E-pistle 2008/24 – How To Speak Whisky

By Peter Silver, USA


It’s a wonderful evening and luckily, you are at a sizable whisky tasting!
There are multiple tables with dozens of distilleries represented, with lots of malts you have never tried.  Just as you are heading over to try some, a friend spots you, grabs your arm and pulls you over to an unfamiliar whisky table.  He pours some into your glass and says “You must try this whisky.  It’s amazing!”  You take a sip and a smile breaks out on your face and all you can think of to say to your pal is “This is so … smooth!”  You wish you could come up with more nuanced terms, but you just don’t have the vocabulary.  Well, fear not.  This article is going to help you acquire this skill and learn to enjoy whisky on a more personal level.

Don’t let them put words in your mouth …only whisky! Anytime you read an advertisement for whisky these days, there are likely to be wonderful tasting notes either in print, on the web, or on the bottle itself.  The marketing departments have spent a lot of time and money to come up with fantastic blurbs that can sound like each sip is a seven course tasting menu in the finest restaurant.  Some organizations, such as the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, have a tasting committee in Scotland which contributes tasting notes for single casks.  They typically include unique and memorable phrases such as “Tastes like a Laura Ashley frock” or “Like a jam tart dragged though a wine-bush” which do more to obfuscate the whisky than explain its characteristics.  While some of this stuff may be true, it’s really up to you, the consumer, to determine what you experience and how much you like the whisky.  That way, you don’t have to know who Laura Ashley is.

The easiest scent to detect is smokiness.  If a malt has it, it can overpower all the other flavors in it, and you may not find any other flavors.  This can be sensed as any kind of smoke, whether it manifests itself as smoked salmon or a fireplace: medicinal, iodine, peaty or phenolic (coal tar smell). Fruit is also very commonly found, appearing as apples, pears, bananas, oranges, cherries, etcetera.  They can be fresh fruit smells, taste like dried fruits, such as raisins, dried apricots or even stewed fruit like stewed apples, raspberry jam and marmalade. Vanilla appears in a great number of whiskies as well.  It can be sensed as vanilla bean, toffee, caramel and butterscotch.

Sherry is quite common note to experience due to sherry casking and finishes.
It can be tasted as sherry, port, Madeira, brandy, burgundy or Chardonnay.  Chocolate is one of my favorite things to find in a malt – it can be milk, dark, bitter, cream – any kind you like! Nutty is another possibility, with almonds, coconut, hazelnuts, marzipan and praline among those you can find. Floral scents can be heather, lilac, rose, geraniums, fresh cut grass, hay, even a barn! Feinty characteristics can come from cuts of whisky that are not completely of the finest quality.  These include tobacco, shoe polish, leather and plastic. Sulphury scents are rubber, pencil eraser, exhaust fumes, cabbage water and spent fireworks.

And what about the technique?
First you need to be able to smell the whisky in order to taste it properly, for taste without smell is like having a bad cold – nothing tastes good.  Bring the glass to your nose while opening your mouth slightly to keep you from anesthetizing your senses.  If it burns your nose, add a few drops of bottled water (never tap water), swirl the whisky and try again.  Many malts really open up and release aromas and flavors with the addition of the smallest amounts of water.

If you can keep some of these ideas in mind the next time you taste a whisky, you will start to find these aromas and tastes on your own and will then be able to put a valid descriptor to them as well as come up with your own.  You will find your vocabulary and your confidence increase, the more you think about whisky in these terms.  Whatever your senses tell you, let your tongue speak for you.  If you find a malt with chocolate, vanilla and banana – please let me know, so I can try a banana split whisky!