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How to taste whisky at home like a pro

ballantines finest on the rocks tumbler

You don’t need to visit a distillery for a pro whisky tasting experience.

With a bit of know-how and an open mind, whisky tasting can be enjoyed in the comfort of your own home. Plus, it makes a great addition to a house party, summer gathering, stag/hen do, or whatever you’re doing for fun with friends and family.

This step-by-step whisky tasting guide will provide you with that all-important whisky tasting knowledge – so you’ll know how to get the most from your whisky tasting at home and be able to show off to your pals, too.

First things first though…

Why bother WITH whisky tasting?

 

Stripping whisky back to its bare bones can provide you with a unique sensory experience.

Whether you’re a whisky tasting beginner or a seasoned scotch lover, tasting a tipple carefully can reveal its true characteristics and push you to use your senses in new ways.

We often take our senses for granted. Most of us don’t really notice all the sights, smells, and sounds when watching a bartender mix something special or whilst sipping a new drink.

But taking some time to be immersed in our senses is a great way to spend an evening – and whisky tasting at home is the perfect way to do this.

Convinced? Cool, let’s get cracking.

What you’ll need for the at home whisky tasting experience

ballantines glasses neat on the rocks whisky guide

Apologies for stating the obvious, but you’ll need a glass… and some whisky. And preferably some friends to make it a group experience.

Traditionally you would taste whisky in what we call a snifter glass. It’s a bit like a wine glass but with a shorter and stubbier stem and a narrower opening. The idea is that there’s enough room to swirl your whisky around (more of that shortly), but the smaller opening means aromas will be more intense when you give the snifter a good, well, sniff. When it comes to the best whisky glasses for tasting, you also can’t go far wrong with a Glencairn glass. It’s shaped like a teardrop and was purposefully designed to allow you to admire every aspect of a whisky.

If you don’t have any snifter glasses in the cupboard, however, no worries. A normal wine glass will do for now. We’re not picky.

Glasses sorted? Don’t forget a notepad and a trusty pen for jotting down all your whisky musings. Now you’ve got everything you need you can rely on your senses to take you through the rest of the whisky-tasting-at-home experience – no more equipment necessary.

A HOW-TO WHISKY TASTING GUIDE

So, you’ve got the tools, you’ve gathered your mates and the anticipation of tasting some great whiskies is kicking in. You’re ready to get started. Whether you consider yourself a bit of an aficionado or you’re not quite sure of the difference between scotch and whisky, we’ve put together this handy step-by-step guide on how to taste whisky to help make sure it all goes down as easy as our Ballantine’s barrel smooth.

Our top tips before you begin

  • Water is your friend. Adding a few drops to each whisky sample after the first taste can help bring out flavours and aromas. It’s also a good idea to have water readily available for your tasters so they can keep hydrated throughout the whisky tasting.
  • Swirling isn’t mandatory. As whisky is so strong, it doesn’t need any help when it comes to releasing aromas. That being said, swirling the whisky won’t do it any harm and it is kind of fun.
  • Take your time with each sample. Really give it all your attention and focus on every little detail that you can detect.
  • Your whiskies shouldn’t be too warm; they are at their optimum taste at room temperature, which is between 15-18°.

STEP ONE: How to look at whisky

Now your whisky has been poured into the glass, it’s time to use your sight. Give the whisky a good swirl around to really appreciate its colour and check its viscosity.

On the whole, the darker the whisky, the longer it’s been aged. For example, Ballantine’s 12 Year Old is a rich honey tone, whilst Ballantine’s Finest is a light golden colour.

Then there’s viscosity. Notice the streaks that form on the glass after you’ve given your whisky a good swirl? These are what the pros call “legs” – the thicker the legs, the higher the viscosity.

If your whisky has a high viscosity, that suggests a fuller, more sensuous mouthfeel… cheeky.

STEP TWO: How to smell whisky

We’re not quite ready for that mouthfeel yet however, as it’s now time to give your whisky a proper sniff. 

When learning how to taste whisky, we believe it’s better to go in with zero expectations. Try not to read the notes on the label, and if your friends have tried that particular bottle before, encourage them to keep their opinions to themselves before you’ve all given it a go.

Our brains are clever (most of us anyway). If we expect to smell or taste a certain thing, we probably will. But whisky tasting should be about your personal experience and the unique, individual notes that you pick up on.

Remember that there is no right or wrong answer. You may be learning how to taste whisky, but when it comes to what you smell and taste – anything goes.

A bit of advice though, don’t push your snozzle right inside the depths of your glass. Whisky has a high alcohol content, and you only need to sniff from the opening to experience the aromas.

STEP THREE: How to taste whisky

Now it’s finally time to taste. Take a small sip and then gargle by sucking in air – but don’t throw your head back, you’re not using mouthwash here.

Gargling may seem a little odd to whisky tasting beginners, but it helps you to uncover every level of flavour and experience the finish, otherwise known as that all important whisky burn.

Switch between gargling and swishing the whisky in your mouth, and allow yourself to be surprised by what you taste. Does the whisky taste different to how it smells? Do you notice a high or low viscosity? Is the finish long, short or sweet?

Round off your whisky tasting at home experience by comparing what you taste with your friends. If you plan to try several whiskys, be sure to have a few sips of water between each one to cleanse your palette.

So that’s how beginners can learn to taste whisky at home. Easy, right? Go in with an open mind, and be prepared to come out with a new found appreciation of whisky. 

STEP FOUR: COMPARE NOTES

Round off your whisky tasting experience by comparing what you’ve tasted and what you’ve smelt with your friends. If you plan to try several whiskies, be sure to have a few sips of water between each one to cleanse your palette.

And when it comes to describing the aromas and flavours you’ve experienced, be illustrative. We mean really use those adjectives. Common notes in whisky to be aware of include:

  • Cereal
  • Fruity
  • Floral
  • Feinty
  • Sulphury
  • Peaty
  • Woody

If you can, aim to be even more nuanced with your descriptions. So, if the whisky is woody is it more like oak or like tobacco? If you detect fruits, are they citrus, like oranges or dried, like raisins?

Once you’ve all shared your thoughts, keep your notes stashed away. They’ll come in handy if you want to compare other whiskies in the future or if you want to remember the details of the variety that you enjoyed the most so you can purchase a bottle.

So that’s how beginners can learn to taste whisky at home. Easy, right? Go in with an open mind and be prepared to come out with a newfound appreciation of whisky.

TIPS FOR HOSTNG A WHISKY TASTING AT HOME

If you’ve been to a whisky tasting event and would love to recreate it at home, there’s no reason why you can’t! Decide on how many people you want to join in and send out the invite. If you’ll all be sampling the same whisky and the same time, try and keep it more of an intimate affair; a dozen or fewer should do the trick.

When it comes to how things run, you can opt for a more informal approach where you let people help themselves and then you sit and chat about the whiskies, amongst other things. However, if you want to experience the most you can from the whisky, then gathering around a table and introducing each whisky before the sampling can make it feel a bit more special.

How many whisky varieties should I include in a whisky tasting?

You’ll also need to decide how many whiskies you want to include in your whisky tasting. You want enough so that there’s variation but not so many that you risk palate fatigue. Somewhere between 5 and 8 varieties should be perfect. As the whisky tasting host, there’s the option to select them yourself, but you could also ask each of your guests to bring a bottle instead.

What order should the whisky be sampled in?

As a general rule of thumb, the best way to sample whisky as a whisky tasting is by starting with the lightest variety, moving through to the richest or most heavily flavoured. As the host, it’s a good idea to sample them beforehand so you know you’ve got them in the right order.

When sampling, each taster only needs a small amount of each whisky; about 15ml or one finger’s worth. Of course, if you like one of the whiskies, you can always revisit it after the whisky tasting is finished.

Should I serve snacks at a whisky tasting?

Go for it! Just like wine works well with a cheeseboard, whisky and snacks are a winning combo. If you want to make things fuss-free, you can opt for some ramekins filled with savoury nibbles such as crisps, olives, and nuts. But if you want to seriously impress, why not try putting together a charcuterie board that your guests can tuck into? You can include anything you want but some charcuterie staples include cheese, cured meats, chutneys, crackers, fresh fruit and crudites.

If you enjoyed your at home whisky tasting session, perhaps you want to take things a step further and learn more about the 5 must-visit regions for whisky lovers. If you’d prefer to stay in the comfort of your own home, learn how to host a whisky themed party and use our whisky drinks collection as inspiration.

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