I’ve been drinking whisky for several years now, but I only got into whisky tasting properly in 2014. A year later I had built a small collection of around 10 different whiskies which has now grown to around 30 bottles, not including duplicates or sample bottles.
Highland Park 12y.o. was the first whisky to get me properly into drinking whisky. Then in 2012 I attended Whisky Live in Dublin which peaked my interest in whisky even further. But it wasn’t really Christmas 2014 that I started getting into whisky tasting properly. After receiving a book on whisky and an array of miniatures from my wife I started looking into whisky tasting with the intent to actually transition from whisky drinking to whisky tasting.
Then in March 2015 I attended Whisky Birmingham – an event run by The Birmingham Whisky Club run by Amy Seton (pictured above). This was the real turning point for me. I booked in on the Beginners Masterclass and took it form there. Now don’t get me wrong I certainly didn’t see myself as a beginner and I already knew the basics of whisky tasting; but you are always capable of learning more. The event was amazing and the masterclasses really opened my eyes more to the nose and palate which you can experience with a whisky. (To find out more check out my post on the event here).
Since then I have been slowly building up my knowledge of whisky and writing up tasting notes whenever I have a dram. I knew that my knowledge and ability was increasing but it didn’t really hit home to me just how far I had come until one evening in December 2015. After finishing work early I got home and poured myself a dram of Jura Superstition. Now I’ve drunk this whisky many times before but until that night I’d always just seen it as a good whisky. But when I started to really taste it I began to pick up on a plethora of different things – peat, smoke, chocolate, hazelnuts… This whisky that I’d drunk many times before suddenly took on a whole new life for me.
To anyone starting out in the world of whisky tasting who might find they are struggling, that they can’t pick up on all these scents and flavours which everyone describes, I would give you these four simple tips:
1. Don’t be put off!
Just because someone says that a whisky tastes of oak infused with honey, with a sprinkling of brown sugar and a dusting of cinnamon while all you can taste is sweet and smokey doesn’t mean you’re wrong. It takes time to be able to adjust your senses to pick up on some of nuances that a whisky displays. It’s also important to remember that although a whisky may have certain flavours it is not an exact science. Whisky tasting is more of an art and what one person can taste it not necessarily what anyone else will taste.
2. Take your time.
Whisky tasting takes time. It’s not something to be rushed and if you do rush it then you are more likely to miss out on the different scents and flavours which a whisky can display. Spend a good 20 – 30 minutes on a whisky and over that period you will find you can pick up on much more than rushing through it in under 10 minutes.
3. Go to a tasting session.
Whether it be an event like Whisky Birmingham, a small tasting session or part of a distillery tour. Going to a whisky tasting session will help. Don’t be afraid of being the novice and having everyone look down on you because you don’t know what you’re doing, remember that everyone had to start at the bottom.
Use it as a chance to learn, to ask questions and to broaden your horizons. If the people running/attending the session are anything like the people I’ve met then they will be a very friendly and accommodating bunch who will be happy to help you out.
If you don’t already own any whisky then go out and buy some. Even just one cheap bottle will do to start. Then keep tasting it… not all in one go of course; spread it out over days or even weeks.
Avoid looking the whisky up and reading experts tasting notes to start as this may put ideas into your head about how a whisky smells or tastes.
Make lots of notes, nothing you put down will be wrong..
Then once you think you’ve got what you can from it see what other people have put and then try again. At this point you don’t need to worry about other peoples notes putting an idea in your head as you will have already written down everything you can take from the whisky. However this is your chance to maybe pick up on something you couldn’t identify before but with the aid of detailed tasting notes it may help your brain put a name to that scent or flavour.
In time your senses will develop and you will find it easier and easier to pick up everything a whisky has to offer.
Now I titled this article “Becoming a Whisky Connoisseur” which in truth is a bit misleading. I don’t consider myself to be an expert in anyway – an enthusiastic amateur or a whisky geek maybe but by no means an expert. To truly become an expert or a connoisseur in whisky would take years of dedication and isn’t something you can do over night. No matter how much I learn about whisky there is always something new to discover. To truly become a whisky connoisseur you can never stop learning and improving.