How to taste whisky – a five step guide

Tasting whisky step 2 - swirlTasting whisky step 3 - shake the glass

Tasting whisky step 4 - sniffingTasting whisky step 5 - taste

Illustrations by Mark McCormick

On the rocks, with soda water, with a mixer, in a cocktail – there’s only one way to drink whisky, and that’s whatever way you like. However, some will feel it’s important to appreciate the spirit in its most simple state from time-to-time. This is particularly true if it’s a whisky you’ve not tried before. So, here’s a simple guide to the art of tasting, created to get you (and your taste buds) going. We suggest trying this with company – beyond the flavours in the glass, there’s a lot of enjoyment to be had in comparing notes with another person and seeing where your interpretations overlap and where they diverge.

Our five step tasting guide:

  1. Examine the appearance – Admire the colour the wood has given the whisky. Every one is slightly different. Make it approachable by relating it to what you know.
  2. Check out the viscosity – Swirl the glass and look for the streaks of liquid which run down the inside of the glass. These are known as the ‘legs’ and indicate viscosity or ‘mouthfeel’. The thicker the legs, the more voluptuous the mouthfeel.
  3. Shake the glass and watch – Put your hand over the glass and shake the whisky. Watch how long it takes the resultant bubbles to disappear. The longer it takes, the higher the ABV. Rub your hands together and smell the barley from which the whisky was made.
  4. Now the sniffing – Move your glass towards your nose while taking short, sharp sniffs. Keep your mouth open. Trust your nose. There’s no right or wrong – everything you smell comes from life experience and often the same scent will prompt wildly different associations from one person to the next.
  5. The first taste – Take a good sip of your whisky. Taste comes from the tongue while flavour comes from your nose, so breathe to aid your orthonasal perception. Take in the texture and swallow.


We’re always keen to hear about readers’ first tasting experiences – those lightbulb moments that can lead to a lifelong appreciation – so please feel free to find us on Facebook or Twitter and tell us about your experience. What were the whiskies you drank? How did they compare? What language sprang to mind?

How to nose whisky in seven simple steps