A Novice Approach to Whiskey Tasting

A Novice Approach to Whiskey Tasting

Contributed by Dram Ram - Matthew Trotta

So, you’ve entered the world of whiskey, perhaps you’ve graduated from only drinking cocktails to drinking your whiskey on the rocks, or maybe you’ve even started drinking your whiskey “neat”. Maybe you have attended a few whiskey events, or distillery tours, or tastings. During any of these you may hear some terms such as “nosing” or “notes” or “finish”, and you may have heard someone call out flavors that seem far from the taste of whiskey, like, “cherries, leather, apricots, cinnamon.” And while you can distinguish a difference between whiskies, if you’re like me you struggle to put these flavor differences into words or pinpoint these flavor “notes” as specific as the professionals. For this reason, I have developed this guide to assist you to further develop your palate and ability to describe this amazing spirit. The first step in this is to know that it is OK to struggle in this. I get it – you read some of the tasting notes on the label or you see a review of a whiskey and it’s hard to believe that this person can find these flavors buried within the spirit. Some of us have been enjoying whiskey for years and still struggle to find the right words to describe the taste. Some folks have been drinking whiskey for only a few short months and describe the taste so vividly that they are either savant…. or they are just making it up…It’s easy to think that the whole thing is made up, or that you’ll never be able to taste these flavors. The reality is that flavor profiles are subjective (somewhat, but we’ll get into that), and the palate is a muscle that needs to be developed and maintained just like any other in the human body.

The next step is to simplify things. Think about your education in any other subject. When you were in kindergarten, math consisted of addition and subtraction of single digit numbers. As you moved through the education system, the concepts grew in scale and complexity. Taste and Scent, the two main drivers of taste in whiskey, are no different. Let’s break these down into manageable groups.


There are 4 main categories of scents as it relates to whiskey: Floral, Spice, Earth, and Fresh. Coincidentally, you’ll also find these terms when dealing with fragrances or soaps. Floral consists of mostly sweet scents, typically reminiscent in the realm of fruits or flowers. The Spice category is where you get a range from soft to hard scents (think vanilla vs. allspice). Earth is also sometimes called “woody” when talking about fragrance. Here you get scents like the smell of clay, leather, grass, or the obvious, wood. In the whiskey world, this category is highly influenced by age, as the tannins released into the whiskey by the barrel determine the depth of these notes. The last category, Fresh is a bit harder to pinpoint, but if I asked you to describe the smell after a rain shower, or the breeze off the ocean at sunset, your description will likely end up in this category. What is key to understanding and describing these categories is that they are all on a spectrum, and any specific scent can be a mixture of
multiple categories. Knowing this can give you a rough idea of what to expect before nosing a whiskey. If the whiskey is a bourbon within a typical age range of 4-10 years, you know that you can expect first (or forward) an earthy floral aroma from the corn, and a lingering earthy spice aroma from the years
spent in the barrel. This may contrast with a typically younger Rye, which will give you a forward scent of earthy spice, with a floral spice lingering. So, while a professional taster may use words like Applewood or Vanilla & Leather to describe the scent, these are not divorced from saying Earthy Floral
or Earthy Spice. They are just more specific and descriptive terms to convey the same impression.


With Taste, we all know there are only 5 – Sweet, Bitter, Sour, Salty, and the ever allusive, Umami. Now I’m not here to say that you should get hints of a salt seasoned steak in your whiskey, but these are the flavors your tongue has evolved to detect. We have learned in recent history that scent plays a crucial
part in determining taste, so treat your whiskey tasting the same way. Let your scent notes inform your taste buds. Just like scent, taste is on a spectrum. If I ask you to describe the taste of popcorn, you may use some combination of sweet, salty, and umami depending on your own memory of that taste. So
always recall the scents you described, and always think of flavors in terms of a combination of tastes. If you detected an earthy floral spice note in your nose, use the same spectrum to find that flavor to be a combination of sweet, bitter, and umami, and you may find that you are describing the same note as
someone calling it “apple pie” or “baking spices”. As you progress, your descriptions and combinations will become increasingly complex until you are able to pinpoint a specific food or scent from your memory that fits the description in your notes.


Another driver in whiskey tasting experience is mouthfeel. This is a more subjective experience so when you read or hear other drinkers describe mouthfeel, always remember to keep an open mind. Someone
may describe something as creamy feel or buttery, and to you might mean something different to what they intended to describe. Mouthfeel generally describes the viscosity of the whiskey itself, and a more viscous whiskey is generally regarded as a more premium product.

Color and Legs

You will often see references to the color of the whiskey or the legs. We will describe them here, but it
should be known that out of all factors, they have the least direct influence on taste. Color is typically directly related to mash bill proof and age. Barley heavy whiskies, such as Canadian, Irish, and scotch (excluding finished whiskies) trend towards the light amber and yellow side, while rye and bourbon trend towards deep amber and orange. All of this is also influenced by age and proof, as the longer a whiskey ages, the deeper in color it gets. And it may seem obvious, but it is worth noting that if whiskey is proofed down for production, the color is also going to be lightened by the water. High age, barrel
proof American whiskies are typically very dark, while low proof young Irish whiskies are typically very light in color. The “legs” that many reviewers refer to are formed when you swirl the whiskey in the glass, and watch as it cascades the inside of the glass, streams or “legs” will form like ridges running down the glass. They are an indication of proof, as the alcohol content allows for more and longer of these legs. But another good indication of proof, is the number that’s printed right on the label, so don’t spend too much time checking out a whiskey’s legs.

Whiskey Tasting

There are a few basic steps that should be taken to maximize your potential for accurately tasting and describing your whiskey. Selecting the proper glass, preparing your palate, taking notes, and most importantly, enjoying it.

Selecting the Proper Glass

You’ve heard many experts describe why they prefer the Glencairn whisky glass for tasting. The science behind the tulip shape is straightforward and real. A bulb base to hold the whiskey and allow it to be swirled, and a tapered rim to funnel the aromas towards your nose. There are other glasses that achieve this just as well as the Glencairn, so choose the one that feels most comfortable to you. You can find a set of four Glencairn glasses here as well as more glassware options on our store - here


Preparing your palate

There are many factors that can adversely affect your palate. Spicy foods, overly sweet foods, dehydration, lack of sleep have all been known to dull senses and wreak havoc on taster’s palates. There are some steps to refresh your senses. Drink enough water, smell something neutral but strong like ground coffee, and eat something crunchy and bland like lettuce or bright vegetables. It is very important to also be in the right mindset. If you’ve had a hard day at work, are in the midst of a stressful moment, or are overly tired, you may think about waiting for a better moment to do a whiskey tasting.

Taking notes

I can't tell you how many times I’ve tasted whiskeys, had entire conversations about it in the moment, and then later when writing a review or giving a recommendation, completely blanking on the flavors I experienced. Whether its writing things in a notebook in the moment, typing them into a doc on your
phone, or just recording yourself speaking, it is crucial to your success to memorialize your flavor notes in the moment, otherwise they may be lost.

Enjoying It

Finally, have fun in this process. The best way to get some of these notes out of the whiskey is to enjoy drinking it with friends, talking about the good and the not so good in the whiskey. This need not be a mechanical operation. If you want to spend 5 minutes nosing the whiskey to get the notes right, or if you want to dive right into tasting, have fun with it. But to maximize potential for describing the
whiskey, here are the typical steps:

1. Pour the whiskey and let it sit. You can agitate it if you like, but a good rule of thumb is to let the whiskey sit for as many minutes as years it aged.

2. Bring the glass near your nose, but do not put your entire nose into the glass at first. With your mouth open, first slide the glass past your nose slowly until you can detect the first hints of scent from the whiskey. These scents are your forward nose notes. Keeping your mouth open, bring your nose into the glass to then get the full scent of the whiskey. Do this a few times, taking breaks to breath fresh air in between.

3. Take an extremely small sip of the whiskey while also smelling, making sure not to swallow yet. Let this first tiny sip sit on different parts of your tongue, moving the tongue around your mouth and letting those vapors and liquid hit all the sensory points in your mouth. Swallow that and note how it feels on the back of your tongue as it goes down. Your next taste can be more substantial, and this time leave the togue in place and let the whiskey pour over and around
before swallowing. Now wait for the finish before tasting again.

4. The finish will typically be longer for higher proof whiskies. Depending on your tolerance and how high the proof is, this finish could last for a few seconds, or it could last up to a few minutes. Give yourself time to go through this finish before diving back into the whiskey.

5. Write down your notes immediately, breaking them up between the Forward Nose, Lingering Nose, Forward Taste, Lingering Taste, and Finish.

You are now an experienced whiskey taster. Keep these notes someplace you can easily access. If you want to take a deeper dive, you can cross reference your notes with the attributes of the whiskey. Using this information, you may find that simply by learning the attributes of a certain whiskey, you can accurately predict the taste profile you can expect.

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