Everybody enjoys whisky in his or her own way and that's fine by me.
Well, with one major exception: people who put ice in their whisky.
This is, in my humble opinion, not only stupid - it's an awful waste.
Ice not only ruins the structure of a malt whisky on the palate, you'll
lose at least three quarters of the magnificent fragrances as well.
If you really need to dilute a malt, just use distilled or mineral water.
But once again we're getting a little bit ahead of ourselves now...
We should concentrate on choosing the right GLASSWARE first.
Although the tongue plays a big role in whisky appreciation as well, the NOSE
tells us the most about a malt.
You'll be pleased to learn that, as far as single malts are concerned, the size of your organ plays a minor part in the experience. With the right glassware you can even distinguish several 'layers' in the bouquet, depending on how far you keep your nose above (or even in) the glass. Watch out not to knock out your nose with cask strength malts!
Some people argue that a tumbler is better for judging the colour of the whisky. Yeah well - frankly I'd rather drink the stuff than look at it, but that's just me ;-) However, the COLOUR can actually tell you something more about that whisky. The spectrum goes from pale straw via golden to dark amber. Single malts that were matured in bourbon barrels, for example, are usually very pale. When sherry casks are used for storing the whisky the colour is usually much darker. Whiskies also grow darker as they age, but a lot of bottlers artificially colour their malts with caramel, so it is probably best not to judge a sheep by it's colour - or something along those lines...
When it comes to NOSING
noble drinks like cognac, armagnac and single malt whisky, just following your instincts might not
be the best idea, though. There are certain 'tricks' - like nosing in three stages - that can help you get the most from a glass.
For my personal tasting ritual, I usually taste my whiskies in a large cognac
snifter (a.k.a. 'fishbowl') which 'gives the most nose' for me. Wine glasses and
sherry copitas are relatively suitable as well, but make sure to avoid tumblers!
During the 1990's one often had to rely on glasses that were designed for an
other spirit, but these days dozens of different special whisky 'nosing' glasses
are available. The Advanced Beginner's Guide offers a test of the main choices.
To quote Sir Edmund Blackadder:
When you take your time, you will notice that the bouquet often changes considerably after you've allowed
the malt to 'breathe' for some time. Take at least half an hour for a glass of malt whisky. Nosing a dram is
by definition a personal experience, because every nose is 'technically' unique and there are hundreds of
different components that together make up the bouquet of a simple malt whisky. Apart from these type
of 'technical' aspects, the very nature of our memory ensures that nosing a malt will always be personal.
We tend to associate all the aromas we find in a malt whisky with familiar smells from the past to be able
to define the experience. Everybody has a unique frame of reference - and therefor a unique vocabulary to
describe the scents and flavours that can be found in a single malt whisky. Just follow your own instincts...
Whisky Classified (David Wishart)
And this brings us to the tricky topic of TASTE
- and I'm not talking about your choice of apparel (like, say, anoraks) here...
There's a lot more to tasting a malt whisky than just the taste, if you get my drift... Things like the texture and 'mouth feel'
of a whisky, the development over time and the different parts of your mouth that are affected. The issue of dilution plays
an important role as well - some cask strength whiskies NEED water to flourish while others are destroyed by a few drops.
Different parts of your tongue register different taste sensations. The average tongue has
only 3000 papillae, each detecting only one out of four primary tastes; sweet, salt, sour &
bitter. Well, there have been rumours about a fifth taste, 'umami'. It's the Japanese word
for 'delicious', but it also means 'fleshy' and/or 'spicy'. I'll have to do some more research...
At any rate, those four or five primary tastes are divided further into many different groups.
On subdivisions: various tastes of
There are only four (or five) primary tastes but there are over twenty primary aromas.
And as anybody who has ever visited a fish market at the end of a hot summer day could tell you, the human
nose can distinguish much more than those twenty basic aromas. Actually, most of what we experience when
we're 'tasting' anything can be attributed to our noses anyway. That's why you can't taste whisky (or food)
very well when you're suffering from the common cold. At those times, nice whiskies are pearls before swine.
The bad news is that our noses, very much like the rest of our bodies, deteriorate over time anyway.
That's why it's such a good idea to start drinking single malt whisky as young as possible ;-)
I guess FOOD is somewhat related to the topic of taste as well - but I won't go into that subject in this Beginner's Guide. For now, all you really need to know that it is best to avoid eating a spicy dinner just before a whisky tasting. In fact, it would be preferable to enjoy a generous but fairly bland meal at least two hours before the tasting. If you require sustenance during a tasting, plain white bread or crackers are usually best. Needless to say, if you take that bread or cracker with smoked salmon, chances are you'll find smoke or salmon in your whisky - maybe even both! So, it's usually best to control your appetites until AFTER the whisky tasting is over.
And what about DILUTION - adding water to the whisky to help release the bouquet? Like so many other things concerning the finer things in life, that's just a matter of taste. Or lack thereof.... I often add some pure mineral water (no bubbles!) to help release the aroma's. Adding water is usually good for the nose of a malt, but not always for the palate, so I make sure to always have some sniffs and sips before I start adding water. And even then, I make sure to only add a few drops at a time - especially when I'm sampling a malt that was bottled at 40 or 43%. Obviously, cask strength malts like Glenfarclas 105 that's bottled at an ABV of 60% can be diluted more rigorously than whiskies bottled at a regular 40 or 43 percent, but even then I recommend caution.
When you add water (preferably at room-temperature) in different stages, you'll find that some single malts are best experienced neat, while others require different amounts of water
to flourish. Some malts require no more than a teardrop, while others only open up after nearly being drowned.
Even with a cask strength whisky 50/50 is the absolute maximum for me, but there are people who happily murder a good malt by adding twice as much water to it. That's whisky flavoured water, as far as I'm concerned!
Anyway, that's yet another one of those matters of purely personal preference.
The most important thing is giving a malt whisky enough TIME to develop properly.
Finishing your dram within five or ten minutes is a bit like leaving a movie during
the second act - you think you're saving yourself some valuable time but in the
end you're missing out on part of the fun - and perhaps even the whole point...
I'm not suggesting you should reserve 2 or 3 hours for every single malt whisky
(although some are arguably worth it) but I'd say it really deserves half an hour.
If you've read this far you probably are a person of style and sophistication.
And even if you're not, you can pretend to be by amazing your friends with all the
malt knowledge you've picked up so far. But at some point you're going to have
to face the music and try your first real drams. And then try some more.
Before we proceed to chapter 9 I'd like to stress the importance of glassware one more time.
Trust me when I say that a bad malt from a good glass can smell better than a good malt from a bad glass - strange but true...
The next chapter deals with the 'practical issues' that any curious novice stumbling through the whisky world has to deal with.
Well, any novice that wants to become something more than a novice, that is. Click on for some guidance during your first shaky steps...
that come with a
Seven Scent Groups
Experts often use seven 'scent groups'
to classify the
scents in malt whiskies. For me personally, I don't find
this classification system very useful, but it may work for
you. If you believe everything 'they' say, SMSW should be
served at room temperature.
Well, I personally prefer to drink my malts slightly warmer;
especially because the fainter aroma's tend to become
more pronounced and develop more rapidly inside the
glass at higher temperatures - which enhances the fun.
And that's one of the reasons I love my massive cognac
bowls; they allow your hands to warm the glass.
After investigating a fine single malt whisky I always have a few sniffs from
my empty glass as well; the lingering aromas can give you an interesting
new perspective on the malt you've just enjoyed. Just make sure not to
sniff that same glass the next morning ;-)
More details on the topic of nosing and tasting (and organising tasting
sessions) can be found in the Advanced Beginner's Guide - once it's done.
Meanwhile, I'll try to address some of the most important points here...
Also, should you nose a whisky with your mouth open or closed? Keeping your
mouth open at the time of nosing provides free passage of air. With the help of
the 'backdraft' you may be able to recognise more subtleties. Just give it a try...
Some people try to cover as much as possible of the inside surface of the glass
to give the whisky maximum 'breathing space'. This also allows you to inspect the
'legs' of a whisky. That are the drops that trickle back down the inside of a glass.
Heavy legs (slowly moving drops) usually spell good news unless it's caused by
large quantities of caramel.