Any time I conduct a tutored tasting, I always take time at the start of the event to spell out some of the more basic and fundamental things you need to do in order to best appreciate your dram. Many people have come up to me afterwards and expressed their amazement at how much more fulfilling and detailed their whisky experience was when they followed some of these steps.
Of course most of the time we’re enjoying our malts in the relaxation and comfort of our own homes, (as opposed to critically analysing or assessing them in a dedicated tasting session), but even so, what can you do to get the most out of your dram?
Well, for starters, pour yourself a healthy measure! A standard pour (or nip) in the Australian liquor industry is 30ml, but I’ve always found that to be a little Scottish, if you catch my drift. A dram is a measure of whisky, the size of which depends entirely on the generosity of the pourer, so treat yourself to something decent that you can work with. Of course, for maximum enjoyment, you should also make sure that your malt of choice carries the SMWS label!
On a somewhat more serious note, the most important thing to get right is the glass. Half the enjoyment we get out of whisky is the nose (its aromas), so it’s essential that you use a glass that can capture and concentrate the aromas at the top of the glass. The traditional whisky tumbler glass (broad & square) might look attractive, but it’s next to useless if you really want to enjoy what your malt has to offer. Copita glasses, snifters, or even the humble XL5 wine tasting glass will do the trick. Even better, you could try our very own SMWS tasting glasses.
As mentioned above, half of our enjoyment and appreciation of whisky comes through nosing the dram, so take the time to stick your schnoz in and take in all the aromas. Most of us tend to have a dominant nostril, i.e. one nostril will be far more capable of detecting and identifying aromas than the other, so be sure to find out which side works best for you.
Cask strength whiskies can occasionally deliver a bit of a sting with their higher alcohol level, so be sure not to singe or anaesthetise your nostrils by diving in too quickly or deeply. If you find your perception starts to fade after repeated sniffs, simply sniff a glass of plain water and your nose will re-calibrate.
Many whiskies, particularly older ones, change with a bit of air time, so it’s important to take your time with this. I like to give the glass several swirls, so as to help the whisky react with the air and release its aromas. Some whiskies also benefit from hand warming. Hold the glass from underneath in the palm of your hand and let your hand’s warmth stimulate and release the aromatic alcohol vapours. Some whiskies are extremely complex and change dramatically over time, and it is not uncommon for me to spend 10 to 15 minutes nosing a dram before I even think about putting the glass to my mouth. Note also that your ability to detect and recognise aromas will be greatly enhanced if you leave your mouth open while inhaling through your nose. Try this yourself – nose a good malt with your mouth closed, then try again with your mouth open. Makes a big difference, yes?
At this stage, our dram is still neat. We haven’t added water. If you’ve added coke by this stage, you should probably stop reading here. And if you’re enjoying a quality single malt, I would also strongly discourage adding ice. The colder temperatures created by ice serve to suck in and close off the dram, effectively destroying or disguising the aromas and flavours that you’ve paid good money to enjoy.
Now, we taste it. Just a sip at first, almost teasing, to roll around your tongue and awaken your taste buds. Roll it all over, side to side, front to back, and down the sides of your cheeks. If the alcohol level is high and the dram seems a little hot, open your mouth and let the higher alcohols evaporate out.
Whilst we tend to focus on the flavours we can taste when enjoying a dram, the other critical part is the mouthfeel. Some whiskies offer a tremendous tactile experience – some are oily and mouthcoating, some are spritzig and give you a tingle; others might seem quite clammy or mouth-puckering. Sometimes we use the word “chewy” when we encounter a malt that’s thick, viscous, and really stimulates the mouth. It’s all part of the enjoyment and experience.
Take a bigger mouthful now and really get stuck into it. By now you’ll have identified the basic flavours in the dram, and possibly even categorised or pigeon-holed it. Fruity? Floral? Dry? Spicy? Sweet? Smoky? Malty? Those seven single-word descriptors alone are marvellous tools to help you identify and describe the experience.
And now the finale…the finish. The experience doesn’t end just because you’ve swallowed it. After swallowing, your palate and olfactory senses will kick in again from the residue and vapours in your mouth. Some whiskies (the good ones) will now actually offer a different perception of flavours, some will deliver a crescendo of heat, others will just maintain a delicious wash of sweetness or spiciness. In some cases, these sensations will be quite brief (a short finish), others draw the experience out for many minutes. Several years ago, the Society had a particular bottling of Bowmore that had one of the longest finishes I’ve experienced – 30 minutes after swallowing the last mouthful, I could still taste the peat and the smoke, and feel the warmth in my chest.
Finally, comes the controversial part: Whether to add water or not? This is a very personal and subjective thing. There is a multitude of opinions and ideas out there on this one, but what is important is this: Do what you need to do to enjoy the dram. There’s no point being a purist and not adding water if you find the whisky too hot and overwhelming to enjoy. Personally, I’m not a fan of adding water, but I’m not dogmatic about it either – occasionally I encounter a dram that does actually benefit from a splash of water.
The textbooks tell you that adding water helps to unlock and release the nose; some writers and industry people even say that it’s absolutely essential to add water. But bitter experience will quickly teach you that water often kills and drowns some drams. Is there a rule of thumb? Yes. Older whiskies are far less likely to take water. Older whiskies can sometimes be quite delicate and fragile, and they fall apart instantly when water gets added. Generally speaking, younger whiskies are a bit more robust and up to it.
Fortunately, our local tasting panel tries all of our whiskies both neat and with water when assessing what to import, and we’ll usually give some advice in the Local Tasting Panel Notes if we think water plays a role one way or the other.
For some of us, it’s simply a matter of cutting the alcohol down to a level that’s comfortable for us to enjoy. But do not be led purely by the alcohol content stated on the label. You need to taste it first. Some of the smoothest, softest, and most approachable whiskies I’ve ever had were in the 55%-60% strength range, whereas some at 40%-50% were exceptionally hot and needed taming. Let your tongue be the judge. And if you do decide to add water, do so slowly and methodically so as not to drown it. Then go through the whole nosing and tasting procedure again. With a bit of luck, you’ll encounter a whole new series of aromas and flavours that you didn’t detect last time around.
So those are the basics in really appreciating your dram. Of course, there are other things you can assess, e.g. the whisky’s colour, and there are plenty of other tricks you can do to analyse the whisky, such as rubbing it between your palms (a great trick for detecting subtle peat), shaking the glass (cask strength whiskies give off rings of bubbles that give you clues about its strength), and you can also tilt your glass and watch the legs trickle down the sides in order to assess its viscosity and get an indication of the whisky’s age. Be warned though – if you find yourself repeatedly doing all these little tricks when enjoying your dram, there’s a high risk that you might one day end up being State Manager of a national whisky society!
So enjoy the basics and you’ll enjoy your dram. Of course, we haven’t even touched on topics such as whether a particular dram is best suited for before or after dinner, whether it’s a quaffing malt or a malt for contemplation, or whether it’s a summer dram or a winter warmer. Perhaps another day. But in the meantime, what’s the last thing you can do to get the maximum enjoyment out of your dram? Pour one for a friend, and spread the joy!
– Andrew Derbidge, Cellarmaster, SMWS Australia