Look at it
So you have a whisky, you have chosen what to drink it from, or you may have ordered it in a bar. The next thing is to look at it. An obvious thing to say is that whisky is clear, it will pick up colours from the area around it so try and find a white plain background to hold it against. Do not underestimate this stage. You can tell a lot from looking at it. Is it clear? What colour? And very importantly that there is no ice in it.
Ice dulls the flavours and closes down the aromas, if you like ice fine but get to know the whisky first. Also remember that sometimes ice can sit in the freezer capturing other smells and tastes that then move on to the whisky.
Hold your glass and swirl it gently a few times – no need to bash it up, gently does it. Now watch the spirit on the glass run gently down to meet the rest of the whisky. How does it move? Does it form large well spaced droplets that slowly run down in long tears – called legs. These signs can tell you some things about the whisky but be careful they can also be altered by other factors such as the type of vessel, temperature and cleanliness. The longer the legs run the better, the whisky is more likely to have more maturity about it. Likewise it is a good sign if the droplets are large and well spaced.
Look at the colour and clarity. A little haziness need not be a bad thing, especially if it is cold or water has been added. This haziness could indicate that the whisky has not been chill filtered – a process that stops such haziness but in turn removes some of the flavour. To counter this problem in non chill filtered whiskies they often are produced at a higher abv which can also keep hazing down.
The colour can tell you lots. There has been a myth that the best whiskies are the oldest ones and the oldest ones are dark. This is wrong on all levels, the age issue depends on many factors and many whiskies are best young, colour does come with age but at very different rates with some young whiskies much darker than their older sisters. However, because of this myth there has been the practice of adding caramel to some to produce colour. This is in very small amounts and we are told it doesn’t affect the taste. There is division of thought on this issue – personally I fail to see the need to do this, if there is an issue then I am sure that simply educating the public would overcome it. To a degree I think this is even true in the case of blends who feel an even stronger need for uniformity.
Colouring to one side paler whiskies tend to come from casks that have been used several times and have given most of the colour they have, in turn they may have a more delicate flavour.
Darker colours can suggest less used casks and the use of ex sherry casks with those having a red hue coming from ex port pipes. The main casks used are sherry and port but these are full flavour and expensive so distilleries also use a lot of ex bourbon casks which are cheaper, give a different and less dominating taste profile and a lighter golden honey colour.
One more thing you can do is to cover the glass firmly and give it a good shake. If you then see a small group of air bubble resting on the edge of the whisky’s surface like pearls in a ring then be careful. There is a good chance that this is at cask strength, not at all a bad thing but when counting up how many units you are drinking remember to add this factor in.
The reality is you can find out a lot about the whisky from just looking at it but just importantly what you are doing is beginning a relationship with it. It can take from 2 to 40+ years to make a whiskey, depending on the country of origin, with 100s of years of tradition and culture behind it. By taking a few minutes more to get to know it you are preparing your senses for it.