The 4 S’s
Proper whisky tasting is not an easy task, but it is a fun process! It takes time, practice, and patience to learn the subtleties in a whisky. As a young women who prefers a scotch when hanging at the bar, I always have to deal with sideways glances from men, confused looks from bartenders, and always the question of “you actually enjoy that”? Yes, sir, I do actually enjoy it. So embrace the fact that a women ordering a dram (250ml) of whisky is just yet another reason we women are impossible to understand. The following four steps are the process I take when sampling and enjoying a whisky. It’s called the Four S’s: See, Swirl, Smell, and Sip.
The majority of whisky bottles are clear and this is no coincidence. Whisky color is hugely important to many drinkers. The color alone can tell you a great amount about a whisky, and can be absolutely beautiful. From light gold to rich mahogany, the color acts as a corner stone in consuming a whisky and should always be observed and appreciated.
But, it’s important to not let a whisky’s color fool you. After the distillation process, a whisky goes into a barrel clear, similar to the color of a gin or vodka. As whisky ages – it darkens. So, many consumers believe that the darker a whisky, the older, and therefore better it is. This is not case. Many things play a factor into the final color of a whisky when it’s bottled. For example:
- A whisky may be a blend (many different whiskies are combined to create one specific flavor), where very old whiskies are combined with young whiskies creating a lighter or darker whisky
- Color may be added during the bottling process in order to imitate a specific color. *it’s important to remember this may not always be a dishonest process to trick consumers. As aging whisky is a natural process, not every barrel may produce the same exact color, even if the flavor is the same. Brands may add color to their whisky to create consistency and consumer confidence that the whisky is the same bottle to bottle. Consumers can be very irrational unfortunately*
- The barrel a whisky is aged in will also play a large factor in determining the end color. For example, a whisky aged in a sherry (red wine) cask will be much darker than one aged in an America oak cask, even if they are aged the same amount of time.
The important take away when it comes to “seeing” a whisky is to read the bottle for additional information on why a color might be a certain way (if possible) and then appreciate the beautiful color of the whisky.
In addition to the color, swirling the whisky provides a lot of information. Similar to tasting wine, when a whisky is swirled, it sticks to the side of the glass and as it drips down “legs” appear. These legs can act as an indicator of alcohol strength and complexity. Older whiskies tend to have thicker and slower moving legs, as well as whiskies with higher alcohol content. Younger whiskies, or whiskies lower in alcohol, have faster and thinner moving legs.
Now comes my favorite part. The smell. I often find that the smell of a whisky is more enjoyable then the whisky itself, especially when the whisky is high in alcohol. One smell can lead to an array of scents that you may not pick up on just by a taste (because of the alcohol burn we all know so well). Bring the glass smoothly towards your nose and inhale softly. This process may need to be repeated several times, especially if the alcohol content is high, in order to capture the flavors and scents of the whisky. Don’t be afraid to use your imagination!
I have developed my own personal method through several tastings with recommendations from professionals and brand ambassadors. I start by trying to get the general smell, moving the glass back and forth across from underneath my nose. After, I turn the glass at an angle and hold it under my nose. I then smell the upper rim of the glass, and then the lower. I have observed that the “lighter” smells (the floral, grass, and citrus notes) rise to the top of the glass, and the “deeper” smells (vanilla, caramel, peat, and dark fruits) rest on the bottom. This way of smelling whisky has taken me awhile to develop and I’m still trying to perfect it. Practice makes perfect, so start smelling!
Last but certainly not least, taste the whisky. It may take time, but learn to take a small sip and let the whisky rest on your tongue. After some practice you will be able to pick out unique flavors and undertones in the whisky.
Now comes the age old question of neat or on the rocks. There are many ways to enjoy a whisky. Some like to add a chip of ice, some water, or nothing at all. It all comes down to personal preference.
- Water: Many (including many tasting professionals and brand ambassadors) say that adding a drop or two of water brings out new flavors in a whisky that may not have been tasted before. I like to add a tiny bit of spring water when the alcohol content is high, so I’m able to taste the flavors and not just the alcohol.
- Ice: Some say that adding ice is bad for a whisky. That whisky should be served at room temperature, and adding ice locks in flavors that would otherwise be present. Other say an ice chip is useful, because it slowly melts, rationing the water that mixes with the whisky to create a more perfect balance.
- Nothing: This is not for the faint of heart. Whisky can be intense because of its high alcohol content but with some practice can easily be enjoyed neat (with nothing added). Taking the whisky straight is my personal preference because I like to enjoy it as the distiller chose to bottle it.
The take away from all this, JUST ENJOY! Whichever way tastes best to you, is how you should sample your whisky, and never let anyone tell you otherwise.
Keep in Mind
This is not a one-time thing that you’ll perfect on your first dram. Learning to appreciate a whisky takes time and practice. Keep a journal where you record the appearance, smell, taste, and finish. Write down your general observations and opinions. Writing down your thoughts will help you organize and develop an understanding of what you like and don’t like.
For another perspective with very informative videos, check out Bowmore’s tasting tips as well as suggestions from the Scotch Whisky Association