How to Appreciate Scotch Whisky
So what’s the best way to enjoy a dram? We caught up with Felipe Schrieberg, esteemed whisky writer, and here’s his guide to get you started on your journey of whisky appreciation.
Nosing your whisky
Let’s make this clear - there's no right or wrong way to nose whisky. I want to share my method: Place your nose a couple of centimeters from the rim of the glass. Take a number of light, easy sniffs. Open your mouth slightly so that when you breathe in, you’re getting about 80% nose and 20% mouth. Now close your eyes so that you can focus on the aromas. (There’s a risk you’ll look like an idiot in this process, but that’s alright because now you’re a connoisseur.)
I’ve seen the most respected experts stick their nose right in the glass and take a massive whiff. To me, the smell of the alcohol becomes overwhelming, and can affect your senses and appreciation. But as with all things whisky, find the way that works best for you.
Sipping your whisky
Regarding taste, I find it useful to narrow in on five separate elements:
1. Taste: Your taste buds break flavours into a five-category spectrum: salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami (a Japanese word roughly translating to ‘meatiness’). Where does the taste of the whisky fall in this spectrum? Can you find similarities to other tastes?
2. Texture: Some whiskies can be thin and watery, some thick and oily, and some rather milky.
3. Mouthfeel/balance: How aromatic is the whisky? Is it like a spoonful of cream? Or a piece of grass? Sometimes you’ll barely get anything at all.
4. The swallow: How does the whisky “feel" as you swallow it? Smooth? Spicy? Strong?
5. The finish: When you let out your breath after you swallow a whisky, you’ll get residual aromas, which can be lovely. This is referred to as the ‘finish’. Peated whiskies tend to have strong, meaty finishes.
If this seems a bit much, think about just one or two of these elements and take it from there. When drinking different whiskies, do compare them to each other.
Consideration of water and ice
Adding water in your dram is totally acceptable, and can even make the whisky taste better by unlocking new congeners (the oils containing flavours you can perceive). To find the right amount for you, try the whisky neat, then add a little bit of water and taste it again. Keep repeating the process until it feels just right.
As for adding ice, you risk a quick glare in a high-end Scottish whisky bar. However, it’s common practice in Japan, even with the fanciest of Scotches.
I hope this serves as a useful first step towards appreciating Scotch whisky. The water of life offers a vast array of aromas and flavours. Once you can truly enjoy them, you’ll be a lifetime convert. That’s what happened to me.
Bio: Felipe is one half of The Rhythm and Booze Project, a duo fusing live music and whisky through gigs, tasting events, and multimedia. He also writes about whisky for Forbes.com, scotchwhisky.com, and other industry publications.