How To Drink Single Malt Whisky Like a Master Distiller

There’s no wrong way to drink whiskey. But in the world of single malt and other fine whiskey super-dorks, there’s a hell of a lot more to these dark spirits than slamming shots with your bros. In each sip lies hints and touches, stenches and burns, sweet and bitter, emotion – each layer of taste with its own complexity. And for an educated patron of whiskeys, that’s what drinking whisky is all about.

But most of us just want to drink something good and cool – not become super dweebs in the process. Now technically, I am a dweeb – a Bushmills Irish Whiskey certified “Qualified Irish Whiskey Taster,” and a “Friend of Laphroaig” member. I’ve visited distilleries in Ireland and Scotland, and drank with Master Distillers and Distillery Managers from Dalmore, The Glenlivet, Bushmills, Bulleit Bourbon, Maker’s Mark, Laphroaig and Johnnie Walker.¬† So to save you the time, money and dweebery, here’s a quick run-down¬† of what I’ve learned from drinking with the best.

Note: Often times, when a Master Distiller, Distillery Manager or other qualified tasters test their product for quality control purposes, they will water-down the spirit to 50-percent water, which drowns-out the alcohol flavor, leaving only the subtle expressions of the whisky intact. This helps them more accurately keep consistent the brand’s flavor over time – but that’s not what we’re talking about here. Here, we’re talking about casually tasting a good whisky, not quality control.

1. Good Glass: It’s important to have the right kind of glass when tasting a single malt for the first time. This doesn’t mean you must have a “tulip”tasting glass – though that will maximize your experience – but you should have a whisky glass of some sort in order to properly taste the whisky.

2. Get Started: Pour 2-3 seconds-worth of whisky into your glass. Do not add ice or soda, which changes the flavors – leave it neat.

3. Spread ‘Em: Tilt and swirl your glass so that the whisky covers all the sides of the glass equally. This increase in surface area allows the whisky to evaporate more quickly, giving it a more powerful aroma. Many look to see the consistency of the whisky (oily, water, etc…) when doing a proper tasting, but this is often more than usual in a casual tasting. Do what you like…

4. Breath In: Bring your glass up to your face and stick your nose inside the glass. Take a slow, deep whiff of the whisky’s aromas. Try to pick out different smells that remind you of other stuff, like nutmeg or cinnamon or tree bark – whatever it is that you smell.

5. Mix It Up: At this point, you can mix in a small amount (a few drops to 1/4 of your glass contents, depending on what you like) of well filtered water in order to cut some of the often strong alcohol flavors that get in the way of tasting the actual whisky. In reality, this is great with some whiskies and not so good with others. Better try it both ways, eh?

6. Breath Again: Smell the whisky a second time, again paying attention to the different flavored aromas you experience.

7. Just the Sip: Take a small amount and swirl it around your mouth, so it coats the entire inside, while breathing though the nose only. Notice the texture of the whisky, how it feels on your tongue. Next, take a second sip, swirl, then open your mouth slightly and breath through both your mouth and your nose at the same time. This will allow you to taste the full spectrum of flavors.

8. Drink Up: Take a drink of the whisky, but do not swallow. Instead, hold it in your mouth for as long as possible in order to taste all the flavors of the spirit.

9. Down the Hatch: Now you can swallow. Try to keep your mouth shut and while swallowing, and breath through the nose only. Often times new flavors will arise in this stage – it’s called “the finish.” After that, just keep drinking.

8 thoughts on “How To Drink Single Malt Whisky Like a Master Distiller”

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  4. The preferred spelling is "whiskey" (pl. "whiskeys"). Are you one of those dorks who think that if it's from England, you're supposed to spell it wrong?

  5. Actually the plural is "whiskies" and when referring to Scotch and Irish whiskies Scotch is "whisky" and Irish is "whiskey". That's what my uncle from Bushmills taught me anyway. If you don't believe either of us Wiki it. Which probably would have been a good idea BEFORE you made a twat of yourself on t'internet. Good article Andrew. Devil? For shame.

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