How to nose and taste whisky

whisky tasting malt mileage

When I introduce people to whisky, often I am asked: “how do I drink it?”. The obvious answer may be to just put some whisky in your mouth and swallow it, but that would make a drinker miss important aspects of the whisky’s character: its aroma, its mouth-feel, and nuances in its taste and finish. So, as silly as it may sound at first blush, the question “how do I drink whisky” is actually a really good question.

Step 1 – choose the right glass

When enjoying whisky, choosing the right glass is important to enhancing what you can smell and taste in the whisky. 


The standard tumbler, while comfy to sip from, does not tend to concentrate the aromas and flavours of a whisky or spirit because the glass does not taper inwards and so the aromas and flavours escape from the glass. To get the most out of your whisky, you need to choose a tulip shaped glass that tapers inwards so the glass captures aromas that would otherwise escape from the glass. The correct glass, having captured those aromas, also directs those aromas to your awaiting nose.

There are many glass options on the market: the Glencairn, the Naturally Engineered Aroma Technology (NEAT) glass, the Norlan glass, the Denver & Liely glass, and the list goes on (and on). Every cloud has a silver lining, and graduating from law school at the height of the Global Financial Crisis made me a life long seeker of value. So, my favourite whisky and spirit glasses include the Glencairn, the industry standard whisky glass and the brandy balloon. If you have the cash to splash, the others are great too. I have enjoyed using the Denver & Liely glass at industry tastings and highly recommend it as a glass that concentrates the aroma in a whisky or spirit because the inward curvature of the glass keeps in the bouquet, and prevents it from escaping. 

glass glencairn
Glencairn glass

Made of crystal and available for anywhere between AUD$6.95 to AUD$9.99, it is hard  to beat the Glencairn glass. The tulip shape of this glass and narrow opening seems to help capture the aroma of a whisky or spirit, which means that the bouquet and drinking experience is likely to be enriched. 

The industry standard whisky glass is probably the most common whisky glass around. It is commonly seen in specialist whisky bars and it tends to be used in distilleries the world over. It is the glass of choice for most professionals, and again it works on the same basic principle as the other glasses – its “tulip” shape holds in the aroma and flavours! 

Use the Glencairn glass or industry standard whisky glass with any whisky or spirit, but if your drink of choice is cask strength or overproof and adding water to it is out of the question then you may want to try a brandy balloon.

If you enjoy brandy, overproof rum and higher strength whiskies, the brandy balloon is a great investment. Prices for good quality brandy balloons start at $4! There are several spirits which I prefer nosing in brandy balloons, such as the potent Holey Dollar Platinum rum (75.9% abv) or The Big Smoke Blended Malt (60% abv). There is no set rule, as some cask strength malts smell heavenly when sniffed out of a Glencairn or industry standard glass.  The trick is buying a brandy balloon and experimenting with the way spirits smell different when smelled from out of them, as compared with other glasses.  

Step 2 – agitate the whisky 

Once the whisky is in your glass, agitate the whisky (no, I have not been reading Sun Tzu). By swirling the whisky in your glass before nosing or tasting it, not only do you (kind of) look like you know what you are doing but many think that this enlivens the whisky after its time resting in the bottle. 

Step 3 – nose the whisky

You have a glass filled with whisky sitting on the table in front of you. Now what? Avoid sticking your nose directly into the glass when first nosing a whisky because the high alcohol content in the whisky will probably overpower your senses, and dull your nose. Instead, take the whisky glass and slowly bring it a few centimeters below your nose. Breath in through your mouth, not your nose. This may seem counter-intuitive, but I find this highlights the aromas of the whisky whilst reducing the potency of the ethanol. 

Place your nose at different points of the opening of the glass, and see if you can detect any differences in the whisky’s aroma depending on where your nose is situated. 

Step 4 – savour the whisky

Now that the foreplay is over, it is time to taste the whisky. When tasting the whisky, swish it gently around your tongue and savour the liquid. Swish it around for 5 to 10 seconds so your taste buds get a chance to taste the flavours in the whisky. Then swallow the whisky. 

If you think the whisky needs it, add a few drops of water to the whisky. After tasting the whisky neat (without water) or with a few drops of water, try diluting it down to about 20-30% alcohol by volume to really unpack its layers of flavour. 

Take note of the way the whisky “feels” in your mouth. Is it velvety, oily, viscous, or thin and drying? That would be the “mouth-feel”. What does it taste like? Does it remind you of anything? A peated malt may remind you of the smell or taste of the sea (salt, seaweed), a field (dry grass), or a hospital (medicinal, bandages), for example. Other whiskies may remind you of certain fruits (compounds that taste like apple are common in distillate) or spices (vanilla flavours from American Oak are common). To find out more about whisky and flavours, please feel free to read my post ‘How is whisky made and where does its flavour come from? Distilling and Maturing whisky‘.

Step 5 – breathe

After swallowing the whisky, breath in and then out to really get the flavour of the “finish” (which is the flavour that lingers in your mouth once the whisky is swallowed). Breathe in deeply, then out strongly. You should notice that this will give you a longer, more intense, finish. Take note of what you taste. 


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