Irish whiskey, touring the Hebrides and an American whiskey supplement on Kentucky Bourbon
9 steps to a tasting note
First make a note of these:
The way that you choose to drink whisky should of course be the way that you enjoy it most. Nevertheless, to appreciate your dram to the full, in all its glorious complexity, there is nothing better than to follow the procedure adopted by professional ‘noses’. Although I shall go into this in some detail here, it is really quite simple and will soon become second nature. Ideally you should be in the company of others, for whisky tasting is above all a convivial pursuit.
Actually, whisky ‘tasting’ is a misnomer. Truly, it is ‘sensory evaluation’, since four of our five senses are used – sight, smell, taste, touch. One might even say that the fifth sense, hearing, comes into play as the cork is drawn from the bottle, or the metal cap is cracked open, not to mention the glug-glug of the first drams being poured. Further, I am assured by the former manager of Dalwhinnie distillery that the sherry-finished Distillers’ Edition of his malt sounds different to the usual bottling.
Be that as it may, the different senses give rise to different stages in a tasting: sight considers appearance, smell addresses aroma (generally called ‘nose’ in relation to whisky, as in ‘this malt noses well’), taste reports on flavour, and touch evaluates mouth-feel and texture.
Pour yourself a measure of whisky. Hold it against a white surface, as you would when considering a glass of wine. Note first its colour, from gin-clear (in new-make spirit) to black coffee, with every imaginable golden-amber-copper hue in between, sometimes shot through with greenish or khaki, rose or mauve, henna or mahogany lights.
Use whatever words you like to describe the colour: the important thing from the evaluation perspective is that it should tell you something about the way the whisky has been matured, American white oak bestowing much less colour than Spanish or other European oaks.
I say ‘should’ because many malts and all blends are coloured up with caramel prior to bottling, in the interest of consistency from batch to batch. This is a shame, in my view, for although the amount of caramel in a vat is miniscule, we know (from Whisky Magazine, Volume 1, Issue 1) that the nose can identify scents diluted to one part per million, and occasionally one finds whiskies where artificial caramel is discernible on the nose or palate.
Leaving this aside, a pale-gold (and sometimes slightly green) hue will suggest maturation in a cask which has been refilled several times; mid- or full-gold suggests a first-fill ex-Bourbon cask; burnished copper, a refill sherry cask (or perhaps a whisky which has been re-racked into sherry-wood for the last year of its maturation); polished mahogany, a first-fill ex-sherry cask; crimson, a port cask, and so on.
Having enjoyed the colour of the spirit, swirl it in the glass and look at the ‘tears’ which adhere to the sides. Long tears (also called ‘legs’) tell you (a) that the sample is high in alcohol and (b) that it is likely to have a good texture. Now hold it up to the light and see how clear and bright it is. Do this again in a moment, once you have added water: if it goes very slightly hazy, it tells you than the sample has not been chill-filtered. This is a good thing, since chill-filtration, although it keeps the whisky nice and bright, takes out flavour elements.
Swirl the spirit again, warming the glass in your hand and sniff it cautiously. Be careful, in case it is at cask strength (around 60%Vol), since this will temporarily anaesthetize your sense of smell. Ask yourself how pungent the sample is, and how intense. Is the nose ‘open’ – quite aromatic – or ‘closed’, giving little away? Professional assessors often mark intensity on a scale of one to five.
Then assess the ‘nose-feel’ effects. Does is make your nose tingle (called ‘nose prickle’) or sting (‘nose burn’)? Does it have a warming or a cooling effect? Again, this tells you how strong the sample is: whiskies bottled at the standard strength of 40%Vol have little nose-feel effect.
The aroma will come up as you continue to warm the glass in your hand. Note how complex it is, and if you can discern any particular scents, note these as well. Your first impressions are the key ones: continued nosing dulls the senses. The nose will also develop over time: it is no bad thing to leave your samples open to the air for a while (half an hour, say) to let them breathe and settle.
Now take a tiny sip, remembering that if it is high strength, the spirit will burn your tongue. Note your first taste impressions.
Add a little water; but as a general rule whisky gives its best, aromatically, reduced to between 30% and 20% alcohol by volume.
Observe how swirling eddies appear in the whisky as you add the water: alcohol and water have slightly different viscosities and refract light differently. If the spirit has not been chill-filtered it will go slightly misty. This is caused by scent-bearing fatty-ester chains; the action of adding water opens them up and encourages them to release aromatic volatiles. Some people refer to this stage in the procedure as ‘awaking the serpent’.
Nose first above the rim of the glass to catch the bouquet, then deeper, below the rim to catch the full aroma. Take short sniffs, and pause from time to time to breathe in fresh air and rest your nose. You will see that the aroma changes somewhat as time goes by, with scents coming and going. As with nosing straight, your first impressions are the most important. Note any scents you can identify and describe them in your own words. The concluding article in this series will discuss the language of whisky tasting, but for the moment simply use your own vocabulary.
This is the most important stage in whisky tasting. Professional noses, who evaluate whiskies every day, obtain all the information they need from the aroma without actually putting it in their mouths. We go on to the final stage, however, and at last consider the taste of the whisky.
Take a good mouthful, hold it for a moment and swallow it slowly. Notice first its texture and mouth-feel. Is it smooth, viscous and mouth- coating? Or fresh, acerbic and mouth-drying? Full-bodied or thin? Perhaps creamy or slightly fizzy?
Repeat the procedure, but this time notice the ‘primary tastes’. There are four of these only: sweetness (picked up by the tip of your tongue); acidity/sourness (registered by the middle and at the sides); saltiness (also at the sides); and dryness/bitterness (reported by the back of your tongue). Not every sample will present all the primary tastes; many will offer a combination – starting sweet and finishing dry, for example, with some fresh acidity in between.
Other ‘flavours’ are, strictly speaking, aromas flowing up your back nasal passage, but they register as taste nevertheless. Common in whisky is ‘smokiness’ (picked up as you swallow) and cereal (registered in the middle of the mouthful). Note any other tastes, aromas or sensations that might occur as you savour your dram.
Finally, remark on the whisky’s ‘finish’ and aftertaste. Finish is the length of time the flavour lingers after you have swallowed, and is rated ‘long’, ‘medium’ and ‘short’. Aftertaste, if there is any, should be pleasant and not at variance with the flavour of the whisky. The aftertaste of very old whiskies can last for hours.
The pleasure of whisky is in the astonishing diversity of aromas and flavours that are to be found in every sample: sensory scientists have identified some 400 flavour-bearing compounds in malt whisky, and they know there are as many again which have yet to be described.
The overall quality of a whisky can be judged by its structure and balance. The structure might be simple or complex, but the flavour should match what is promised by the nose, and the nose and flavour should be a happy balance of scents and tastes, not dominated by one feature or another, not spoiled by unpleasant surprises.
And after you have gone through the pleasurable business of ‘sensory analysis’ settle back, top up your glass, light a cigar and ponder the strange ways of the world.
|«||Part 1 : What can your nose tell you||Part 3 : The language of whisky tasting||»|