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An Introduction to Whisky Tasting

Here at the Whisky Education Foundation, we enjoy hosting whisky tastings in the San Francisco area. If you’re curious about attending (or hosting!) a whisky tasting but you have no idea what to expect, this introduction to whisky tasting will tell you everything you need to know.

How Many Whiskies?

How many whiskies should you taste at one sitting? Opinions vary, of course, but somewhere around five or six is generally a good idea. Some people will taste as many as eight, and some people recommend absolute beginners to start with just four. Our whisky tastings generally feature six one-ounce samples. By way of comparison, a standard shot in the US is about 1.5 ounces.

Selecting Your Whiskies

Most people like to select some kind of theme when they’re hosting a whisky tasting. There are many different options to choose from: whiskies from the same region, whiskies from different regions, whiskies with the same flavor profile, Japanese whiskies, and so on. Our Scottish Distilleries A-Z series aims to explore all 160 Scottish distilleries, six whiskies at a time! Whatever theme you select, the idea is just to have fun while exploring the qualities of different whiskies.

Picking the Right Glass

When drinking whisky at home, many people use a tumbler. For a whisky tasting, a better option is the snifter, a glass with a wide bottom and a narrow rim that concentrates the aromas of the whisky to enhance the tasting experience. Glencairn snifters are an especially good choice.

How Many Glasses?

If you use the same glass over and over again during a tasting, the flavor of the whiskies may blend together –making it harder to appreciate what’s unique about each one. Afficionados prefer to use one glass per whisky, but if you just don’t have that many snifters, you can simply rinse yours out after every sample.

Water, Snacks, Pen, Paper

Other than the whisky and the glasses, you’ll need four more items: water, snacks, a pen, and some paper. The water is to help you stay hydrated and to cleanse your palate. The snacks are also to help you cleanse your palate between samples. Mildly salted crackers are a good choice, as are pretzels or good bread. Avoid anything spicy or too heavily flavored, as it will interfere with the tasting. As for the pen and paper, these are to help you take notes as you taste the whiskies. Believe us, this is really an essential element in a whisky tasting!

Tasting the Whisky

Now that you have everything you need, the next step is tasting the whisky! There’s a right way to do it, though –not because it’s a rule, but because it will make the experience that much more rewarding. As a general rule, samples should be tasted in order from the lightest tasting to the smokiest or heaviest.

After pouring your sample, hold your palm over the glass for 10-20 seconds. This will help concentrate the aromas in the bottom of the snifter, making it easier for you to pick up the different notes in the whisky.

Next, raise the glass –not too close to your face, as the scent would be too overwhelming, and you’d miss the subtleties –and take a sniff. Write down the first scent that it reminds you of, no matter what that is. This isn’t a test, and there’s no wrong answer –it’s strictly for your own enjoyment. Then take two or three more sniffs, writing down the scents that occur to you every time. You now have a pretty good sense of what tasting notes are present in this sample.

Take your first sip, making sure to go slowly and savor the experience. Write down every tasting note you notice after your first sip. When you’re done with your first sample, drink a little water and have a bite or two of your snack to cleanse your palate. Now you’re ready to repeat!

Whisky tastings hosted by the Whisky Education Foundation are a great way to get started. We sample some of the best whiskies in the world –the average whisky in our Scottish Distilleries series is $300 a bottle –at an affordable price, with expert guidance and commentary. We also put together custom tastings and even virtual tastings. Book yours today!