Whiskey is a popular drink that many people love. There’s no surprise therefore, that soon-to-be-whiskey-lovers-if-I-have-anything-to-say-about-it will be wondering what all the fuss is about. More specifically they’ll be asking: what does whiskey taste like? And then: why is whiskey so expensive? Although the second question is proof that the answer to the first question is: delicious.
But that answer lacks a certain precision, although this is to be expected. With so many different whiskeys, an almost endless variety of tastes and people being different making agreement on a specific taste a minor miracle, there are a vast number of ways to describe a whiskey’s flavor: from the general sweet and spicy, to the more precise vanilla or toffee flavoured, to the highly unusual, flavor of a wet dog.
And of course, there are the weird and unusual phrases that might as well be a completely different language for the uninitiated, but which make you sound like you’re a real whiskey expert who knows exactly what they’re talking about: full-bodied, light-bodied, smooth, delicate, smoky.
We’ll look at general descriptors and more specific ones. We’ll look at the flavors imparted by some of the most common grains used to make whiskey and flavors acquired during the aging / maturation process. We’ll look at the different types of whiskey and their flavors and how the way you drink whiskey will affect its taste.
So what does whiskey taste like? Well it depends on the whiskey, how it’s made and the way you drink it. But if you get it right, it will taste delicious.
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What Does Whiskey Taste Like? General Descriptors
Here are some general descriptors to start with when tasting whiskey.
A full-bodied whiskey is one that has several if not dozens of dominant flavors. As a bonus you now also know what the phrase ‘complex flavor profile’ means apart from ‘I’m trying to sound posh’.
In contrast, light-bodied whiskeys have only one or two dominant flavors and therefore a clear, fresh taste.
Delicate / Light
This means having a more mild flavor. The higher the alcohol level a whiskey is distilled to the more of the grain’s flavor is removed.
The opposite of light and the same as intense or rich.
This is a concrete example of the problem of different people describing the same thing in different ways. If you find a whiskey bold that others describe as rich there’s no need to be upset as you could well be in total agreement. On the other hand, you may not. Yes, it’s complicated. No, it’s not my fault.
This can refer to one or all of the following three things.
First it can refer to the whiskey not being harsh or burning. A difficult feat considering that the alcohol level whiskey is bottled at is usually upward of 40% ABV. Flavorings, sweeteners, and blending agents (which only some countries allow) can enhance the roundness of the mouth feel and reduce the burn.
The second thing smooth can refer to is a soft flavor which could be due, at least in part, to the grain used to make the whiskey.
If the whiskey is blended, smooth could mean that all the flavors are well-balanced and work together.
Tasting sweet. Not everything’s complicated.
I’m sure you can work this one out for yourselves.
No, it doesn’t mean that everything from here on is simple. I’ve just put all the easy ones together.
Sounds posh but just means tasting of flowers.
Since some distilleries are by the sea their whiskeys absorb some of the briny sea air.
Smoky / Peaty Flavor
If peat was used to fuel the kiln in the drying part of the malting process, its pungent smoke is transferred to the grain and the final flavor of the whiskey.
What Does Whiskey Taste Like? Specific Descriptors (Common & Personal)
Specific descriptors are endless. Here are some common ones:
Honeysuckle, almond, grassy, leather, cream, ginger, toffee, toast, cinnamon, heather, dried fruit (I know it’s not as specific as the forthcoming ‘apple’ but it’s less general than the ‘fruity’ of the previous section), apple, honey, nutmeg, vanilla, nuts, oil, seaweed …
You can use a Flavor Wheel to help you identify some of the more common flavors. This is just a list of words (in the shape of a wheel obviously) that are commonly used to describe different tastes, grouped together in families with similar flavors. It’s useful as even if you’re having trouble identifying a flavor, you’ll instantly have some words to describe what you’re tasting. You can also use it to define tastes by a process of elimination.
Although a Flavor Wheel is helpful it’s not the sum total of all descriptors. There are always more.
Also, as mentioned, not everyone will describe the same taste in the same way. This is because the perception of taste is a personal thing. What tastes like one thing to one person may taste like something else to another.
It’s also because tastes are linked to memories, so depending on your psyche, personal descriptors may be quite unusual. Hence the existence of strange and bizarre descriptors for example, hot tires, grandpa’s desk and flavor of a wet dog. Be honest, when I first mentioned that last flavor you thought I was kidding.
Flavors That Come From the Grain
The grain or grains from which a whiskey is made will give it some of its flavor. If you know what your whiskey is made from then you can predict some of its taste. Here are some of the more commonly used grains and the flavors they impart to the whiskey.
Malted barley is sweet with lots of caramel, toffee and brown sugar notes. It will have a nutty, smoky, chocolatey flavor.
Unmalted barley has light, sharp, sour and fruity notes.
Corn is also very sweet. It has a syrupy taste, with white sugar, cotton candy, vanilla and maple syrup.
Rye makes a whiskey more spicy with pepper and cinnamon flavors. It imparts a dryness to the mouthfeel (what the whiskey feels like in the mouth).
This will make a whiskey that tastes of wheat bread and honey. It can introduce a gentleness to the whiskey making it smooth.
Flavors That Come From the Barrel
80% of a whiskey’s flavor comes from the barrel during the ageing / maturation process, though many factors can affect this: the type of wood the barrel is made from, whether a barrel is toasted or charred, new or used, its size, the length of time it’s stored in the barrel and the storage environment.
American oak barrels impart mellow, soft, vanilla and caramel flavors, although it’s the toasting and charring that converts the wood sugars into the vanilla and caramel flavors.
European oak barrels impart a spicy, bitter flavor.
New or Used
If the barrel had previously been used to store other spirits, the wood will have absorbed some of it and will transmit its taste to the whiskey. American whiskeys are generally aged in new barrels, but scotch is aged in barrels that previously contained bourbon which imparts a creamy, sweet, caramel flavor.
How Much Flavor Is Transmitted
The size of the barrel, the length of time the whiskey is stored in the barrel and the storage environment will all effect the amount of flavor that’s transmitted. The longer the whiskey is in the barrel the more flavor is transmitted. The smaller the barrel is the higher the ratio of whiskey to surface area of flavor-imparting wood and the more flavor is transmitted. The environment also affects the speed at which the flavor is imparted.
Different Types of Whiskeys and Their Flavors
So far we’ve seen how to describe whiskey flavors and what flavors the grains and the barrel imparts to the whiskey. Now we’ll look at the more common whiskeys and some of their expected characteristics and flavors.
I know which I find more interesting.
Scotch is whiskey made in Scotland. There are five scotch regions that make different types of whiskey: Lowlands, Highlands, Speyside, Campbeltown and Islay.
Lowland whiskeys are the lightest-bodied and most delicate of all scotch whiskeys having a gentle, elegant palate and very little peat, so they’re soft and smooth with a slightly fruity, citrusy, floral nose. They have a malty, zesty flavor, and you may be able to detect some honeysuckle, cream, ginger, toffee, toast and cinnamon too. They also have a sweet finish (this means the flavor you’re left with after swallowing the whiskey).
The Highlands are known for medium bodied whiskeys, that are stronger than those from the Lowlands but lighter and more luxurious than those from Islay. Therefore, you’ll get bold flavors including heather and dried fruit and notes of peat and honey in a much more robust and dry body.
However, since it’s the largest region with its distilleries spread far and wide over different types of natural environments, it produces a wide variety of whiskeys.
In the northern part of the Highlands the whiskeys are full bodied and spicy. In the southern part they’re lighter and fruity. To the east the whiskeys are still fruity but have a little more body. In the west they’re full bodied, peaty with a salty tang from the sea. There’s also a sub region of islands to the north whose whiskeys tend to be sweet, smoky with an influence from the sea.
In general, Speyside whiskeys are sweet, fruity and spicy with hints of apple, nutmeg and vanilla. Its single malts are smoky and complex.
However, with the largest number of distilleries and therefore producing the largest amount of scotch, its whiskeys will also have a wide range of characteristics from lighter, grassy, flagrantly floral whiskeys to those that are sweeter, richer and textured.
Campbeltown whiskeys are fruity, peaty, sweet and smoky. There will be notes of sea salt and a briny taste along with vanilla and toffee flavors.
And the distinctive flavor of wet dog (also called wet wool). Yes, that taste comes from Campbeltown Scotch. I wasn’t joking. This is serious stuff.
Islay is a small island off the west coast of Scotland that’s covered in peat which is exposed to rain and sea spray making it particularly pungent. This gives Islay whiskeys a pungent, peaty, smoky, earthy and oily flavor with a hint of salty sea air, brine and seaweed.
Irish malt whiskeys are smoother than Scotch malt whiskeys because they’re distilled three times instead of two and most (with some exceptions – which is what most means but I thought I should be clear) are made without using peat in the malting process so they lack that smokiness.
Some Irish whiskeys are quite light, and they tend to be fruity with a grassy freshness. The dominant flavours include malt, vanilla, cream, oranges, lime, mandarin, marmalade, and wood.
However, they’re not as sweet as American whiskeys. Which brings us nicely on to …
There are lots of American whiskeys but some of the more common ones are bourbon, Tennessee whiskey and rye.
Bourbon is made from at least 51% corn (maize) so is a very sweet whiskey with hints of vanilla, caramel, honey, and oak. It’s smooth but also has a slightly smoky flavor due to being aged in charred barrels.
Tennessee whiskey is simply bourbon made in Tennessee. The only difference is that it’s filtered through sugar maple charcoal before being aged. It tastes pretty much the same a bourbon but has smoky and sooty hints from the charcoal used in the filtering process.
American rye whiskey is less sweet and has less body than bourbon, but is spicier, grainier and drier.
Canadian whiskeys are smoother and lighter than American whiskeys but still full of flavor. If made with rye they’ll be spicy.
Many Japanese whiskeys taste like scotch. This is not surprising as their industries pioneers modelled their product on scotch mimicking its flavor as closely as possible. They have also developed their own style so some of their whiskeys share flavor notes with bourbon.
The Way You Drink Your Whiskey Affects Its Taste
A whiskey will have certain flavors that come from the grain or its time in the barrel, but the way you drink it will affect whether you can actually taste them.
With the Correct Type of Glass
If you want to be able to detect the flavors of your whiskey, you’ll need to drink it from a proper whiskey glass. This means some type of nosing glass which are tall-ish glasses with a wide bowl, long narrow neck, thin stem and broad pedestal.
Glencairn Whisky Glass
With a nosing glass, air can get to the whiskey allowing it to breathe. The ethanol will evaporate, and the bowl shape will concentrate the whiskeys aromas towards the narrow rim allowing them to accumulate. Since flavor is taste as well as smell, you’ll be able to pick up all the aromas and then, when you take a sip, all the whiskey’s flavors.
However, if you use another type of glass to drink whiskey the opposite happens. Less ethanol will evaporate, and more whiskey aromas will dissipate. With the whiskey aromas gone, the flavors will be different, although with little ethanol evaporating, the dominant taste will be the alcohol which in turn numbs the taste receptors making it difficult to taste flavors anyway.
Adding water to whiskey does two things. First it dilutes the alcohol content so that it doesn’t numb your nosing and tasting equipment leaving you unable to detect the aromas and flavors, and secondly it opens up new and more subtle flavors. Even one drop of water can make a difference to the taste of your whiskey, so you may want to add just one drop of water at a time, noting the difference in taste after each one.
Adding ice cubes chills the whiskey also making it a bit more palatable, as it tempers the intensity of the whiskey and calms the burn of the alcohol. This is also great if you want a cool, refreshing drink, but it does inhibit the whiskey’s dominant flavors. On the other hand, the melting ice is water which, as mentioned, opens up new and more subtle flavors so you’ll be able to taste all the changes in your drink as the ice cubes melt.
You’ll need to ensure that the ice cubes don’t completely melt and dilute your whiskey to the point it becomes whiskey tasting water.
In a Cocktail
Whiskey is great as part of a cocktail, but with more than just whiskey in your drink some of its flavors will be lost as new ones are added from the other ingredients.
Even if you use a proper nosing glass so that you can pick up all the aromas and detect all the flavors, you may not be able to do so the first time around. Or even the second or third. You many need years of regular and constant practice before being able to appreciate every last nuance, though it’s totally worth it because even before you become an expert, you’ll be detecting plenty of delicious flavors.
So what does whiskey taste like? We’ve seen general, specific and personal descriptors. We’ve seen the flavors the more commonly used grains and the barrels give to whiskey and we’ve seen the most common whiskeys and some of the flavors you can expect them to have.
With so many flavors to choose from you’re bound to find something you like. It’s no wonder then that whiskey tastes delicious.