A guide to whisky tasting and ways to develop your palate

5 November 2014

When I first started drinking single malts, I thought the people writing the tasting notes had a skill for nosing and tasting that I could never have. But with practice, I’ve learned how to identify and describe the complex aromas and flavours in my drams.

You can too.

Whether you’re a seasoned single malt whisky aficionado or you’re new to the category, the following tips may help you attain ever greater appreciation of your single malts.

1. Trust your instincts

It’s easy to detect a note once you’ve been told it’s there: for example, our Malt Master says the most dominant note in our 12 Year Old expression is fresh pear. But learning how to nose and taste is all about making your own discoveries. Everyone’s palate is different, so don’t feel as if there are any right or wrong answers. Allow your instincts to guide you.

2. Take your time

The first nosing may only reveal one note. So nose it again. Wait a bit longer, then nose it a third time. Some whiskies give up their secrets easily, others take much longer. Have a sip and think about the flavours, see how they change in your mouth. Compare aroma and taste -- are the notes the same or different? Unravelling a whisky takes time and patience.

3. Make the most of your taste buds and palate

Try nosing a whisky with each nostril rather than both together. Most people find that each nostril delivers different aromas. Use your whole mouth to taste, not just the tip of your tongue. You'll discover tannins that grip the cheeks, chewiness under your tongue, a tingle in your gums. Explore every inch of your palate in search of different flavours, textures, sensations. 

4. Try two drams side by side

If you're struggling to describe your whisky, try it side by side with a dram you're familiar with. Go back and forward between the two and compare notes. Years ago, I started doing this with pairs of very different whiskies, but once you've developed your palate, you can discover more by comparing two whiskies that you once thought were similar and finding out just how different they are. 

5. Use your friends as a sounding board

Enjoy a tasting with friends and compare notes. Sometimes a friend will mention a note and you'll have a eureka moment as they are describing something you couldn't quite put your finger on. As you learn from them, they'll learn from you too. It’s also extremely important to articulate what you smell and taste if you want to move from knowing something smells familiar, to being able to attach the right word quickly.  

6. Be more specific

You’ve detected a sweet note - does it taste like white sugar, brown sugar, Demerara, palm sugar, honey, cane juice, golden syrup? Maybe your dram is fruity, now push yourself beyond ‘fruity’. You’ve tasted dozens or hundreds of fruits, which one does it taste like? Is it fresh, tinned, dried, very ripe, unripe? The more time you take to describe your experience, the more your palate will develop.

7. Improve your skills every day

You don't have to have a dram in front of you to practice using your senses. If you're walking down the street and smell something nice, work out what it is. The smell of baking? Be more specific. Is it bread or cake? Can you smell icing or cinnamon? A spice market, a nature trail, or even a walk down the street - the opportunity to practice is everywhere.

8. Be patient, it takes time

You’re not going to be a master on your first dram. Or your second, or your tenth, or your hundredth. Unless you're one of those lucky people born with a highly developed palate, improving your skills takes many years and a lot of practice. Luckily, it's a fun journey that's full of exciting new experiences along the way.

If you have any tips or advice for developing your palate that you feel I have missed or you have a question or two you’d like answering, then I’d love to hear from you – get in touch with me on Twitter, @son_of_whisky.

To continue your journey today, take a look at this fascinating guide to single malt Scotch whisky penned by our Global Brand Ambassador, Ian Millar.