ShortList is now ad free and supported by you, the users. When you buy through the links on our site we may earn a commission. Learn more

A beginner's guide to whisky tasting

A beginner's guide to whisky tasting

A beginner's guide to whisky tasting
12 May 2015

"Take just a sip... swirl it round your mouth, really make sure you coat your tongue... now, what can you taste?"

Alcohol. Strong alcohol. A potential hangover, should you get through much more of it. Yet these don't seem like the sort of answers you're allowed to give at a whisky tasting.

Whisky is a complicated drink. There's a lot of it - from Scottish to Japanese, Irish to American - each with its own shade, flavour and even spellings, some carefully crafted to exacting measures, others pumped out by the barrel-load to be splashed into a glass with coke and ice. 

In a bid to learn something more about the wonderful world of whisky, we've teamed up with whisky expert Miss Whisky (who also helped us pick 10 of the best tipples you can buy) and World Duty Free for a beginners guide on blagging a whisky tasting.

Drink it up. 

Variety is a good thing

One of the hardest challenges people have? Finding whisky too strong, too peaty, too rich, too reminiscent of that time when they were 18 and did too many shots of it and consequently making the decision that whisky isn’t the drink for them! There are thousands out there so recalibrate your brain to embrace it and see past those initial hesitations.

Slowly does it

Whisky takes a long time to come to you – the age statement on the bottle (if there is one) will tell you the minimum time it has spent ageing in oak casks, with common ages being at least 10 years for many Scotches and a minimum of three being the legal requirement. So, give it the respect it deserves: take a look at its colour, spend a while smelling it, slowly sip it. At all costs, avoid ’downing it in one’ – that will only burn your throat and prevent you from savouring all the unique flavour notes.

Bring a friend

Sitting down with a group of mates at a relaxed whisky tasting may not seem a bold idea, but it's an excellent way to understand this fine drink a bit better. When you line up five or six whiskies in a row, you also begin to see what makes each one stand out. Chances are you won't love them all, but you will probably find one that tempts you.

Keep an open mind

There's a huge difference between whiskies: with umpteen choices from all over the world, saying that you "don't like whisky" is a pretty large generalisation. It's like saying: "I don't like wine". The point is, if you try one you don't like, be reassured that there are still a few thousand more to taste before you can give up on it entirely.

Ignore the whisky snobs

This spirit isn't a fuddy-duddy old drink that it used to be seen as. The best cocktail maestros are mixing it into their concoctions without taking away from its distinctive quality and taste so you can enjoy it in the best bars around. Look up some recipes for classics like a whisky sour or Rob Roy and try your hand at some sturdy, punchy but downright delicious serves. And don't be afraid to have it over ice or with a dash of water. It's your drink; enjoy it how you want.

Tasting notes

For an idea on what to "say" about a whisky - just go with your nose. If it smells like Christmas pudding, tastes like cigar smoke and looks like used engine oil, then that's all helpful in building your own ideas about how to understand this spirit. Here are some tasting notes from the experienced Miss Whisky for an idea on what to look out for.

Glenmorangie Duthac

A bold new offering from this Highland distillery, the Duthac is a rich take on the normally more gentle Glenmorangie releases. Part finished in intense Pedro Ximenez sherry casks, this boasts of chocolate, toffee, nuts and drying spice. 

Jura Turas Mara

A melee of cask types – from ex-bourbon, to ex-sherry, French oak and port – went into maturing this whisky, making it more complex than the UK's voting system. With notes of zingy orange, dark chocolate, cherries, dry oak and wine, it is one to sip after a long hard day at work.

Johnnie Walker Spice Road

With sweeter toffee and dried fruit notes on the nose, the taste of this blend from perhaps the most well-known of whisky brands seems gentle. But that Spice Road influence bursts forth on the palate, with drier, hotter notes to give your tongue a boost. 

Balvenie Triple Cask 12 Y/O

This single malt from Speyside, the most popular of Scotland's whisky making regions, is perfect for summer. With notes of honey, toffee, apples and just a bit of herbal, drying spice, this is a great dram for beginners.

Black Grouse Alpha Edition

A smokier, more grown-up version of Famous Grouse, this release is still extremely approachable. There are oranges and treacle, almonds and cherries, and just a hint of embery, oily smoke, that may just turn you onto smoky whiskies.