For me tasting is a ritual, even though it begins with practicality. This is not just a case of having everything ready before pouring. The size and shape of the glassware, for example, determines how aromas and flavours are channelled, which in turn influences our perception of a whisky. Which glass is best depends on your preferences. A fascinating experiment is to pour the same amount of whisky into a range of glassware and compare the results. Aesthetics also play a role. This may seem superficial, but I don’t want to taste something I love from something that I don’t.
A flight should begin with the lowest alcoholic strength then ascend the scale, and proceed stylistically from elegant to richer, culminating in peated (which a quick nosing can establish if information is lacking). If I have one sample to assess I wouldn’t taste it in isolation, and always begin with a ‘control’ whisky, which helps acclimatise the palate to alcohol, and enables me to check that my senses are all in working order.
While opening bottles and pouring samples the brain is already busy looking for clues to anticipate what each whisky has to offer. But how reliable, and useful, are these clues?
First, the visuals. The design of a bottle and label are specifically made to create an emotional response, as well as being informative. If I don’t like the presentation then I’m already in a certain frame of mind, expecting less from the contents. And if I like the design, I expect the whisky to take me straight to a special place. The risk is that I end up judging a whisky against my expectations, rather than what’s on my palate. I often receive samples in plain ‘lab style’ bottles, which is a great equaliser, and I’m not distracted by style.
In addition to visuals the brain loves to analyse factual information: the price, age, rarity of a bottling, the production story and so on, which create expectations. I do, of course, want to know every single detail, but only after I’ve tasted the whisky, to ensure I’m judging flavour rather than information.
And once the whisky is in a glass, I don’t focus on colour or legs, as this is another case of the brain looking for clues and thinking it’s being clever. A light colour may lead the brain to decide, ‘minimal ageing in a sleepy old Bourbon barrel,’ which is bound to have an influence. So I tell my brain to keep quiet and wait for the evidence rather than rushing ahead with supposition.
The same applies to legs. I enjoy the patterns they create running down the sides of the glass, but what does this actually tell me about viscosity or alcoholic strength? I’d rather experience these on the palate and assess their role in the overall profile of the whisky. Coloured glassware is one way of preventing colour and legs from providing any influence (or temptation). A traditional option is blue glass, though Glencairn provides an additional choice of red, green and gold, following last year’s limited-edition black glass.
I begin nosing by gently rotating whisky around the glass, holding it at a slight angle, to help release aromas (swirling releases too much alcohol, which causes delay waiting for the alcohol to subside and character to emerge). To check I’m getting aroma rather than alcohol I position the glass a few inches below my nose, then my nose descends into the glass and gets to work on an ‘in and out’ basis. Lingering isn’t advisable as the nose is soon saturated with alcohol. A nose that retreats and returns is also an effective way to monitor change as the aroma evolves. I keep my mouth open when nosing, which I feel makes it a more incisive process (possibly due to better air circulation, but there’s currently no science on this).
I like to nose the entire flight, up and back down again, before tasting. This puts me in a more analytical mindset, and comparing samples makes it easier to gauge the extent of each aroma.
I think of aroma as an experience in its own right, rather than an indication of the palate. Otherwise the mind can create an expectation that the aroma should be replicated on the palate in terms of range and intensity, rather than allowing it to speak for itself.
Whether to taste with or without adding water is a constant question, and one answer is that water ‘opens up’ a whisky. This suggests that diluting makes the flavours more accessible, but it’s more accurate to say this changes a whisky, as alcoholic strength is one factor that determines the flavour profile a whisky shows.
I always taste at bottling strength as I love the intensity. The reason I dilute is to see how a whisky changes in terms of character (and prove to myself that undiluted is preferable). One major change is that bottling strength typically yields a sequence of individual flavours, each having their moment in the spotlight (which I prefer), whereas adding water usually ‘integrates’ the flavours within a package. And after a certain point of dilution peated whiskies can become thin and flat, while sherried whiskies can collapse, which is tragic after the time and effort required to produce them.
The texture of a whisky, whether soft and delicate, firmer and fuller-bodied, or even juicy and creamy, is also minimised or lost through dilution. And rather than texture being a key part of a whisky’s individuality, each sample ends up having the same ‘watery’ texture (another reason why I personally lament dilution).
An illuminating exercise is to pour the same amount of a whisky into several glasses of the same type, taste the first glass neat, the second with one drop of water, the next with two drops of water and so on, in order to compare and contrast.
This of course requires water to be added in accurate amounts. Dribbling water from a jug is too random compared to the precision of a pipette. The choice of pipette used to be small, medium or large, but always ‘lab style’. Pipettes are no longer all created equal; some culminate in a decorative but appropriate detail, such as a pot still, which is my favourite (thank you Angels’ Share).
The finish is a vital part of assessing a whisky, particularly as flavours linger far longer in the finish than they do on the palate. In this sense the finish acts as a ‘living memory’ of the palate.
My tasting schedule is from 9am to 12pm, the pace leisurely, repeatedly sniffing, sipping and spitting, while I jot down words and phrases that evolve into sentences. My aim is to convey the experience of tasting the whisky, the texture, sequence of flavours, which are primary and secondary, how they interact with each other, the relationship between sweetness and dryness, how the whisky evolves and how it culminates in the finish. The emotions a whisky creates are also a significant part of a tasting note; although they can be difficult to define, those emotions can actually say it all.