Become an Instant Whiskey Expert with These Tasting Tips

Master distiller Graham Coull gives us the skinny on sipping

Whiskey (or whisky, if you’re Scottish) has a recorded history going back at least 524 years, and it’s built up a bit of mystique in all that time. Even if you love Manhattans or other whiskey-based cocktails, making the leap to tasting straight spirits can be intimidating. To break it down, we enlisted Graham Coull, the master distiller at Scotland’s Glen Moray, to give us some tips on slaying the single malt.

Sniff Before You Sip

Your nose knows what you want in a whiskey. Before you gulp it down, give the spirit a sniff. If you like the smell, chances are pretty good you’ll be happy with the taste as well. However, if your nose burns a bit from the alcohol, it’s a good sign that you might want to add a few drops of water to your dram. A tasting glass with a tapered top will direct the scent to your nose the best, and will also give you a good view to assess the spirit visually. If you’re inclined to swirl, do so carefully. Whiskey has a much higher alcohol content than wine, so you’ll want to let it settle for a moment after the swirl or expect a nose full of booze.

Don’t Get Hung Up on Age

A bottle of whiskey doesn’t need to have been dredged up with the Titanic to be worth drinking. These days, when it comes to Scotch, many bottles don’t have a specific age statement printed on the label. That’s because Scottish law dictates that a number on the bottle has to be the age of the youngest bit of liquor in the blend—so if a whiskey contains 18- and 12-year-old base spirits, with just a bit of three-year-old, the bottle would have to be labeled as a three year old product. While connoisseurs will always wax rhapsodic about super old, rare spirits, six to 12 years should be plenty of time to develop great flavor if a distillery is using quality casks. The only thing to keep in mind about age is that, if you’re tasting multiple whiskeys in a flight, always go youngest and lightest to oldest and darkest.

Learn Some Key Vocabulary

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If you think that whiskey tastes like unicorn tears, go on and say so, but if you find yourself drawing a blank to describe the flavors, here are some adjectives that come up a lot: creamy, oaky, herbal, peaty, smoky, peppery. You may hear a spirit described as “austere” (meaning it’s a simple, straightforward sort of flavor) versus “rich” (one with a more complex, layered quality, typically thicker in mouthfeel). If the scent or taste of spirit you’re trying really makes you wince with alcohol, it’s described as “ethanolic” (and it’s not always a bad thing).

Photo by Piotr Miazga on Unsplash

Have Fun with It

Nobody’s here to be the whiskey police. As Coull says, “Don’t get too serious about whiskey, it’s not an exam.” It can take years to develop a sophisticated palette, but if you’re not angling for a gig as a pro distiller, the goal is really just to identify what you enjoy and drink that. If you prefer your single malt with a splash of water or even an ice cube, go for it. Even Coke, if that’s your thing (though, as Coull notes, “You don’t really need a proper single malt if that’s what you’re doing with it”).


Want to put all your whiskey tasting knowledge to good use? Join us on March 15 for Whiskey Fest. Tickets are on sale now.


RELATED: This Old-School L.A. Bar Now Has a Private Whiskey Lounge


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