Whisky FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

(And some less-frequently asked ones as well)

Does glassware make a difference? The short answer is yes. The long answer is more complicated, and to some extent subjective. There is some agreement that proper nosing requires a glass with rounded bowl as opposed to a straight-sided rocks glass or shot glass. However, whether the glass should be lightly rounded (as in a tulip glass) or highly rounded (as in a brandy snifter) is less clear. Whisky Magazine Issue 24 had a limited comparison of glassware, focusing mostly on "designer" glassware, but ignoring the ubiquitous brandy snifter or balloon, as well as the straight-sided rocks glasses.

Do you add water when nosing / tasting - what about when "just drinking"? The first time a non-spirits drinker approaches whisky, they are likely to be hit by the alcoholic strength of even a 40% ABV whisky. Depending on the whisky, the strength may not be as obvious on nosing, other than as a tingling sensation - but it will likely dominate the palate (and may even be painful). That said, I feel that diluting whisky for drinking lessens the experience in a hedonistic sense; however, if you have even a slight analytical bent or interest, exploring the impact of dilution is very rewarding. Some aspects of the nose (and palate) will not be discernible unless you dilute with water.

How do you describe what you smell, taste, "feel"? How you describe it is up to you. Everyone has different references for similar sensations. With practice, most people with a reasonably functional nose can reliably identify similar sensations with sufficient practice. Note also that environment and context make a big difference as well - even in the simplest case, a single glass of whisky, tasted blind in a colored glass - most people will come up with quite different descriptors for the same whisky if they did the tasting after having eaten different food (or are tasting with food), are in an environment with different background smells (smoke, perfume, cooking), had it after different whiskies (e.g., after Longrow vs. after Auchentoshan). Putting all those variables aside, and assuming assiduous practice such that one can reliably identify adequate descriptors (or malt markers, as Craig says - good term) - there is still the problem of trying to convey that information to other people. One approach is to try and use common, standardized descriptors such as is used in academia or industry, with standard chemical referents for each characteristic. Another is to hit the tasting note books and compare your impressions with that of the "professional" tasters, to try and find common descriptive ground. Finally - there is the approach of tasting often, and tasting in groups of like-minded folks, from different backgrounds. All of these work, and which provides the most enjoyment is up to the individual.

See the page on Classification of Single Malt Whiskies for one approach to developing a consistent approach to description of single malts. Check the Olfactory Links page on this site for some more leads. See also the tasting wheel and associated notes and pages at Scotchwhisky.com.

Does whisky change in a sealed bottle? If the bottle is truly sealed (which might mean wrapping the top in cellophane paper, or tape, to protect against loose corks / seals) and stored properly (out of direct sunlight, and not subjected to frequent, vast temperature changes) - then not noticeably, for reasonable durations (years, perhaps decades; dunno about millennia). Whisky is much more forgiving than wine to extra time in the bottle, and is also less bothered by storage temperature or location.

Does an opened bottle change? Yes. Sometimes for the better, sometimes not. Rule of thumb - when the bottle gets down to the last 3-4 fingers, drink it soon!

What's in a measure? See "What is a dram? Or a gill?" on the Whisk(e)y-Related Odds and Ends page.

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Last web page update was March 7, 2009.

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