However, if you add other cereals to the process, such as corn, wheat or rye, you end up with a grain whisky. Grain whisky is also mixed with malt whisky to create the most popular worldwide sort of whisky – Blended. Master blenders will mix different grains and malts together to create a unique flavour. Most people associate the cheaper brands such as Bells, Teachers and J&B with blended, but recently it has become much more of an art form, producing favourites such as Monkey Shoulder, Chivas Regal and Sheep Dip.

Occasionally a grain will not be used for blending, but will instead be aged and produced in a similar fashion to a malt. This results in what is called a Single Grain such as Haig Club, Girvan or Loch Lomond (who also produce single malt).

What About Bourbon?

Most American whiskeys are made with grain but, contrary to popular belief, not all American whiskeys are Bourbons. Bourbon was originally from the state of Kentucky and there are a number of rules which govern whether a whiskey can be termed as one. The two main requirements are that the process must be carried out with at least 51% corn content and that it is matured in fired casks. This is the process where the insides of barrels are charred with fire meaning the whiskey is infused with the charcoal sugars, giving it a darker colour and sweeter taste.

Often the whiskey is also filtered through a bed of charcoal chips before maturation. This is called the Lincoln County Process. Jack Daniel’s is not a Bourbon – but this is a business choice by the distillery rather than because they have failed to meet any of the requirements. Basically, the best way to tell is if it says Bourbon on the label or not. Otherwise, there’s not really a huge noticeable difference between Bourbon and Tenessee Whiskey!

How Much Will This Set Me Back?

A standard bottle in the shop will usually be 10 to 15 years old and will probably set you back somewhere between £20 and £50. The rule of thumb is that the older the whisky, the more expensive. There are exceptions – last Christmas the budget supermarket Aldi ran a promotion for a 24-year-old special edition which cost me only £40. Some critics looked down their nose at it for this, but several, myself included really enjoyed it. I’m waiting for news of their special Christmas whisky for this year with anticipation!

And don’t forget, specialist shops (which exist in most big towns and cities these days) sell miniatures for many whiskies, starting at about £3 for a 50ml measure (which is a double in pub-speak). These same stores will sometimes allow you to taste a few, if they have a sample bottle open. It’s always worth asking. Some off-licenses and supermarkets also sell a selection of miniatures too, although normally quite limited.

Duty Free in airports is also a good place to get whisky at a knock down price – although they generally tend to sell litre bottles, so make sure you like it before you buy! And check prices elsewhere – yes, there are many bargains, but every now and then, they sneak a much more expensive one in. This is also the place to get special editions made exclusively for airport shops. Just don’t do what I did and buy a load on my way TO a fortnight in America – I had to trek all over NYC, Washington DC and Virginia with it in my bag!


So – now you have chosen your whiskies, you need to start the tasting session and here’s my recommendation on how you would go about that:

1. The Dram

A dram is one-eighth of a fluid ounce or approximately 4ml. Bear in mind that a standard measure is 25ml, so you only want a tiny amount, smaller than one-fifth of a measure. If you don’t and you are tasting a lot of whiskies, you will get very drunk very quickly. Which is not a good thing for many reasons, but primarily because your taste buds and palate will become dull and you won’t enjoy it as much. Some people like to use a spitoon – but I find that wasteful and, frankly, gross!

2. The Legs

Swirl the drink around in the glass, letting it coat the sides. Watch as is slowly dribbles back into the body of liquid, leaving trails behind. These trails are called Legs. Thicker whiskies leave larger legs, which take longer to sink back down. The longer the legs take to return to the dram, the lower the water content of the whisky. This could indicate a richer flavour or a more viscous texture.

3. The Nose

Once you’ve given the dram a good swirl, all the aromas and scents will be circling the glass. Stick your hooter in there and inhale deeply. What do you smell? Try to think past the obvious whisky smell to detect what else is hidden beneath. People don’t always get the same thing from the same whisky so don’t be embarrassed to say what you smell. Is it fruity? Citrus? Medicinal? Spicy?

Pear drops is often a smell that comes up, as is Pine Needles. And it’s perfectly OK to smell something you don’t expect, like Wood, Paint, or, as is sometimes the case in Islay malts, Barbecue Sauce. All these observations are valid. Write them down!

4. The Palate

Now the good bit you’ve been waiting for – tasting (although some would argue that the tasting actually begins with The Nose)! Make an “ooh” shape with your mouth and take a small sip, letting it roll over the tip of your tongue, down to the back of your mouth. Close your lips and let the aromas fill your mouth. Swirl it around a bit with your tongue.

Think about what you are tasting. Do you detect anything interesting? Apples perhaps? Christmas Cake? Smoke? Vinegar? Is it sweet? Or is it quite salty? If it’s applicable, can you taste bourbon/sherry from the casks? Does the flavour change as it moves around your mouth?

5. The Finish

Now swallow (or spit it out, if you really have to). How does your mouth feel? Is it left dry by tannins in the whisky? Was the dram quite fiery and now your mouth is tingling? Was it smooth and silky, gliding down your throat easily leaving a comforting, oily coating? Does the taste dissipate quickly or does it linger long after?  And if so, does the taste change after swallowing?

6. The Water

Cleanse your palate with some shortbread or water and start all over again, but this time add just a drop or two of water. Don’t pour water in, use a pipette or even the end of your finger if you haven’t got a dropper. Just those few drops will give you an all-new experience. Sometimes it enhances subtle flavours and other times it can dampen fire a little. The difference can be dramatic, but other times you might notice no change!

7. On To The Next Dram

Don’t forget to wash out your glass (or use a new one) and cleanse your palate with a spot of water before moving on to the next dram. Some folks like to move around a map of Scotland, others like to taste in order as the darkness of the spirit increases. There’s no wrong or right way to go about it, but I have found that having very different whiskies aside each other helps to tell them apart.

Things To Avoid

1. Eating Spicy Food Before

If you are coming to a whisky tasting from a meal in a curry house, or have devoured a chilli soaked donner kebab on the way there, then you might not get everything you want from the experience.  Strong flavours will affect your taste buds and you might struggle to notice the subtle differences in the whiskies.

2. Eating Any Food During

I’ve been to these events where plates of snacks, spicy tortilla chips, salty peanuts are on the tables with the tasting glasses. As above, these strong flavours will hamper your ability to taste the whiskies. Shortbread is a good palate cleanser as its subtle, buttery sweet flavour won’t interfere with the tasting.

3. Beverages

No beverages should be consumed during the tasting EXCEPT the whisky in question and your water. Hot drinks, in particular, can dull your taste buds.

4. Smoking

Some people associate whisky tasting with cigars. While this may be true, you should reserve that for after the tasting, for the same reason as listed above for spicy or salty food.

5. Ice

This can be a contentious issue. Whisky snobs sneer at people who put ice in their drink. But there is nothing wrong with that – usually! For a tasting, a slowly melting ice cube will not give you a true feel for the dram you are tasting as it is constantly diluting it. By all means serve ice, lemonade, cola or a mixer of your choice after the tasting, but not during.

6. Strong smells

Don’t burn scented candles or wear strong perfume/aftershave during the tasting. This will interfere with The Nose. The only thing you should be able to smell is the whisky you are tasting.

Can You Recommend Any Whiskies?

I’ll give you a few to get started, but bear in mind that whisky tasting is a personal affair and what I love, you might hate. Here are a few I have enjoyed recently (and which shouldn’t break the bank):

  • Jura Origin
  • Blanton’s Original Single Barrel Bourbon
  • Macallan Gold
  • Glengoyne 12 Year Old
  • Dalwhinnie 15 Year Old
  • Monkey Shoulder
  • The Tyreconnell Double Distilled Irish Whiskey
  • Armorik Whisky De Bretagne: Sherry Cask

Thank’s for reading. I hope you’ve found this helpful and informative. I’d love to know what whiskies you have tried and love/hate/been surprised by in the comments below.

Later this week I’ll be reporting back from this year’s Manchester Whisky Festival and sharing with you my top five favourite drams from the night.

Sláinte!


If you do host your own whisky tasting event, please do remember to drink responsibly.

Paul Childs

As well as writing for Den of Geek and Your Truth, Paul also runs Badgers Crossing, a site for ghost stories. He loves the 1980s and thanks to a keen interest in Public Information Films he has never been electrocuted or set himself on fire.