A Guide To Tasting Single-Malt Whisky (And Why It's Not 'Whiskey')

From glassware to aromatics, we’ve got you covered on how to properly taste some of Scotland’s best.

On Wednesday, October 7, Westchester Magazine will be hosting The Macallan: Super Premium Whisky Tasting; a chance to sample and learn what it takes to appreciate the unique, high-end whisky from The Macallan. The tasting seminar, led by national brand ambassador Craig Bridger, will include their 12, 15, and 18-year single-malt scotch whiskies, as well as samples from their Fine and Rare cask single malt whisky. 

And that’s “whisky,” without the ‘e.’

See, whisky refers only to Scotch whisky, simply referred to as Scotch here in the states. Whiskey, with the ‘e,’ could refer to American-style whiskeys—your Tenessees, bourbon, and straight ryes—or Irish whiskey (think Jameson). Of course, Japanese and Canadian distillers also prefer the whisky spelling, but let’s keep it simple and focus on single-malt Scotch whisky for now.

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We put together this introductory tasting guide in order to prepare your palate for the wide range of whiskies that can be discovered at the event (and, you know, for practice). 

1. Gather Your Equipment

Whisky is embedded with a host of distinct aromas and flavors waiting to be released, so your choice of glassware is very important. To clarify, both tulip-shaped glasses and snifters have wide bottoms that are designed to increase the surface area of your drink, allowing its aromas to evaporate, and narrow rims that trap the aromas within the glass. Additionally, these glasses distribute the whisky widely across the tongue, permitting you to pick out your drink’s wide range of flavors.   

Most experts advise that you avoid the standard tumblers, which tend to hide the aromas of the drink it is holding.

2. Choose Your Drink

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For the whisky itself, the distillation process results in very profound flavors hiding beneath the initial bite, and some personal research is necessary to find a single-malt whisky with the flavors you may be looking for. For example, The Macallan’s 12-year Sherry Oak whisky is infused with vanilla, dried fruits, a touch of ginger, and wood smoke. Other single-malt whiskies can be sweet, salty, bitter, or even floral. 

The Macallan’s Rare Cask is described as “opulent, yet soft and slightly meandering.”

The color itself can indicate how the whisky was matured (bourbon barrels result in a pale drink, while sherry casks make much darker whisky) however, the colored bottles that whisky comes in make it difficult to judge a book by its cover.

3. Now Breathe…

Now that you have your gear, it’s time to enjoy. After pouring a drink, tilt and turn your glass so that the whisky touches all sides. This increases the exposed surface area and boosts evaporation. 

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Next, “nose” the whisky. With the glass an inch below your nose, take a long, deep sniff and try to discern the available aromas. As you continue to swirl your drink, the heavier aromas will be released, so don’t be afraid to take a second, or even third sniff.

4. Mixology 101

Many experts debate whether or not it is beneficial to add water or ice to single-malt whisky; for most, it is a matter of personal preference. Introducing a few drops of room-temperature water can help to release aromas and rid of the biting alcohol flavors. Definitely do not exceed a 50/50 ratio of whisky to water, and avoid water from the tap; the minerals can interfere with your drink.

Cooling your drink with ice is known to close the aromas off from escaping, but if that is how you like your whisky, to each his own.  

Before taking the first sip, consider nosing your drink again to discover any flavors released from the added water. 

5. Enjoy!

As that first sip coats your tongue, take note of the texture and consistency. Breathe only through your nose and do not swallow. With your second sip, open your mouth slightly and take a small breathe.

Now swallow.

With these first two sips, you should be able to experience the whisky’s full spectrum of flavors, but “the finish”, as swallowing the drink is often referred to, brings out those flavors buried deep within the whisky.

Whisky is concocted with such a wide range of flavors, and in many different styles, that there really is no one way to enjoy the beverage. Like most other hobbies, getting to know your preferences takes time and practice.

With that being said, we hope you agree that it’s about time to start practicing. Hopefully, by October 7 you will be up to speed and ready to dive in to the opulent flavors hidden within The Macallan’s diverse selection of single-malt whisky. 

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