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How to Drink Whisky: A Guide for Beginners

If this is your first whisky experience, welcome to the club! You’re in for an adventure.

First things first: there is no right or wrong in describing the aromas and flavours of whisky, but there is a proper way to drink it, especially if you’ve just started.

For instance, the best way to savour the whisky is to take little sips instead of downing it like how you would with vodka. This century-old spirit has much more to offer than just alcohol. When enjoyed properly without any mixers, it is an endless exploration of complex and intricate flavours that range from a familiar fruit to what’s inside a first-aid kit. We kid you not.

In this beginner’s guide, we’ll teach you how to drink whisky neat. It is an art of its own. Give yourself a few drams, and soon you’ll be drawn into discovering the wonderful world of whisky.

1. Set up The Whisky Notes tasting mat

The Whisky Notes tasting set comes with a tasting mat. Each mat is unique, with specific tasting notes for beginners to get an idea of what flavours to expect.

What you’ll need are whisky glasses—one for each whisky. We prefer the iconic Glencairn glass. The tulip shape helps to gather the whisky aromas at the lip. It offers a fuller and richer tasting experience.

Once you have the mat and the glasses ready, it’s time to pour the tasters into the glass according to the numbers labelled. The whiskies are arranged from gentle to robust to keep the flavours from overpowering the next dram.

That’s it. You’re all set for a fine whisky tasting experience.

2. Drink the whisky neat

What is drinking whisky neat? It simply means to drink it as it is, without any mixers like coke, for example. A purist would say no to adding water and definitely no to adding ice.

It’s best to pour the whisky straight from the bottle to the glass. In short, avoid contaminating or diluting the whisky. The idea is to savour the whisky as how the distillery envisioned it to be.

3. How to drink whisky using your senses

Whisky demands your full attention. It can overwhelm the first time but don’t worry; you’ll get the hang of it after a few rounds

Sight—behold its beauty

It all starts with the eyes (doesn’t it always). Whisky comes in a spectrum of autumn colours, from pale yellow to dark mahogany. If you line them up, it’s like experiencing the change of season in whisky form.

The colour hints at the type of cask and barrel used for maturation and how long was the whisky aged before bottling. An older whisky often has a darker shade.

However, some distilleries add caramel colouring to give the whisky that beautiful copper sparkle. It’s no wonder they say don’t judge a whisky by its colour. Instead, take time to appreciate the beauty that’s in front of you.

Next, test the viscosity. Tilt your glass at approximately 45 degrees and gently swirl the whisky. You’ll soon notice droplets slowly running down the sides like raindrops on a windscreen. They are called whisky legs or tears.

Do the legs take a long time to slide down the glass? The longer the droplets take to slide down the bottom, the higher the viscosity, which means it has a relatively high alcohol content (ABV%).

Observing the colour and viscosity does not affect how the whisky smells and tastes. But it is still part of the whole experience. Try guessing the ABV percentage based on the whisky legs. Did you get it right? If you’d like, you could incorporate “Guess-the-ABV” as part of your whisky tasting games to warm up the atmosphere for a lovely night.

Nose—sniff, sniff, and sniff?

Experts say you get most of the flavours from the nose; tasting only confirms it.

Nosing, as whisky drinkers call it, is the act of dunking your nose into the glass. We wouldn’t recommend starting that way as you may feel the burn up your nose. Here’s how you do it:

Gently swirl the glass once to release the aromas. Then place your nose above the glass, but at a distance, and open your mouth slightly. By doing so, you prevent the alcohol vapours from condensing on and inside the nose, which helps lessen the sharp stinging sensation from the high alcohol content.

Careful now. Your first whisky experience is exciting but try not to get too greedy or impatient. Enjoyment is whisky’s middle name, so it is best to avoid inhaling the whisky as the high percentage of alcohol burns.

While it’s more intuitive to breathe through your nose, smelling whisky requires a different approach. The safest and most enjoyable way is to take in the scent through your mouth and let the tantalizing whisky aromas gradually work their way up to the nose.

A burning sensation is an indication that you’re probably too close. You might want to back away, breathe in some air, and try again. This time, slowly move the glass closer to your nose, inch by inch, until you reach a comfortable distance where you can smell the whisky and not kill your nose.

So, what did you get? A fruit basket, some nuts and spices, spring blossoms, smoky bonfires, or can you smell the sea?

Once you’ve found a comfortable sniffing position, repeat the process. Bring the glass closer or dive your nose deeper into the glass. Go from the top, then middle, and almost bottom—literally, nose in the dram.

The olfactory system—the respiratory passage that starts with the nose and is responsible for sending stimuli of volatile chemical substances to the brain—can detect and differentiate over 10,000 types of aromas. Amazing, right? To keep it simple, we’ve lumped them into six categories:

  • Woody
  • Fruity
  • Floral
  • Cereal
  • Spicy—cinnamon and pepper, not cili padi, ahem!
  • Peaty—a smoky aroma unique to whisky.

You can start by pinning the aroma into one of these categories. Even better, ask yourself: what is the first thing that comes to mind after sniffing the whisky? Did it bring back memories from a distant past?

Our sense of smell evokes nostalgia. It’s common to hear drinkers describe whisky as “my grandmother’s cookies” or “my grandfather’s old cigar.”

No two noses are the same, so relax! Enjoy nosing the dram.

Palate—sip and taste

Start by taking a sip. Don’t swallow it, not yet. Roll the whisky all over your mouth; let it slide from the roof to beneath the tongue and to the cheeks. Make the small sip of whisky go for a ride on your palate. Again, it is all about relishing the whisky. If you feel a tickle, that’s perfectly normal.

How does the texture feel? Is it smooth like butter or hot and dry? Does it kick like wasabi? What about creamy? Could it be light and refreshing like lemonade? In whisky-speak, the texture is called the mouthfeel.

After analysing the mouthfeel, it’s time to gather the taste. Begin with the basics: is it sweet, salty, sour, or bitter? Or a mix of two? Then narrow it down to the specifics, for example, honeyed fruits or vanilla cake.

You may now swallow the whisky.

4. End with the finish

Or should we say the aftertaste? A whisky finish has a profile of its own as new flavours develop from the lingering remnants on the palate.

To assess the finish, start by noting how long the taste stays in the mouth. There are three measures: short, medium, and long. A long finish is often preferred.

Next, feel the texture. Is it dry or smooth? It is perfectly normal to have a dry palate but a smooth finish, and vice versa. Whisky is complex that way.

Lastly, explore the taste—what flavours do you get now? Did you get a more intense version of the palate? Is there an added flavour?

The finish determines the quality of the whisky. Enthusiasts regard it as the highlight of drinking a dram. They love it so much that the whisky-lovers in Kentucky created the Kentucky Chew—a technique to maximise the finish.

5. Take note of your experience

Adding drops of water to the whisky “opens up” hidden intricate flavours within the same dram. It’s like opening up a Russian matryoshka doll—you know, the one that opens up to one doll after another? Yep, that one—but in reverse. Every person has their preferred alcohol proof. If you have yet to discover yours, start with a drop. Then take a sip and repeat steps 3 to 5.

You may subsequently add a few more drops until you find that perfect balance of alcohol and taste. It is common for beginners to find slightly diluted whisky easier to drink.

That’s it, and may you have a great whisky tasting experience. Sláinte! 

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