5 tips to help you identify flavors in whiskey

5 tips to help you identify flavors in whiskey

Have you ever read tasting notes, or sat down with another whiskey drinker who just pulls these tasting notes out of the whiskey, that you feel they must be making it up? I felt that way a few years back when I started drinking whiskey. “There’s no way you’re tasting those flavors, it’s just a burn smell and a prickle down the throat!”. Little did I know about whiskey palates, or even food palates if I’m honest.

Tasting and flavors are very much a personal preference, and personal experience. Things I taste, have experienced, or pick up on may be completely different to you. A lot of people find experiences are the most influential in creating triggers for certain smells or flavors. Think of a circus, what comes to mind? Sure, clowns, acrobats, maybe even lions or other animals. But other than visual what else do you think of? Perhaps the smell of popcorn or candy floss? The sound of the circus (sometimes known as carnival music). There’s many things that our brain can trigger or recall from an experience, which makes it even more powerful.

Today we’re going to look at the top 5 tips I have to help you become better at identifying flavors in whiskey and how I’ve done it over the past couple of years.

5. Set yourself up for success

Prepare for the whiskey tasting, if you know you’ll be trying a new whiskey, or trying out these tips on a Friday or Saturday night, try not to eat too many salty or sugary foods that day, and especially not an hour or two before you plan on drinking. These types of food can dull your senses by nature. Your palate will change over the course of a day, and it’s believe that the best time to truly taste a whiskey is in the morning, when your palate is fresh and unaltered by food. But, if you’re like me, and have a job that’s not whiskey related so you’re drinking has to be postponed to night time, just limiting salty and sugary types of food will help keep your palate in top shape.

Next, pick the right glass, tumbler glasses aren’t ideal for tasting whiskey, they’re more for kicking back and mindlessly drinking a nice whiskey, not exploring one. You may have to spend a little bit of money, but believe me it’s worth it; for the best tasting experience you’ll need a tulip nosed glass. If you have a port glass that will work, or you can order a specific glass such as a Copita, Glencairn or my usual, Tuath. The reason you’d want one of these glasses is it’s designed to allow you to swirl the whiskey, letting the oils grab on to the side of the glass, and focus the aromas for you.

Finally, Take. Your. Time. Some whiskey takes time to open up and allow you to taste them fully - sometimes I’ll pour a glass, set a topper on it and let it sit in the glass for 30 mins or so before nosing and tasting it. This is especially helpful to try with whiskies you might not like that much, or at least, you think you don’t like them.

4. Taste everything you can

There are a lot of flavors that are common in whiskey - and I have a great Tasting Chart of 182 different, common flavors found in whiskey. Go and get that tasting chart, then when you look over it make a note of some flavors that you think familiar with, or that you never thought much of the smell. The next time you’re shopping, pick up a couple of those items. Try them, smell them, make it intentional. How will you pick them out in whiskey if you haven’t tasted them, or made a strong tasting connection to it?

When you’re doing this, and from here on out, make sure you really taste your food. Don’t just wolf it down without thinking. Take your time, smell the skin, the flesh when you cut into it, and remember the feeling in your mouth and focus on what flavors are there the longer you leave it in your mouth. You’d be surprised at how different some of the items you get actually taste or smell. The best example I can think of this is bananas and banana flavored sweets. Two completely different tastes, from the same item and both can be found in different whiskies.

3. Taste with friends

Not only is it good to taste whiskey with your friends from a mental health aspect, but it will help you with identifying different flavors. There’s different ways of doing these type of tastings. You can all drink from one bottle and figure out tasting notes by comparing what you get, or my preferred option is if everyone brings a bottle of something different you can try multiple side by side and compare how different the whiskeys are. You’d be surprised at how helpful it is to have a soundboard to throw out the notes you’re getting on a whiskey and your friends being able to reply with ‘yes I totally get that!’ or ‘I’m not picking that up but I get a really strong flavor of X’.

2. Use Reviews and Tasting note examples

The power of suggestion is an extremely influential tool. Before jumping into the tasting notes or reviews of a whiskey you’re going to try, I would always recommend tasting the whiskey yourself. Try decipher some flavors from the smell and taste of the whiskey and write them down, whether it be on your phone or a scrap piece of paper. Once you’re happy that you’ve written down all you can decipher (even if its only 1 or two flavors.) or that you can’t pick anything out at all. Then go to the reviews and tasting note examples to see if there are any notes that trigger something for you or work through the Tasting Chart if you don’t find any reviews. The power of suggestion can help you recall that flavor when you see it written or said about that whiskey.

Keep track of your tasting notes and try the same thing a week or two later, writing all your notes out and compare to the last ones. You might find new ones, and find that some of the old ones are still there, more prominent or maybe even gone!

1. Practice, Practice, Practice

Taste and flavor are totally different to everyone. What you experienced when tasting certain foods or whiskey may influence your perception on that flavor. It may enhance it, it may hinder it. The more you practice and experience new flavors the more you will be able to pick up on when tasting whiskey, after all, it is about memory recall.

Play around with the different ways to taste whiskey. Move it around your mouth, hold it in your mouth before swallowing for different lengths of time. A nice trick for picking out some more nuanced flavors on the nose of a whiskey is to pour a drop on the palm of your hands, and rub them dry. Smell your hands and see what you get!

When you’re tasting, try using different parts of your mouth, the tip of your tongue is most susceptible to sweet flavors, so if you can’t get passed that honey or sweet notes then try pouring the whiskey past that onto the middle of your tongue and gently move it around the sides where tannins will start to dry out your cheeks, and the umami meaty flavors are generally toward the back of the tongue. If you’re tasting different whiskey in one sitting, have a palate cleanser. I find dry crackers and cool water to be a perfect cleanser for me.

There you have it, 5 of my top tips on helping you identify flavors in whiskey. It really does come down to practice and experiences. Get out there, taste some food, experience some smells and have some great whiskey. Have you got any tips or tricks? Let me know below in the comments!

I’ve been thinking of doing a monthly whiskey tasting online of new or staple whiskies, this would help us all in training our palates at an accessible level. Please checkout the form here if you’d be interested in signing up for it. It would have to be for Irish residents due to shipping at the moment, but signup if you’re outside of Ireland too and we will see what we can do!

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