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Learn How to Taste Whiskey From an Expert

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Expert Whiskey Tasting Advice

We got with Whisky Magazine’s editor, Christopher Coates, to find out the top tips and latest trends in whiskey tasting. With the help of this article, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a whiskey expert.


Whiskey Glasses for Different Occasions

“That the glassware suits the occasion and what you’re intending to do with that glass,” Christopher Coates, editor of Whisky Magazine, says of the most important thing to understand about choosing a whisky glass.

For example, nosing glasses or glasses with stems are probably not practical for a party where they could easily be broken. Coates says he recommends tumbler glasses for whisky during parties. Highball glasses would be best at garden parties.

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old-fashioned-glass-with-whiskeyShould whiskey be served with or without ice?

If you want ice in your whisky, put ice in it. “It’s your whisky; you do with your whisky what you do,” he says.

But if you are putting ice in whisky, Coates suggests the sturdier tumbler glasses. Nosing and glasses with stems can be fragile or have a mouth too narrow to drop ice in the drink. “They really do only fit a nose in,” Coates says of some nosing glasses.

When it is hot outside, Coates prefers ice in his whiskey, or just a splash of water, for refreshment.

However, American whiskey goes well with ice. “Just because I think the style takes it better,” he says.

smoked-whiskey-tubmler-glassOther Ways to Drink Whiskey

Coates says that soda water can be added to whisky for a highball drink, “you don’t have to be neat.”

“This is a really nice refreshing way to drink whisky,” he says.

Adding nut liqueur to whisky is also an idea.

“There’s lots of creative things you can do with your whisky,” Coates says.

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The Best Glass for Whiskey Tasting

For analysis of taste, Coates says the copita, a tulip-shaped glass, is the choice of professionals.

“Traditionally, they are used by blenders,” Coates says. Master blenders work behind the scenes to create a whisky with specific characteristics and a particular combination of spirits. Coates says that hundreds of copita glasses are seen in the facilities where master blenders work.

tall-tulip-whiskey-glassThe Copita Whiskey Glass

Copita glasses have a long stem, enabling the drinker to keep his hand at a distance from his nose, therefore keeping scents on his hand from affecting the scent while tasting whisky, “and really able to smell the whisky.”

According to Coates, the copita appears to be a short-stemmed wine glass.

“So, this is the glass you would mostly see at blenders [facilities], and they’re very useful,” Coates says.

Recent argument has begun, however, about the copita glass, because of its narrow nose. Some believe the narrow nose makes it more difficult to smell the whisky, but Coates says this is incorrect.

When blenders use the copita glass, samples are diluted 20 percent. So the whisky in a tasting under the development process has 48 to 68 percent alcohol strength of what it will have later in the consumer’s home. The reason for this is, so a strong alcoholic smell is not at the copita glass opening during blending.

“Personally, I like them,” Coates says of the copita glass, in which he drinks his whisky at his home in London. Most modern copita glasses are also dishwasher-safe.

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best-glencairn-whiskey-glassThe Glencairn Whiskey Glass

The introduction of the Glencairn whisky glass by family-owned Glencairn Crystal Ltd. in Glasgow changed the whisky glass experience. Coates says the company had the idea for the glass in the 1980s, but the glass did not go into production until the late 1990s.

The Glencairn is “designed specifically for drinking and appreciating Scotch whisky” and is a glass that “straddles the two worlds” of tasting and drinking whisky glasses.

Coates uses the Glencairn when he reviews the spirits for Whisky Magazine. The glass has a solid base and a narrow opening, though it is larger than the copitas’.

“There’s a reason they’ve become the most famous whisky glass in the world,” Coates says. The Glencairn is a “damn good glass,” and what Coates refers to as “the Rolex of the whisky glass world.”

However, the Glencairn is not found in the blenders’ laboratories. Blenders are usually older and go with tradition.

The introduction of the Glencairn also coincided with a new appreciation of whisky. “Whisky apparently wasn’t the same before the 90s,” Coates says.

In the early to mid-1990s, a new appreciation for whisky was born thanks to the late Michael Jackson — not the singer, but a beer and whisky writer who kick-started the whisky tasting movement.

“This is a serious drink to be appreciated by connoisseurs,” Coates says of the impact Jackson’s movement had on whisky.

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whiskey-woman-glassWomen Drinking Whiskey

Coates says that whisky has had a stereotype of being a man’s drink, but Whisky Magazine’s reader data shows the average age of a whisky drinker is becoming younger — ages 25 and older — and more female.

“It is still a relatively male-dominated drink, but that is changing,” Coates says.

In 2011-2012, the whisky cocktail drink was introduced, but Coates does not point to that as the reason why more women are drinking whisky.

Coates says women are coming to whisky as they are introduced to tastes they enjoy, either fruity, nutty, green grassy, sulphury, or otherwise.

“You do have to try lots of different ones,” Coates says. And that was difficult for women to do in bars in the past because of the stereotype that whisky is for the boys’ club. “Thankfully, that type of culture is eroding now,” Coates says.

classic-whiskey-drinkerThe History of Whiskey

In the 18th and 19th centuries, whisky was the drink of the working people. Farmers distilled whisky on their farms after the crop harvest, and it was clear in color, like moonshine.

By the end of the 1800s, the appreciation for whisky as we know it today began to emerge thanks to a grape crisis in France. A pest attacked grape roots and greatly affected the production of wine.

Then King George IV of England visited Scotland, the first monarch to do so since 1651, and heartily enjoyed the glass of whisky he was given. Afterward, whisky was also the drink of high society.

By the 1970s, whisky was the drink of choice for the businessman, but analyzing the taste did not become prominent until the 1990s, at which time the glass became important.

“For most people, it’s a drink to enjoy, and, for some, it’s a hobby,” Coates says.

Coates says he believes that the process of thinking about the taste of whisky enabled people to appreciate the taste.

“And, I think, appreciate other food and drink more.”

Please note, this article may contain links to Amazon products. As an Amazon Associate, earns from qualifying purchases.



Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca graduated from the University of Mary Washington with a degree in English and pursued a career in newspapers for several years. As a part of the Key Media & Research team Rebecca serves as Special Projects Manager and writer. Find out more about Rebecca on Linkedin.

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