Several years ago I attended a very private, exclusive whisky event at one of the country’s most prestigious resorts. I was there with several of my whisky-producing colleagues, each of us charged with presenting a selection of our finest single malts to a group who had paid considerable money for the privilege of tasting and appreciating whiskies of the world.
It was during a mingling session at this event, I was asked, “How does one actually appreciate a good whisky?” It was an interesting question and while the response came quite naturally for me, it got me thinking about all those thousands of consumers out there that love their whisky and would love to have greater insight into how one actually appreciates a fine single malt.
Appreciating a good whisky comes mostly with experience and does not necessarily mean that the whisky you are appreciating is to your personal liking. Astute whisky judges will be able to discern between an appreciation for the whisky they are sampling and the personal sensory attributes they extract from it. Everyone has different tastes; it’s why our world offers so much variety, and single malt crafting is no different. Until you have experienced different whiskies – blended, single malt, bourbon, Scotch, Japanese or Tasmanian – it is difficult to have a balanced and true appreciation of what constitutes a top-class spirit. You may like the nose and palate of a particular drop but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have a true appreciation of it. Whether you like the taste of a particular whisky over others is entirely subjective but you can form an appreciation simply based on an understanding of what constitutes a good whisky.
Most traditional whisky pundits wouldn’t consider the bottle or branding elements of a whisky as part of an appreciation but personally I think presentation is a key consideration. If you are paying a reasonable dollar for a good whisky then it should present well on the shelf, after all first impressions do count. Here are a few tips to help you become more appreciative of your whisky – from a single malt maker’s viewpoint!
MARK LITTLER’S TOP TIPS FOR APPRECIATING WHISKY
- Be attracted to the overall presentation and shelf presence. Study the content details and tasting notes on the packaging. In this case you are looking for the words single malt as you are buying the purest form of whisky, crafted from a single grain type, always malted barley.
- Look at the colour of the whisky – in your opinion is it reflective of the taste profile or age on offer? Crisp, golden hues or rich treacle tones might be words that spring to mind when eyeing off a drop.
- The best whiskies have no added colouring; their toning and flavour profiles are derived purely from the grain and the timber casks used for maturation.
- When tackling the subject matter, always use a good quality whisky glass – it really does make a difference.
- A good single malt can be enjoyed neat and a little water is quite acceptable (don’t even mention carbonated accompaniments, which is pure heresy!)
- Always nose the whisky before tasting it. Taste only serves to confirm what the nose has already informed. A gentle swirl of the glass will help this process and be careful not to inhale too deeply; some high ABV spirits can pack a punch! Place the glass to your nose and relax. It’s thinking time.
- From nosing the whisky, an opinion should already be forming.
- Now for the all important tasting. Take a modest sip of the spirit and hold it in your mouth. Count to ten and let it slide down.
- Once it’s gone, begin to chew. Yes chew – masticate! Just for a few moments.
- Then wait, and appreciate. The finish, or aftertaste, should linger on the palate as the spirit warms you from inside and reveals its final secrets. Did it deliver a long finish? Was it dry or smooth and did it reinforce what the nose had earlier promised?
- The best tastings are those shared with friends, especially if everyone is up for a chew! You can compare different single malts, discuss them, rate them but most of all enjoy the experience and develop your own appreciation of what constitutes a good single malt whisky.
- Last but not least, always drink responsibly!
Mark Littler is Master Distiller at Hellyers Road Distillery and President of the Tasmanian Whisky & Spirits Association