Dram good stuff: how to taste single-malt whisky
FT drinks writer Alice Lascelles shows you how to appreciate single-malt whisky and how to drink it.
Produced by Natalie Whittle. Filmed by Liam McCarthy. Edited by Oli McGuirk. Directed by Josh de la Mare.
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A good whisky will always taste like a good whisky however you drink it. But if you really want to get under the skin of what makes a good whisky great, then you need to be a bit more methodical about it.
First of all you need a good tasting glass. Two types that are commonly used in the whisky industry are sort of tapering tulip kind of a shape which really helps to lift the aromas up to your nose.
Another good thing to do when you're tasting whisky is to taste comparatively. By that I mean to taste it against a couple of other whiskys, because that way you can really heighten the differences between them.
Let's pour some whisky, mainly focusing on Scotch. A really good example of this is this whisky here from Speyside which is the Balveni. You want to pour about 25 mils or a shot of whisky. Peaty one for contrast.
Before you start tasting, you want to take a look at the colour of the whisky. Because the colours of whisky aren't just beautiful, they can also serve as important clues to how that whisky is made and how it might taste.
You can see it's got a beautiful bright, gold colour, and that's almost certainly a sign that it's been aged in American oak casks. This is the most commonly used cask type in the Scotch whisky industry, and it's characterised by flavours that include vanilla, banana bread, some light spices and maybe some peachy apricot characters.
If the whisky has a much deeper, reddy-brown colour like this, that's a sign that it's probably spent at least part of its life in European oak casks. A great example of this style is Aberlour A'Bunadh with an amazingly rich kind of dark, rolling kind of flavours of prunes and molasses.
We're now seeing distillers experiment with other types of oak, too. This one here, which is a very new whisky from Japan, which has been aged in mizunara oak casks. And that has a character a bit like incense and celery seed, a very, very distinctive flavour there.
So the next thing we want to do is give it a sniff. With whisky it's probably wise to let those aromas come to you. Give it a gentle nose like that and then a bit of a swirl. I can smell a little bit of flowers actually in this one.
Maybe it reminds you of a place or a person. It could be your grandfather's pipe tobacco. If it makes you think those things, write them down because those tasting notes will be the ones that really remind you of that whisky in the future.
So once we've given it a sniff, we'll give it a taste. You want to really roll it around your mouth so it goes to all parts of your palate. Think about the flavours of the whisky but also the texture. Is it silky and mouth coating? Or maybe it's a bit more grippy or powerful.
What you want to do next is add a little drop of water. This will help to really open up the flavours and the aromas of the whisky, like rain falling on a hot, dry garden. And now getting some fresher, kind of green notes coming out of this whisky.
Some whiskys adapt well to water. Others are not, as they say, good swimmers. But it's really all a matter of taste.
Another good way to get to know whisky is to try matching it with a bit of food. A smoky whisky like this one, which is Caol Ila from Islay, can be really good with things like seafood, shellfish, smoked salmon perhaps. A more fruity one or a more honeyed one might be better with cheese or even chocolate.
But it's all a matter of taste, and ultimately whisky tasting should just be fun. And if you are having fun doing it then you're probably doing it right.