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A Crash Course on Tasting Scotch

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Depending on your level of experience, drinking scotch amongst seasoned scotch drinkers can be an educational delight or an utter nightmare. As the whisky nerds trade in terms so complex they might as well be Scottish Gaelic (and sometimes actually are), you might be afraid to even raise the glass to your lips for fear of committing a faux pas—as well you should be. Because there is a right way to taste Scotch whisky, and lucky for you, it’s easy to learn.

It’s particularly easy when you have an expert teacher like Tommy Tardie of the award-winning Flatiron Room (which boasts 1200 whiskies, including 700 single malts). He runs classes in his Whiskey School that range from 101 basics to PhD-level expertise. We sat down with him in the tasting room at his newly opened Fine & Rare bar in New York for a step-by-step guide on how to taste scotch the right way. Here’s how to master sipping the infamous Scottish spirit.

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Learn Your Scotch Inside and Out

The ingredients contained in the latest flavored vodka could fill a dumpster. Scotch, on the other hand, is simple. Tardie likes to pull out containers of raw wheat, corn, malted barley and rye so that tasters can get up close and personal with the essential building blocks of whisky. He even scorches some peat from Islay, which he snuck into the States as a souvenir, so tasters may know how to identify its smell. While you shouldn’t start a peat fire in your house, learning more about the ingredients that make up whisky can help you taste it better.

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“We put a lot of education and time into training people about whisky,” Tardie says. “The more you know about whisky, the better you understand it, and the better it will taste because you know what you’re looking for when drinking.” Before you even sit down to taste your carefully curated scotch, before the first drop even touches your lips, get to know what’s inside that liquid.

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Choose the Right Glass

Whisky tastings and scotch distilleries often use the Glencairn Whisky Glass. While elegant and attractive with its shapely silhouette, the Glencairn’s design hides some clever sensory engineering.

“One of the big parts of drinking really good whisky is the whole sensory experience,” Tardie explains. “The shape of this glass is funneling the aromatics to your nose.” Meanwhile, the short stem allows you to more easily swirl the liquid inside (more on that later).

Don’t fret if you don’t have access to a set of Glencairns. “Whatever kind of glass you want to drink your whisky in is totally acceptable,” Tardie says. So grab that lowball in which you usually mix your Old Fashioned and get ready to taste.

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Hold Your Glass the Right Way (Which Is Any Way)

Reaching out for a whisky glass, especially something as alien as a Glencairn, can be stressful. Hold it wrong and you’ll betray yourself as a total neophyte—right? Not so fast.  

“With brandy a lot of people hold the bowl with their palm to heat it up,” Tardie says. “That’s not really necessary for whisky. There’s really no wrong or right way to hold the glass.” So, grab the glass by the stem or palm it however you see fit. Just don’t drop it.

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Examine Your Whisky

“The first sense we engage is our vision, so hold up the glass or bottle,” Tardie says. You might notice the color first, which could give some indication of how much time the scotch spent in the barrel (the darker the spirit, the longer it spent in the wood). While some distilleries add artificial coloring to maintain consistency between bottles, growing customer awareness has led many to stop the practice or at least advertise the inclusion of coloring on the bottle label.

Once it’s in the glass, give the whisky a quick spin by swirling your glass. “Similar to wine, whisky has legs, which give you an indication of its viscosity. The way it rolls in the glass, the way it clings in the glass, is a good indication of how it will cling to your mouth. The thicker it is in the glass, the thicker it will be in your mouth,” Tardie explains.

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Take a Whiff

After you’ve examined your whisky thoroughly, it’s time to nose—but don’t go sticking your whole face in the glass. “Some wine drinkers will put there nose right in it, but if you do that you get the ethanol from the whisky on the nose, which can be somewhat harsh if you’re not prepared for it,” Tardie warns. Whisky is upwards of 40-percent alcohol, meaning it’ll pack a serious nasal punch. Plus, swirling the glass to check for the aforementioned legs will also stir up the ethanol and pump those harsh aromatics into the air.

Tardie offers a trick for those new to whisky tasting (or those experienced tasters who are walking into the treacherous fog of an unknown whisky). “Bring your nose in,” he says, “and open up your mouth. Then either inhale through your mouth, or inhale through both your nose and your mouth. By breathing in through your mouth, you’ll still get the aromatics, but you won’t get that burn of ethanol on your nose.”

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Take a Sip

You’ve seen. You’ve sniffed. Now it’s time to sip. “Your first sip, especially if it’s your first drink of the night, almost doesn’t count,” Tardie says. “Your palate isn’t sensitive to it yet. Always have a sip, get rid of it, then do it again. Then you’ll get more flavors.” Once you have passed through the initial shock waves, you’ll start to notice that actual flavor you’ve heard so much about, from sweet honey and caramel, to deep woody tobacco and leather, to spicy peat and salty brine.

Let the whisky rest on your tongue longer than you might another drink. Roll the liquid to the sides of your mouth and press it to the roof of your mouth. “You want it to acclimate. It’s also mixing with the saliva,” Tardie says. A good mantra for neat scotch might be “drink less, taste more,” he adds. “Drinking whisky is about letting it sit on your palate and almost reflecting on it.”

Don’t Forget to Breath

You’ve heard it from your trainer at the gym, now you’re hearing it from your trainer at the bar: Remember to breath.

“After you swallow, open up your mouth and exhale,” Tardie says. “I think that’s one thing people get wrong when they drink whisky. They hold it in and that heat gets trapped in your chest. But if you take a drink, open up your mouth and exhale, that air moving across your palate will activate some of your taste buds.” It’ll also prevent the heat from building inside you like a hot air balloon.

Enjoy the Afterparty

Don’t discount those lingering flavors after you’ve swallowed that first sip. Before you go in for a second, really take note of how the whisky finishes. Insiders know the afterparty is the real party. “For me, what separates a good whisky from an amazing whisky is the finish,” Tardie says. “I look for a complicated palate, something that develops, building on your tongue.” As you savor the finish, you may find new tastes emerging from the whisky’s ethereal imprint on your palate.

Trust Your Instincts

It can be intimidating to sit in a crowded tasting room as everyone around you shouts out their thoughts on a whisky. Someone says they can taste peaches, while another claims to detect notes of tarragon, but all you’re getting is Frosted Mini-Wheats. Go ahead, call it out. Tardie insists that any answer to the question “what are you tasting?” is the right answer. After all, everyone has a different palate and frame of reference. Tardie also adds that those people who seem the shiest to speak up in a class are often the most insightful when they do offer tasting notes. And expressing those thoughts out loud can help others put words to their abstract impressions.

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Put the Water in “Water of Life”

With strong flavors and an ABV that tops 80 percent, scotch is a beast of a drink. There’s no shame in tempering it with a bit of water. A little H2O can even help bring out the flavors of some scotches. “The science behind adding a splash of water to your whisky [and that’s just a splash, mind you] is that it releases the hydrophobic elements in the glass, releasing aromatics that’ll channel up into your nose, into your olfactory senses. It’s also lowering the alcohol content, sometimes allowing you to taste more on the palate and to breath more on the nose.”

Tardie suggests trying a scotch neat before adding a dash of water to see what happens. “I find some whiskies do really well with water. On the other hand, adding water to older whiskies that are really fragile, sometimes you can just lose it. I find with Islay whiskies that adding a splash of water releases more of those medicinal notes, more of those iodine notes.”

However, if you’re looking to taste all a whisky has to offer, you should probably avoid ice, which contracts the aromatics and numbs the palate. That said, some hot days simply call for a nice cold glass of blended scotch on the rocks.

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Compare and Contrast

A flight is a great way to experience several whiskies back to back, contrasting their differences and finding their similarities. Proceed from lightest to heaviest in order to avoid burning out your palate on strong, fiery flavors, then jump back and try the first one again to see what you may have missed.

Forget What You’ve Heard

Like every teenager knows, age doesn’t always correlate to value. In the case of whisky, neither does cost. You should forget what your misinformed father-in-law thinks, and drink whatever you find most delicious.

That same logic goes for tasting notes too: Don’t get caught up in the reputations of certain distilleries or regions. While regional styles can offer a great place to start when tasting, consider the whisky in your glass, not the one you’ve heard about previously. Tardie points out that distilleries are bucking the trends of their neighbors, with even staunch Islay scotch makers  producing unpeated whisky these days.

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Try, Try Again

“Not every whisky is meant for everyone,” Tardie insists. “Just because you had whisky one time and didn’t like it, doesn’t mean you don’t like whisky. There are so many varieties out there, who knows what you’ll like. Follow your palate.”

Have Fun

Tardie’s final thought on the very serious business of tasting whisky: “Don’t get too caught up in it. Have fun.” Our final thought: Have another round.

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