The World of Single Malt Whisk(e)y

April 2020


How To Taste Your Single Malt

Before we start our travels to destinations unknown in the pursuit of single malts, I think it prudent to understand the ritual of imbibing our libation of choice.

Some people may drink their single malts with water, a mixer, with ice, straight from the bottle, a rock glass, a shot glass, a highball glass, a snifter glass, Glencairn glass, tumbler, copita or tulip glass.  All of these choices are correct, it’s your whisk(e)y and you should drink it any way you like it.  However, this Malt mate has his own ritual I will share with you when it comes to single malts.

the glass

Your Malt Mate brings you his own tasting ritual 

Does it really matter what kind of vessel you drink your single malt in?  Not really if you’re drinking for the effect of the alcohol on your system and being intoxicated.  However, if you’re indulging for the experience to satiate your five senses, you may want to consider a particular type of glass that will enhance that experience.  Single malt Scotch whisky has adopted the Glencairn glass as the accepted tasting glass of choice.  Additionally, copita and tulip shape glass are also good alternatives.  These glasses concentrate the single malt in the bowl shape at the bottle with the top of the glass tapering towards a narrowed rim to intensify the aromatics.  

The Glencairn

The glass is intended to satiate your five senses

Single malt Scotch whisky has adopted the Glencairn glass as the accepted tasting glass of choice. These glasses concentrate the single malt and intensify the aromatics.

There's an adage:  a single malt should sit in your glass one minute for each year of age before you proceed to drink it.  An 18 year old a minimum 18 minutes and so forth.  We don't want to take something that's been cared for by the distiller for 12, 18, 30 years or however long and throw it back down our throat like a cowboy in an old western movie. The time you allow the malt to sit in the glass to settle down a bit and "open" up will reward you for your patience.  I mean it’s been sitting in a cask all those years then straight into a bottle, give it a chance to catch its breath and breathe.

sight & nose

Next, slowly introduce the single malt to your nose, pass it under your sniffer a couple times so your olfactory sense can process and adapt to the ethanol especially if it's a higher ABV (alcohol by volume).  Go in for a bigger sniff then set it down and WAIT (I like to experience its initial aromatics right after the pour to compare it once it’s sat and been allowed to breathe). Ok, it's been 20 minutes.  Pick up your glass and check out its color.  If its non-chill filtered and/or no coloring added (it will usually say on the bottle) then the color might give you an indication of what you to expect on the taste.  Maybe it’s a type of wine cask, bourbon barrel, type of sherry cask, etc.

Put your index finger parallel towards the top of the glass and rest it there. Tilt your glass 45 degrees and rotate it 360 degrees. Now hold it up right. You'll notice if you hold up the glass at eye level there is a malt line running around the perimeter of the glass.  What you’re doing here is two things.  You’re coating the glass half way up allowing better aromatics when you nose it and this is allowing you to see the legs, aka tears, of the single malt.  Wait and watch, you'll see how the legs run down the side of the glass.  

HP 29 pour.jpg

Are they forming right away?  Are they thin, fat, slow or fast?  They mean different things.  Typically thin and fast can mean a younger malt. It might be lighter in taste and a lower ABV.  Larger, slow legs may indicate an older malt with a viscous mouth feel.  It might appear to be oily.  Now you're anticipating what it may taste like and feel in your mouth.

Approach your nose slowly again unless you’re not getting that strong ethanol. Smell it from the top of the glass, bottom of the glass, from a distance, a bit closer, then stick your face sniffer in there and get a deep smell.  Open your mouth slightly when doing this, it helps with getting a better sense of the aromatics. Take your time! Some malts I can spend easily 30 minutes nosing off and on before even tasting it if it's that good (to me). You will get different aromas from the different angles and distances of approach. What you pick up in smell is based largely on your personal experiences throughout your lifetime. Different foods you've encountered, spices you've tried, places you've traveled, etc. Initially, it can be difficult to pick out individual characteristics but over time, due to experience, you'll be able to isolate individual aromatics.

how to taste

Pour a smaller amount for your first sip. This is going to be smaller than your next sip. Let the elixir coat your tongue, front to back, underneath. Let it coat your checks and gums from side to side. Do not swallow!! You might feel tingling on your tongue or cheeks. It may start to be drying. Different parts of your tongue pick up different flavors. You are doing an injustice to yourself and the malt if you don't allow yourself to go through the process and experience it. For the most part, 6-8 seconds should do it. I tend to go 10-15 seconds. Sometimes up to 30 seconds or if it's really something special even longer because it's just that damn good. Some people slosh, some people chew their whisky, I'm a slosher. 

Tasting Zones

Different parts of your tongue pick up different flavors. Allow yourself to go through the tasting process and fully experience it.

Where do you pick up the flavors on your tongue?  Can you taste any fruit?  If so, what are you detecting?  At first it can be difficult to isolate which fruits but with time and experience you'll be able to tell if its orchard fruits, stone fruits, tropical fruits and which fruits. Your past experiences will aid you as you get accustomed to trying different "expressions" (a term used for different bottles). Is there vanilla, different spices, chocolate, sherry, oak, etc.?  When you swallow does your mouth feel dry or did it only feel dry when you had it in your mouth and now you're salivating like a dog on a hot summer day?  Does it feel viscous (chewy) or does it feel watery and thin?


Now, take your second sip. A bit more this time. I believe the first sip acclimates your taste buds and the second sip reveals the identity of the dram (dram is a term used for a glass of whisk(e)y, sometimes referred to as a pour or a drop). Put a drop or two of water in your glass when you have a couple of sips left. Swirl it around about to integrate it with the whisky. Adding water changes the molecular structure of the whisky, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. It can bring out more and different aromatics and flavors or subdue them.  

the finish

Once you swallow the malt how does it feel going down? Is it smooth or alcohol heavy?  Do you find the taste changing? Are there certain flavors that are lasting while others fade? It’s not a sprint to the finish line, it’s more of a marathon.  Give it some time between sips to allow yourself to experience the finish. We have a lot of new people discovering the world of single malts.  Allow yourself the time to indulge and experience all it has to offer.  Single Malts tend to be more expensive that many of their alcoholic counterparts. 


Enjoy the journey and find your own single malt ritual.