How to Rate Whisky 2/3: Nosing and Tasting

by Oliver Klimek on November 2, 2009

The first part of the series explained the reasoning behind rating whisky. Now let’s get down to business and start rating!

As explained in the first article, it does not make sense just to give a score to a whisky without further explanation. This is why you always should write down tasting notes when you want to rate a whisky.

Requirements

Rating whisky is not a one-shot deal. I will only be useful if you sample as many whiskies as possible and compare them to each other. The keyword here is consistency. You should try to do all your tasting sessions in the same setup, so there will be as few factors as possible that could influence your rating in one or the other way.

  1. Always do your tastings in the same environment, alone and in a place where you are comfortable and undisturbed.
  2. Always use the same type of glass. Glass selection is not covered here, but if you choose your favourite nosing glass, it will be just fine.
  3. Don’t eat anything before the tasting that impacts your taste buds for a long time, like garlic or chili.
  4. If you have the flu or a bad cold, leave it for today. What you will taste will not be representative.
  5. If you want to taste several whiskies, choose some that are not too far apart in their profiles. This will make it easier to compare them. The optimum would be several expressions from the same distillery.
  6. Prepare some still spring water to add to your whisky. You can use a jug, or a pipette or anything else you feel comfortable with. Just make sure you cannot easily overdose the water.
  7. Have a small “calibration dram” of a standard whisky that you know quite well. At some days, taste buds do not work as they should, and this is how you can notice it. If it tastes different, skip the whole session!
  8. Pour yourself a dram, not too little to get a decent impression, and not too generous if you plan to taste more than one or two whiskies.
  9. Let it rest for a few minutes, so the whisky can react to the air. Most whiskies take a while until they release their full flavour.

Nosing

It is common knowledge that the nose plays a major role in tasting anything. Tongue and nose work closely together, and it is said that the nose is even more important than the tongue.

  1. Hold your glass by the base or the stem, but do not cover the bowl so it won’t get too warm.
  2. Gently swirl around the whisky in the glass to cover the surface and to release the flavours. Swirling to vigorously my cause too much alcohol evaporation, though.
  3. Bring the glass to your nose and sniff gently, wait a few seconds and then repeat a few times. Usually, one of your nostrils will give you a stronger sensation, so make sure you use the “better” one
  4. Write down your impressions.

Tasting

Now time has come to take the first sips

  1. Take a decent sip, more than just a few drops but not too much either
  2. Leave it in your mouth for a few seconds and move it around with your tongue. All parts of your mouth should have been touched by the whisky before swallowing it.
  3. Swallow and notice how your palate reacts and how long the taste stays in your mouth.
  4. Write down your impressions.
  5. Add a little water.
  6. Go back to nosing.

It is essential that nosing and tasting work hand in hand (I know it’s a bad metaphor…). You are by no means finished with nosing when you have your first sip in your mouth! You can even continue nosing while tasting to get the full experience. Both nose and palate can evolve over time, so you should do both until you have finished your dram.

How to deal with cask strength whiskies is a matter of debate. Some people dilute right away, but I prefer to taste any CS whisky neat first and then slowly add water to find out the best ratio.

In his numerous videos (always good fun to watch) Master Blender Richard Paterson (“The Nose”) from Whyte & Mackay consistently suggests diluting to 38% ABV which he considers to be best for not letting the alcohol “burn away” your sense of taste. I am not really convinced of this. I think with the alcohol content you feel comfortable with, it is not unlike how much chili you can take in your food. Some people can stand enormous amounts and some get runny eyes with just a few drops of tabasco. Everyone should find out their perfect ratio.

How to Write Tasting Notes

At the risk of disappointing you, I am not going to tell you very much about this because this is an entirely subjective thing. First and foremost, tasting notes should be for yourself. If you want to share them with others – preferably on this site – even better. But what you put down, how detailed your notes should be, is entirely up to you. Just let the whisky “work” on you, and your mind will automatically create associations with aromas you know.

Of course, you can make a science out of nosing and tasting. You can get “nosing wheels” with basic aroma descriptions or diagrams where you can connect lines, or even sets of little bottles to sniff on. But I am all for straightforwardly writing down anything that comes into your mind.

Here are just some hints that might help you a little to understand what certain aromas can mean.

  1. Vanilla is a good sign for maturation in a bourbon cask. Bourbon whiskey is matured in charred fresh oak casks (or barrels as they call them over there). The process of charring sets free vanillin from the lignin of the wood.
  2. Citrus fruit notes can be found also in bourbon casks, it is more prominent in refill casks where the vanillin is already mostly leeched out.
  3. Sherry matured whiskies often have aromas of dried fruit or cherries, sometimes also of chocolate and toffee. Port and Madeira casks have a similar effect but are more on the fruity side.
  4. Spice aromas are an effect of long cask maturation. Predominant are ginger, nutmeg and pepper. But some whiskies, like Talisker, have a natural “chili catch” that is already present in the new spirit.

Finding out exactly what in the production process causes which aroma is an extremely complex topic as quite a lot of chemistry is involved here.

Let me close this article with a warning: Try not to let yourself influence by other people’s tasting notes! If someone tastes “wet dog” or “baby vomit” and you can’t possibly pin it down, there is no need to worry. Who knows whose palate worked better, yours or theirs? Maybe they just had a bad day, or maybe it was just so faint that it really doesn’t matter.

The final part of this series will deal with the actual rating or giving a score to a whisky.

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