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The type of glass you use is personal preference. You can use a traditional whisky tumbler or rocks glass, but the best way to taste and compare different whiskies, is with a small glass such as a Glencairn tasting glass, that is bulbous at the bottom for swirling and tapered at the top to concentrate aromas, allowing you to experience the nose and flavours more.
If you have more than one glass, you can set up a flight and compare more than one whisky side by side. This is a great way to compare the nose and palate. If you are doing a whisky flight, you do steps 2 and 3 first for all the whiskies (ie observe and smell all without tasting), then do step 4. This is because the mouth and nasal passages are connected. So as soon as you taste one, it will influence the nose of all of them and you won't be able to smell anything different!
Have a pen and paper at the ready to record your impressions of the nose and palate. Better still, purchase a Liquor Loot Tasting Journal featuring a flavour wheel to help prompt ideas. Sometimes it's difficult to think of names of aromas and flavours. Plus it's a great place to store all your notes in one handy location for future reference.
Hold the glass over white paper, wall or a similar blank background, and compare the colour. Is it pale gold, amber, darker brown? The colour tells you a great deal about how the whisky was matured. A whisky matured in port casks will look different to one from sherry or bourbon casks etc.
To really taste whisky, you need to smell it. This is called 'the nose'. Whisky can be quite strong in alcohol, so gently move your nose towards the glass and away again and repeat. Or you can move the glass from left to right and back, side to side under your nose. Some tasters circle the glass 360 degrees underneath their nose. Find what works best for you.
The idea is to find something the smell reminds you of eg is it fruity, floral, woody? Can you smell vanilla, chocolate, nuts, pears, dried fruit, lawn clippings, heather, moss, bonfires, honey, leather, tobacco, burnt toast? Take your time, 30 seconds to a minute and write down what you identify.
The key to tasting whisky is to take a very small sip. It's not like drinking beer or wine. Think small and take a sip that's smaller than that! Enough to just wet your tongue with the flavours. This allows you to taste the whisky with the least amount of alcohol that could overpower the senses. Let your palate adjust to those flavours (particularly if you are tasting more than one whisky in a session), take another very small sip and then record what you taste. Focus on what immediately pops into your head. There is no right or wrong answer.
The flavours that linger in your mouth after you swallow the whisky are called the 'finish'. The different parts of your mouth (or palate) will pick up on different flavours.
Avoid adding ice. Ice cools down the whisky and dulls flavours. However, you may like to add a drop or two of water with a water dropper (pipette) to see if that changes the flavour. Adding water lowers the alcohol percentage and helps the whisky to really open up. It's something that all whisky connoiseurs do and it helps as a beginner because you can experience the aromas and flavours more.