How to taste whisky for the first time

Some of you reading this will absolutely hate whisky, but I guarantee that it’s probably because you’re doing one of three things:

  • You’ve got bad whisky
  • You’re not tasting it correctly
  • You’ve got the wrong glass

Of those, I bet you could agree with 1 and 2. But 3? The wrong glass? Really?! Yes, really. It does make a difference. We’ll discuss that later on.

Point 1 seems the most uncontroversial. Most people have only ever drunk a whisky like Jack Daniel’s, and that’s been their singular experience of the stuff. Our advice is to avoid JD if you want to get the best of what whisky offers. But that doesn’t mean you need to fork out a hundred quid for a decent dram. The White and Mackay Special blend is pretty good, as is Teacher’s. If you’re in a supermarket, I’d recommend a bottle of Jameson as a first stab at whisky. It’s cheap but very pleasant, and a firm favourite of ours.

So that’s that sorted. Start with a small bottle of Jameson and work your way from there. Next, you need to nose and taste it correctly. Here’s a very entertaining video from the idiosyncratic (and Cask Tales favourite) Richard Paterson. It’ll tell you most of what you need to know:

There are two points that we’ll add: first, you’ll always want to nose the whisky. Second, you never want to neck it when you’re tasting it.


So how to nose a whisky? And why do it? Dead easy. You essentially want to get your nose right inside the glass to smell the whisky – do it as Richard does it and you won’t go wrong. Generally speaking, the closer your nose is to it (and we go very close) the more you’ll pick up from it. Although whisky’s quite obviously for drinking, both of us here take great pleasure from nosing a good whisky for anything up to 15 minutes or more. (Because we’re cool, right?)

And, here’s the thing: the first time you stick your nose in a whisky, you’ll simply get a massive whack of alcohol. But go in again and it’ll reveal some of its character to you. Do it half a dozen times and you’ll genuinely be quite impressed not only at how much it’s changed but also how much you’re picking up from it. If you’re not sure what you’re supposed to be sensing then find the whisky here and it should give you a helping hand.

So why do it? Essentially because it’s a massive part of understanding the whisky. It gives it an extra dimension, and it reveals a big part of its character. And it’s a very enjoyable process too, let’s not forget. The taste also won’t come as a complete surprise, and you’ll have an idea about how good a whisky is. Is it balanced? Complex? Does it smell nice? Does the taste match the nose? Is it better or worse?


Once more, let’s defer to Richard. Here’s another entertaining video. Part two is available beneath it:

The key thing to do when you’re tasting whisky is not to neck it! We can’t stress that enough. We’d hate the stuff if we necked it. Our general rule is to keep it in the mouth one second for every year of the whisky. So for a 12 year old whisky, keep it in the mouth for 12 seconds. For a blend, or for a whiskey like Jameson, keep it there for about 6-8 seconds.

When you put it into your mouth, you’re going to get a sharp kick of alcohol. But gently swill the whisky around. (Don’t treat it like mouthwash.) You don’t need a massive mouthful of the stuff either; something that’s manageable for you is going to be best. The first time you might just get alcohol and be slightly overpowered but, like the nose, keep going back to it and you’ll get a lot from subsequent attempts. When you swallow the whisky, the sensation you’ll immediately feel is called the finish.

The glass:

OK, this’ll take some persuading for those who aren’t whisky drinkers but trust us, the glass matters. Pouring whisky into your standard tumbler kills it, especially when you’re nosing. The reason is because the aromas are allowed to escape from the wide rim of the glass, which makes it more difficult for your nose to pick up on the subtleties of the whisky.

Instead, you want a glass with a wide base (to allow the fumes to collect) but a narrow top (to then concentrate the fumes when they rise). In other words, you’re after a glass that has the best of both worlds. There are two that we recommend: the first is a Glencairn nosing glass (about £7 or $10); the second is a Copita nosing glass (about £12 or so or $16).


A copita, favoured by Josh

Get yourself one of these, or a glass that’s of similar shape, and your experience of whisky will be magnified. Such is the importance we place on the correct glasses that a Glencairn and Copita form the silhouettes of our new logo. If you’ve any questions that you want answered concerning whisky tasting, feel free to comment below. Happy drinking!