How to nose and taste whisky with Isabella Wemyss

How to nose and taste whisky with Isabella Wemyss

To be honest, this blog should really just have one line: “go and read ‘Malt Whisky: The Complete Guide’ by the inestimable Charlie Maclean”. There is no better guide to nosing and tasting than that part of this book.  Prop it up in front of you, with your nosing glass and sample holding the pages open, and follow the step by step instructions. Not only the “how to”, but also what to look for – the whorls, the legs, everything. Charlie makes it not only instructive but also fun. And that’s what nosing should be!

So, instead of repeating what he says, here’s my personal list of tips written from the perspective of someone for whom this is part of their job – and which may or may not apply to you as everyone is different!

It’s a journey: there’s no one stop on the road, no single destination. A journey of experience and pleasure.

Firstly, it sounds obvious but I had to learn this - surrender to your senses! Probably as a result of having trained as a lawyer, I have a relatively analytical mind. Once I start trying to mentally analyse a sample, I’m lost! I have to “switch off” that part of my brain, which can be difficult if I have been doing something at work first where that part of it is being used (such as drafting a document, or working on a stock spreadsheet).

Note down your first impressions – for me, that’s particularly important as I haven’t yet started trying to analyse it.

Choose a moment when you are relaxed, when you can surrender to and enjoy the experience. For me, that’s the first thing in the working day – before my mind starts getting clouded by everything else, before I’ve switched on the part of my mind that tries to (for example) work out problems on a spreadsheet. Often I write tasting notes at weekends, again because I’m more relaxed and that’s how the whisky will be experienced – with friends, as part of an evening out, before or after a meal. Not in an office surrounded by samples and work problems!

Some people are particularly sensitive to certain notes – a colleague of mine always finds green apples, so he adjusts for this. So be self-aware – is there anything that always comes through for you? I have put together a panel of three of us within the business to act as a check on each other when it comes to blends – three because there will always be a majority. It’s surprising how many times someone finds a note strongly, and the other two will look completely mystified. 

But, having said this, don’t hesitate to share or note down your impressions – however “wrong” or “odd” they may seem. Equally surprisingly, an opinion hesitantly put forward on our nosing panel can be confirmed by the other two after going back and reviewing the sample. It’s like looking at a painting – everyone sees something different. Or it’s like being part of a football team – everyone has a different role to play but each contributes towards the goal.

Nosing with someone else and discussing the whisky is not only fun but very helpful. Discuss what you find, listen to the other person. And laugh and chat your way through the process.

Let the sample sit, go back to it later to see what else you find.  What layers of experience are there?

Use the flavour wheel in Charlie’s book as a starting point (there are many versions, but this for me is the best one). Navigate your way to the section which seems the most appropriate and go from there. 

Work up a flavour map of your whiskies – choose two main characteristics (light or heavy, level of sweetness). Next time you nose, it will jog your memory and (together with the flavour wheel) start you on the road. If you want to take this one step further, look up the make in Charlie’s book (he has a section on each) to see how the method of production and the maturation makes the whisky how it is.

And, although I know I have said it so many times already, have fun (and buy Charlie’s book)!


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