It is possible to detect a huge variety of aromas among the vapours given off naturally by a glass of whisky. For this reason nosing is undoubtedly the primary tool used in whisky tasting, however, and before I get accused of nasophilia, a number of other sensory inputs will determine your response to a whisky. These other aspects make themselves felt in the mouth.
Mouthfeel: A whisky may feel creamy, viscous, slightly fizzy, smooth or drying to the mouth. Wood is often responsible for a drying, astringent effect.
Flavour: Our taste buds can pick out only five tastes namely sweet, acidic/sour, salty, bitter, and the deeply savoury flavour umami. Despite the attention rightly given to aroma because of the vast diversity that can be experienced, flavour and finish may often be of equal importance to the whisky drinker in deciding whether a whisky is for them.
Finish: the length of time the flavour lingers after you have swallowed. Whisky can be rated as long, medium or short.
But I just want to find some nice whiskies to drink! Few of us are used to using our noses or exercising our brains in the way required to successfully identify even a fraction of the aroma-bearing compounds present in malt whisky. We are, however, used to using our taste buds to judge the food that we eat. This is an article about finding whiskies you like rather than the nuisances of whisky nosing, so I will describe below a simple method that might be helpful to someone new to whisky.
Thinking about the taste of whisky (rather than the smell) one of the main distinctions is between sweet and savoury flavours. If you are the kind of person who opts for a cheese board at the end of a meal instead of a pudding you might be particularly sensitive to sweet flavours (possibly to the point where you don't really enjoy them). Children often exhibit the opposite tendency, their young palates being so sensitive to bitter flavours that they find green vegetables (which are naturally slightly bitter) too unpleasant to eat.
Some of us never really grow up I suppose. For me, savoury whiskies taste like they lack something and if a whisky tastes too bitter I find it off putting. If like me you enjoy big sweet flavours then you may like whiskies finished in sherry casks and also enjoy bourbon. Most Irish, many Speyside and Lowland whiskies, and some Highland whiskies fall into the sweet category. If you are a cheeseboard kind of person or enjoy lager or real ales you might relish savoury whiskies. A number of Highland and Island whiskies and a proportion of Japanese whiskies could be considered to be in the savory spectrum.
Another useful experiment is to examine whether you prefer lighter whisky styles such as Lowlanders, Irish whiskies or Scottish whiskies such as Glenfiddich, Glenlivet and Clynelish or heavily sherried ones such as Mortlach, Glendronach or The Macallan.
Nothing divides opinion as much as peat. Peat is an important flavour in certain whiskies but some people find it a difficult flavour to enjoy. The heavily peated whiskies of Islay are the Marmite of the whisky world. Some people love them, some people avoid them.
If you already know your flavour preferences and are searching for your desert island whisky, you may be interested to consider what distinguishes a good whisky from a great one, which I will cover in a future article.