How To Describe The Color, Smell & Taste Of Whiskey

I always found it difficult to describe the different aspects of whiskey, as I lacked the words to label them and a framework in which to explain how I perceived them. Fortunately, this has become easier over time and while the following guide is by no means a complete list, it is a useful starting point for learning how to describe the different aspects of whiskey.

Whiskey is described by identifying its color, aromas and flavors. Its color is often gold or amber. Common aromas and flavors are vanilla, caramel, honey, apple, pepper, cinnamon, nuts, chocolate and sherry. Other aspects of its taste in good whiskeys are; full-bodied, well-balanced, smooth and robust.

In the rest of this article, I’ll go into more detail about how to describe the different aspects of whiskey. I’ll give you a list of words you can use that will often be all you need and if not, something that will at least point you in the right direction.

A man drinking whiskey with words describing different aspects

How To Describe The Color Of Whiskey

Whiskeys are a shade of brown, which is a very dull way to describe its color. It’s also not very precise. More specific and interesting words for the color of whiskey are:

  • Gold
  • Amber
  • Mahogany
  • Honey
  • Russet
  • Copper
  • Straw

These color descriptions can be further modified with the following adjectives:

  • Light
  • Bright
  • Warm
  • Medium
  • Deep
  • Burnished

And if you’re not sure what any of these specific colors look like, Whisky Magazine has created this useful 20-point whiskey color scale. It doesn’t include every way to describe the color of whiskey, but it does give you a lot of shades that you can use as a starting point.

The 20-point whiskey color scale from Whisky Magazine

Of course, you don’t have to keep to ordinary yet specific color descriptions. You can use descriptions that are as complex or unusual as you like. Not sure what I mean? Here are some real-life examples of how certain brands describe the color of some of their whiskeys, to give you an idea of what’s possible.

WhiskeyColor Description
Aberlour 14 Years OldDeep amber with honeyed gold
Auchentoshen 18 Years OldDeep golden summer barley
Ballantine’s Barrel SmoothGolden bonfire embers
Bruichladdich Islay Barley 2011Fresh cut straw
Bruichladdich The Classic LaddieSunlight on fields of early summer barley
Bruichladdich The Laddie EightLemon marmalade
Bunnahabhain 30 Years OldGolden syrup
Macallan Double Cask 12 Years OldHarvest sun
Macallan Double Cask 15 Years OldGolden butterscotch
Macallan Sherry Oak 40 Years OldAutumn russet

How To Describe The Smell Of Whiskey

For words to describe what whiskey smells like start by using a whiskey aroma wheel. These are diagrams of the most commonly used words to describe whiskey smells, grouped together in families with aromatic similarities. They will either give you the exact word you’re looking for, a description to build on or point you in the direction of the right word.

Whiskey aroma wheels work by having a number of top-level categories each of which have a handful of subcategories that in turn have several words that will help describe what you’re smelling.

The way to use a whiskey aroma wheel is by identifying which of the high-level category words best describes what you’re smelling. You then refine that description by identifying which of its subcategories the smell fits into and finally choose from the available words in that subcategory the descriptor you feel best matches what you’re smelling.

There are several different whiskey aroma wheels, one of which you can check out hereOpens in a new tab., but for those who prefer not to have to stand on their head to read what it says, I’ve put that information into the following table:

GrainyCerealBreakfast cereal, porridge, bran, toast, digestive biscuits, coffee
 MaltMalted milk, malt barn, dried hops, Horlicks, Marmite
GrassyFreshCut grass, green vegetables, green sticks, tomato, leafy, mint
 DriedHay, straw, chaff, dried tea, stewed tea, tobacco, dried herbs
FragrantFloralPerfumed, rose, lavender, geranium, carnation, artificial floral
 SolventBubble-gum, peardrops, fresh paint, acetone, pine essence
 HoneyClover flowers, heather pollen, heather honey, mead beeswax
FruityFresh FruitApple, pear, peach, melon, fig, cherry, green banana, redcurrant
 Citrus FruitLemon, lime, orange mandarin, grapefruit, pineapple
 Dried FruitRaisins, sultanas, figs, mince pies, Xmas cake, marmalade
 Tinned FruitPeaches, pears, fruit salad, lychees, tiny
PeatyMaritimeSphagnum moss, brine, seaweed, shellfish, fresh fish
 MedicinalLint, Elastoplast, hospitals, mouthwash, antiseptic, iodine, creosote
 SmokyLapsong suchong tea, peat smoke, smoked salmon, kippers, tar
WoodyVanillaIce cream, custard, caramel, fudge, syrup, crème brulée
 SpicyClove, nutmeg, cinnamon, liquorice, ginger, chilli, pepper, coffee
 New WoodSap, resin, sawdust, pencil shavings, cigar boxes, sandalwood
WineyNuttyCoconut, nut oil, lineseed oil, almond, walnut, hazelnut
 OilyCream, butter, vegetable oil, chocolate, olive, candlewax
 VinousWhite wine, sherry, Madeira, red wine, port, brandy, wine cellar
Off NotesMetallicVinegar, inky, tinny, wet iron, rusty
 MustyEarthy, fusty, mossy, mouldy, corked, damp wool, mothballs
 VegetalBrackish, stale, cabbage water, marsh gas, drains, bogs
 CheesyCheese, fatty, rancid, goaty, mousey, yeasty, sweaty, vomit
 MeatyLeather, cowhide, boiled pork, sausages, roast meat, gravy
 SulphuryLinen, rubber, struck matches, cordite, fireworks, exhaust fumes

Once you’ve gotten the hang of it, you can either expand on the descriptions in the whiskey aroma wheel by being even more specific (for example apples can become green apples and cherry can become glazed cherry) or come up with completely new descriptions of your own.

Also, it’s important to remember that the perception of smell is subjective and since smells are linked to memories, you can have your own personal descriptors that no one else would ever think of. And depending on your psyche, they may be quite unusual, for example the smell of the attic or grandad’s chair.

A person smelling whiskey in a nosing glass

How To Describe The Taste Of Whiskey

You will immediately see that you can use the whiskey aroma wheel to describe the taste of whiskey too. Once again, it will either give you the exact word you’re looking for or point you in its direction. And you can expand on the descriptions or come up with new ones of your own.

To make things even easier here’s a short list of some common flavors found in whiskey:

  • Honey
  • Apple
  • Vanilla
  • Caramel
  • Pepper
  • Cinnamon
  • Nutmeg
  • Nuts
  • Chocolate
  • Sherry

When it comes to the taste of whiskey you don’t just need words to describe its flavors, you also need words to describe other aspects of the whiskey’s taste too.

Describing How the Flavors Are Present

You can describe the taste of your whiskey by how the flavors are present. For example:

  • Full-bodied / Complex / Complex Flavor Profile – means a whiskey with several if not dozens of dominant flavors.
  • Light-bodied – means a whiskey with only one or two dominant flavors.
  • Bold – means a whiskey with flavors that are bold, rich and intense.
  • Light – means a whiskey with flavors that are light, delicate or mild.
  • Well-Balanced – means a whiskey where the flavors work well together and complement each other without one overpowering the others.

Describing The Flavors by A Defining Characteristic

You can describe the taste of your whiskey by one defining characteristic. For example:

  • Sweet – The whiskey has sweet flavors.
  • Spicy – The whiskey has spicy flavors.
  • Fruity – The whiskey has fruity flavors.
  • Floral – The whiskey has flowery flavors.
  • Briny – The whiskey has the flavors of briny sea air.
  • Smoky / Peaty – The whiskey has a smoky or peaty flavor from the peat used to dry the kiln during the malting process.

Describing The Taste by How It Feels in Your Mouth

You can describe the taste of your whiskey by how it feels in your mouth (called the mouthfeel). For example:

  • Thin / Watery
  • Rich / Round / Full / Thick
  • Soft / Oily / Creamy / Silky / Velvety

Describing The Taste of The Alcohol

You can describe the taste of your whiskey by how you perceive the alcohol:

  • Smooth / Mellow / Soft means it has no alcohol burn.
  • Harsh / Ethanol / Burning means it has too much alcohol bite.

Describing The Overall Taste of Your Whiskey

And you can describe the overall taste of your whiskey:

  • Round – means a whiskey with balanced aromas, flavors, and mouthfeel.
  • Robust – means a whiskey with intense aromas, full-flavor and a powerful character.
  • Soft – means a whiskey with subtle aromas and flavors.

Josh Mitchell

I'm Josh Mitchell. I love whiskey and am working on increasing my whiskey tasting abilities and my collection.

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