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A Beginner’s Guide To Whisky

Joshua Tate | August 16, 2017


Even better than a love of whisky is being able to have a discussion about it with your fellow connoisseurs. Whisky has a language of it’s own that you should learn how to speak. Colour, taste and nose are all things that an aficionado should know.

Colour – Take notice of the colour of your whisky


Colour – First thing to do when you get your whisky is take notice of the colour. The colour of your whisky can tell you a lot about it and give you that first impression of the flavours you can expect from your dram. It can give you an indication of how matured it is, but primarily colour is to do with the barrel.

This is due to the fact that when a whisky is distilled, it is clear and known as ‘New Spirit’, it draws its colour from maturing in barrels. For example, if your whisky has a redder darker hue to it, it has likely been aged longer in a sherry cask, and therefore could have richer, fruitier tones to it. If it is more a pale gold, then more likely its from a bourbon cask which would give lighter, sweeter, more vanilla tones to the whisky. The colour can also be affected by age, the longer a whisky sits in a barrel the further the flavour develops, as does the colour. However, don’t let this fool you, a whisky aged for 20 years solely in a bourbon cask could well be lighter than something aged for 10 in a sherry. Therefore, whisky colour has more to do with cask than age.

Nosing – Smell is an important element of whisky tasting


Nosing – Most of what we ‘taste’ is smell anyway, so this is an important aspect of tasting whisky. We begin to anticipate the flavour, scents get our taste buds going and invite us to take a sip. When nosing a whisky that is 40% ABV and above, clearly there will be a smell of alcohol, especially if you are not used to drinking whisky. You can help combat this in numerous ways.

Tasting – Think about the flavours as you sip


Tasting – Finally we taste the whisky, and this is what it’s all about really! When you take your first sip I recommend trying without adding water first, to get the raw flavour and full force of the dram. Take a sip, swill it around your mouth slightly, let it coat your palate.

Think about the flavours on your tongue. Sweet, smoky? And was it creamy and soft, did it coat your mouth?

What was the finish like? Long, did the flavour stay with you or did it simply vanish and leave you with a dry taste in your palate. These are things to consider when tasting whisky, and everyone will have a slightly different experience. Form your own opinions when tasting whisky, don’t simply believe what you are told!

I mentioned adding water, which is the way I personally like my whisky, and often how it is consumed especially in Scotland . For tasting whisky, we recommend adding 50-50 water and whisky. It helps to dilute that alcohol flavour and make the flavours of the whisky more discernible, opening it up. There are no ‘right’ ways to drink whisky! As part of a cocktail, on ice, with water, it’s up to you how you enjoy your dram.


This article first appeared in The Hong Kong Resource Guide 2016 Edition.

Malt Masters is a Hong Kong company dedicated to the appreciation of whisky from around the world. They organise Hong Kong’s first whisky festival, now in its third year. Malt Masters specialises in private tasting events, whisky masterclasses and exclusive whisky tours to Scotland.
For more information: | #MALTMASTERSHK
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Joshua Tate

Originally from London, having worked as a bartender in both London and Paris, before becoming Brand Ambassador with Chivas Brothers. Worked as Ballantine’s Ambassador in India focusing on growing the profile of scotch whisky in this rapidly expanding market. After a successful spell in India and looking for a new challenge, moved to Hong Kong to work with Malt Masters and continue to develop and educate the Asian whisky consumer and their growing thirst for knowledge. Other articles by this author



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