Drinking Whisky

Working in the on-trade, we get to taste lots of wonderful things, but when was the last time you really “tasted” something?

Our in-house expert of all things distilled, Billy Abbott, has put together some ideas to re-focus your taste buds and shared his top tips for tasting.

The water was not fit to drink. To make it palatable, we had to add whisky. By diligent effort, I learned to like it.
–Winston Churchill

Flavour is complex, and how we discern it is even more so. Tasting a whisky is a multi-faceted experience which involves all five of our senses.

  • Hearing: The pop of a cork, the scrape of a cap, the glug of whisky being poured into a glass – these are all important parts of tasting. They set the scene and get your brain prepared for what comes next.
  • Sight: How does the whisky look in the glass? How does it move when you swirl it? Does it stick to the glass and run slowly down the sides in sensuous tears? How does the colour change as you move it around? Does it look appealing? While you can’t tell much about how good a whisky is from how it looks, you can make some good guesses about how it might feel in the mouth.
  • Smell: What can you smell? What does it remind you of? People, places, objects, food, drink? Smell is the most important part of experiencing a whisky, so take your time.
  • Taste: Your tongue doesn’t operate in isolation, and you have taste buds all over your mouth. Roll the whisky around, and make sure it touches every part of your palate.
  • Touch: Your mouth doesn’t only taste, it also feels. As you move the whisky around your mouth, what does it feel like? Does it have a silky texture, or is it spiky? Is it rich and oily or thin and watery?

While smell and taste will dominate your impressions of a whisky, the other senses are key to the overall experience – tasting whisky is much more than just a scientific analysis. Smell and taste are closely linked: your nose is a sensitive organ and can pick up much more nuance than your mouth, which will detect broader swathes of flavour – salty, sour, sweet, bitter and savoury (also known as umami). However, it’s when nose and mouth combine that you get the full measure of a whisky.

Your nose and mouth are connected at the back of the palate. When you eat or drink something, the aroma will travel into the back of your nose from your mouth, and you will smell it as well as taste it. It’s this combination that gives the complexity of flavour that we find in food and drink, and the reason why you can’t taste much when you hold your nose.

Here’s my five-step approach to tasting whisky.

  1. Look at your whisky. Hold it up to the light. Enjoy its colour.
  2. Smell your whisky. Don’t jam your nose into the glass, but move it slowly towards you, sniffing along the way. Switch nostrils. Move it around. You’ll find a host of different aromas as you do.
  3. Take a little sip of the whisky and swallow it without thinking too much – this primes your mouth and gets it ready to for a proper taste.
  4. Take a larger sip and roll it around the mouth – make sure it hits as many taste buds as possible. Once you’ve had enough of that, swallow your whisky.
  5. Now think about what lingers – the aftertaste or ‘finish’. How long does it last? Does it change? Is it simple or complex?

With a little extra contemplation, you can unlock new layers of flavour in your whisky and get much more out of it than by knocking it back without a thought.

This is an excerpt from The Philosophy of Whisky by Billy Abbott. It is available now wherever you can find books and you can find more details at

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