Getting to know whiskey is a lifelong adventure, and there’s no quick way to propel yourself to mastery without putting in the work. Fortunately, in this case, “work” means tasting whiskey, a very enjoyable pastime.
That said, there are a few avenues you can pursue if you want to get serious about developing a palate for whiskey in a focused, systematic way.
Set yourself up for success
Follow the basic rules for sensory evaluation. When tasting, don’t smoke, eat spicy food, or drink coffee for several hours in advance. Don’t taste in a distracting environment, and use the same glassware as consistently as possible. Skip that fancy, heavily scented hand soap.
This is a weird one, but it’s hard to identify flavors and aromas without experiencing those flavors and aromas first. Try foods you’re not familiar with. How will you know you’re tasting jackfruit if you’ve never had one? Be open to smelling scents that may not be the most delightful on their own (looking at you, creosote). Next time you’re eating a food you are familiar with, pay close attention to what it actually tastes like, not what you think it tastes like. If you make a practice of noticing all the sensory inputs that come pouring in from the world around you, you’ll expand your ability to notice them in whiskey.
Perhaps this goes without saying, but take advantage of opportunities to taste whiskeys you’ve never tried before. Get on local mailing lists and Facebook groups related to whiskey, and go to tasting events held by clubs, brands, or bars. From a more category-specific perspective, I also found Le Nez du Whisky kit to be surprisingly helpful, especially when it came to triangulating in on those strange Scotch descriptors like blackcurrant bud and tar. It’s single malt-specific, and expensive, but for serious Scotch drinkers, it’s worth it.
I find I learn the most when tasting several spirits next to one another, preferably from the same category. Tasting multiple bourbons, for example, helps a new taster experience the flavor threads that tie the category together as well as how individual bourbons can deviate stylistically from that canonical flavor profile.
It’s very challenging to recall the nuances of a flavor from memory, especially if you haven’t spent a lot of time with the whiskey in question. Keeping notes is incredibly valuable, and will help you develop a firmer sense of the kinds of flavors you like as well as those you don’t. Your system doesn’t have to be fancy (notebooks, apps, and plain ol’ Word docs all work), and you certainly don’t have to write full reviews, it just has to work for you.
Finally, remember – tasting whiskey is supposed to be fun, not a competition as to who can identify the most obscure flavor note or accurately guess the cask type. Leave that stuff to the competition bartenders and spirits marketing people; your job is to enjoy.
Margarett Waterbury is the author of Scotch: A Complete Introduction to Scotland's Whiskies and a full-time freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Whisky Advocate, Food and Wine, Spirited Magazine, Artisan Spirit, Edible Seattle, Sip Northwest, Civil Eats, Travel Oregon, Artisan Spirit, and many other publications. She is...