Food and Drink

A Guide to Scotch Tasting

November 4, 2014
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©istockphoto/Krasyuk

©istockphoto/Krasyuk

Scotch is enjoying it’s well-deserved time in the spotlight, and no self-respecting individual wants to be left behind when it comes to enjoying this complex, discerning, and delicious libation. Historical observations, notes on tasting, lessons on proper glasses, how to pick a top notch bottle, and more are all covered in this helpful guide to Scotch tasting.

Scotch: What Is It?
Before embarking on your tasting journey, you’re going to want to know just what it is you’re about to enjoy. Scotch, by definition, can only bear the title if it has been distilled in Scotland. Otherwise, it’s whisky. Single malt Scotch means that the product has been distilled with malted barley at a single distillery. The general consensus is that whisky actually traces its root back to Ireland, in or around the 12th century. It wasn’t until later that records of the spirit in Scotland begin to emerge.

Preparation
First and foremost, you’ll need Scotch. What kind depends on what type of tasting you’re looking at and how much money you want to spend. If you’re brand new to the Scotch scene, head to a local liquor store or bar and spend some time picking the brains of those who know best. Knowledgeable staff and bartenders should be able to point you in the right direction and help you choose a bottle or two based on what you’re looking for.

Next, you need glasses. Seasoned tasters tend to lean towards tulip shaped glasses because it helps direct the Scotch’s aromas and allows the liquid to spread evenly on the tongue, ensuring a whole-mouth tasting experience. That being said, if you find yourself in a situation where you’re presented with a Brandy-style snifter or tumbler, don’t be put off. These types of barware can also do the trick, it just depends on the preferences of the person doing the tasting.

Once you’ve set yourself up with some spirits and glasses, you’ll need a tool to measure out a dram (the quantity of liquid you’ll be serving for the tasting). A dram ranges from a 1/2 ounce to 2 ounces, with most preferring to go for 1 ounce. Again, this is contingent on what the taster deems most suitable (and how much you plan on imbibing).

Tasting
Now it’s time for the good part, tasting the Scotch you’ve so carefully selected. But before you get down to the sipping, it’s worth spending some time getting to know your chosen spirit by getting up close and personal with it, via your nose. According to many Scotch aficionados, some of the greatest pleasure in tasting is derived from the nosing. Scotch is a complex drink that seems to save some of its best features for the olfactory sense. Before leaning in for a sniff, tilt your glass around, allowing the liquid to cover the sides of the glass so that it has a better chance at evaporating, thereby increasing your odds of drawing out distinctive notes. Next, hold your glass a few inches from your nose, keeping your mouth open slightly. As you inhale, take note of what you’re experiencing. Some tasters report hints of leather, fresh cut grass, fruitiness, or woodiness. There are no wrong answers and results depend on the person doing the nosing. Don’t worry if at first, you don’t detect much at all. It can take a while to develop a nose for tasting which is fine because practicing isn’t exactly a chore.

After you’ve properly nosed the Scotch, it’s time for your first sip. Start with a tiny sip, just enough to get a feel for what you’re tasting. Notice whether or not what you’re experiencing on your tongue complements what you’ve just smelled. See if you can detect other notes that weren’t discernible earlier. When you’re ready, take a second sip and consider how it measures up to the first. Are you discovering new tastes that weren’t there before? Have some of the notes you’ve detected disappeared, only to be replaced by something entirely new? Can you draw out strong, dominate flavors as well as more subtle ones? After you’ve held the Scotch in your mouth for at least 10 seconds, it’s time to finish. Take a moment to observe which flavors (if any) linger on your palate. Perhaps some of the notes that you detected will remain for an extended period of time, whereas others will vanish almost instantly.

Notes
Now is the time to go over your tasting notes. This is when you analyze the experience you had and see how it measures up. When you lay your nosing and tasting notes side by side, do the sensations work together or against each other? Did you detect a complex structure or was it more simple? Remember, there are no wrong answers. Everyone has an entirely different palate, making each tasting experience a completely unique one. Where one person may swear they tasted wood, another may be confident that they detected predominantly floral notes. This is part of what makes tasting Scotch so enjoyable- seeing something from several perspectives.

Tasting Scotch is a drawn out, pleasurable experience that should never be rushed. It’s not rare to spend the better part of an hour mulling over a single dram. Keeping a detailed log of each experience not only helps you track your progress but makes for an interesting way to compare and contrast as you have the opportunity to taste the same Scotch on different occasions. Whether you’re just breaking into the Scotch scene or consider yourself a seasoned veteran, it’s hard not to have a good time when you spend an afternoon with good friends, good food, and good Scotch. Cheers!

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