Features 3 minutes 26 July 2017

Ask the Experts: A Beginner’s Guide to Whisky

When it comes to tasting Scotland’s best known drink, there are a few fundamental guidelines to follow to fully appreciate good whisky.

beverage Ask the Expert

Always had a burning question but not sure who to ask? In our regular Ask the Experts section, we do all the noseying about so you don't have to.

Richard Paterson.jpg
Widely nicknamed “The Nose” thanks to his legendary nosing and tasting skills, Richard Paterson has worked in the beverage industry for over 40 years and also works closely with other industry bodies in the training and promotion of Scotch whisky worldwide. He is currently the master distiller for The Dalmore Single Malt. From knowing which glass to use, to nosing your whisky, he shares some treasured pearls of wisdom on how to immerse yourself in the world of whisky.
Dear Richard,
I’m a newly converted whisky lover. How should one best navigate through the countless blends and single malts on offer?


Like fine wines, there are many different styles of whiskies to choose from that are influenced by the location in which they are distilled, the casks that they are matured in and the age that they have been bottled at.

Knowing your whisky
There are blended whiskies, single malt whiskies and grain whiskies out there to choose from. A blended whisky, such as Whyte & Mackay is a mix of malt and grain whiskies from different distilleries around Scotland. A single malt whisky is made only of malt which comes from a single distillery, and a grain whisky is one that is made using grain rather than malt. Each type of whisky is beautiful in its own way and depending on my mood and surroundings I will dip in and out of each, choosing the one that best suits the occasion at that particular time.

We have five malt whisky regions in Scotland: Highland Malts, Lowland Malts, Islay Malts, Campbeltown Malts and Speyside Malts. Each one possesses different characteristics that will be more or less appealing depending on your individual taste. Highland malts tend to be fruity and spicy like a Christmas cake whereas Lowland and Speyside malts are very soft, light and gentle. Islay malts are very heavily peated with a rich smoky taste.

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Selecting your whisky
Before tasting whisky it’s vital that you select a whisky that is right for your palate. Many people automatically think that a malt is better than a blend and that the older the whisky is the better it tastes. This is not necessarily true as it is very much dependent on your individual preferences and how experienced in whisky tasting you are.

People always talk about older whiskies being superior, but age and taste are all in the eye of the beholder. Aged whiskies can bring a real depth of flavour to a whisky but different finishes can give whiskies extraordinary and enticing flavours. I don’t prefer age to finish or vice versa, it’s all about drinking the right whisky to suit the occasion.
As the whisky maker at The Dalmore, I am in the privileged position to have both routes at my disposal. We hold some of the oldest and rarest single malt stocks in Scotland, but also have a unique spirit which can come to maturity through curation - how we age it, and in which casks.

As with age, casks play such a great part in the maturation. In fact, I’d go as far to say that wood is the key to quality. Whisky is a living product so it must be nurtured and respected. To ensure its unique quality it must be given the right casks and these need to be meticulously selected.

Bourbon casks give a sweet vanilla note with spicy overtones. Sherry casks give fruity nutty notes. American White Oak casks, after a long period of time, provide structure and backbone to a malt. Every month I'm sourcing different styles of wood which will hopefully be compatible with our malts.

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Preparing to taste
In order to really savour and enjoy your whisky you must take your time. Revel in the wait.
  • It starts with the glass. My favourite for nosing is the copa copita glass as its tulip shape concentrates the aromas at the rim of the glass, allowing me to properly explore the whisky. If you don’t have a copita glass, then the Glencairn whisky glass is a good alternative, as is a champagne flute.
  • Next, you should swirl the whisky within the glass and look at its colour. See if the whisky clings to it as this will demonstrate a depth of character in the whisky.
  • Briefly bring the glass to your nose and inhale gently. Just a second before pulling away, take a moment to breathe in and out and allow the aromas to dissipate. Then go back to the glass, this time inhaling a little longer. While you do this move the glass slowly from one nostril to the other.
  • Approach the glass for the third time and only then will you start to unfold what is hidden within the whisky.
  • Once you take a sip, hold it long in the mouth to let the flavours unfold. Bring the whisky to the middle of your tongue and then roll it from side to side. Think about how it feels on your tongue, what is the whisky telling you.
  • When you swallow the whisky, don’t think it’s over…feel it as it goes down your throat into your stomach. Then wait.
  • Open your mouth a little and let the air pass over your palate. Be aware of the flavours and how they continue to evolve on the after taste. A good whisky will linger long in the mouth.

    So much time, effort, and expertise goes into making whisky that you should reflect on the experience as you drink to truly get the most from it. You should think about how the whisky makes you feel, not just what you taste.

     To further enhance the tasting experience you should choose foods that complement the whisky, such as strong coffee or a dark bitter chocolate with a high cocoa content. For example, Jura with smoked salmon, capers and fresh apple is always a winning combination. As is crème brulee with glazed orange segments an ideal accompaniment with The Dalmore 12 year-old.

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