How to describe the taste of whisky

Sceptics think the words that tasters use to describe foods and beverages are absurd. They almost always object to such descriptions as “the florid rush of overripe wild strawberries”, and if they’re never experiences those conditions, who can say they’re wrong? Palate differ tremendously, and so do people’s abilities to describe feelings and flavours. However, some of the fancier words used in tasting descriptions are founded in reality and shouldn’t be discounted simply because they sound a bit over the top. A whisk(e)y can be woody (it ages in a wooden cask), smoky (the cask is charred, or grain is dried on peat fire), feature oaky (from the oak barrels are made from) or be grainy (as whisk(e)y is made from grain, after all). Rhododendron might be difficult to track, and the scent of lilies of the valley during a spring thunderstorm might not apply to all tasters’s sense memories, but for some people, at least, it’s real. Some ‘standard’ words, which are commonly used to describe flavours and aromas that can be found in whiskies, are stated in whisk(e)y books. Read them over to get a feel what you’re looking for, and then ignore them completely. You’re the taster, and you’re right.

Whisky or whiskey?

Maybe that should have been the very first post on this whisky blog - whisky or whiskey? Most well-known dictionaries give both spellings. The Oxford English Dictionary points out that in modern trade usage, Scotch Whisky and Irish Whiskey are thus distinguished in spelling. Well, that’s right. However, not to forget Canadian and US whiskies. Canadian rye whisky is usually spelt without, while American-made whiskey with an ‘e’. Although, there are always exceptions. For instance, Maker’s Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky, one of the most popular bourbon in the US. So, it’s not true that all Kentucky Bourbon is called ‘whiskey’.

Benromach Tokaji Finish

Well, here’s one more of the Tokaji wine finished Scotch Single Malt whiskies. This one is specifically bottled and distributed only for Hungary. Benromach Distillery, owned and managed by Gordon & MacPhail, is on the outskirts of Forres. Benromach was established in 1895 as Scotch whisky merchant, but was closed under the ownership of United Distillers in 1983. Having lain silent for a number of years, Benromach was bought in 1993 and re-opened in 1998 by Gordon & MacPhail. Hungary lays claim to one of the great classic dessert wines of the world - the unique Tokaji. This fascinating wine has a rich history and was once the most sought-after wine in the world, and was celebrated by royalty and poets. Its vinification method has been codified since 1630. Tokaji is the oldest sweet botrytised wine in the world, more than a century before the great German dessert wines and two centuries before Sauternes. The best-known style of Tokaji is known as Aszú. Two local grape varieties are used in the making of Tokaji - Furmint and Hárslevelű. The grapes are hand harvested and selected, berry by berry. And their weight is measured using wooden hods of 25kg called ‘puttonyos’. The number of ‘puttonyos’ determines the sweetness of the finished wine. After the maceration, the wine is aged in barrels for a number of years, before being bottled in the traditional 50cl bottle. The Benromach 21 YO Tokaji Finish single malt Scotch whisky is first filled in sherry casks, then re-filled for 6 months in Tokaji casks, which originate from Château Dereszla (situated in the heart of the Tokaj vineyard in north-east Hungary). The whisky gets a golden brown colour from both the sherry and Tokaji casks. The Tokaji casks also enhance the fruit elements of the whisky: its scent is sweet with some fermented fruits coming thru. A smooth, rich and rounded whisky, sweet on the palate, a bit winey. It also has long sweet, fruity finish.

Edradour Tokaji Finish?

Linked to the previous post about the topic of Tokaji Finish, I’ve just heard about another trial of benefiting the unique character of Tokaji wines in Scotch whisky maturation. Not a definite news but more than a juicy bit of gossip that Edradour - the smallest distillery in Scotland - started to mature its 10YO Highland single malt Scotch whisky in Tokaji casks in early 2003. I haven’t seen it on the market yet, so anyone knows where it is available, please tell me in a comment.

Ever heard of Tokaji Cask Finish?

Have you ever tasted a Tokaji Cask Finish whisky? No? And have you ever tasted Tokaji wine? This is a special late harvest wine from the North-Eastern region of Hungary, called Tokaj. „Vinum Regum, Rex Vinorum” as we say it in Hungary, which means: The wine of Kings, the King of the wines. And it really is! There are even 3 distilleries which found it a good idea to put there Single Malt Scotch whiskies into ex-Tokaji wine casks for a couple of years: Isle of Arran, Benromach, Edradour. I heard once from Edradour that after one and a half year they had to take the whisky out of the Tokaji barrels as the wine itself is so characteristic and had so much influence in such a short time, that ageing longer in Tokaji wine casks might have ruined the whisky. As the Tokaji wine itself is very sweet, a wee bit spicy, but full of aromas of sundried fruits, the casks transfers these aromas into the whisky, too. So grab a bottle of a Tokaji Cask Finish next time you are in a whisky store, and taste it! (The very same post you can find on, too.)

Ever heard of Cognac Finish?

Traditionally, Scotch whisky was matured either in Bourbon casks or Sherry casks. Couple of decades ago, some marketing guru might have advised to leading Single Malt distilleries to use Bourbon casks for the first period of the maturation, then Sherry casks for the last couple of years … then label the whisky as Sherry Cask Finish. To be honest, I don’t know who was the very first to play this card, but did it right. Since then distilleries marketed several variations of cask finish whiskies: Port wood finish, Madeira wood finish, Burgundy wood finish. But have you ever tasted a Cognac Cask Finish whisky? No? No wonder, because Cognac is hardly available for cask finishes. The reason is simple. Cognac itself is a trademark. Therefore Cognac producers do not intend to let anyone else to use and place the word ’Cognac’ on any bottle of spirits, except real Cognac from the French region of Cognac. So, even if any of the Scottish distilleries tried to finish its Scotch Malt whisky in ex-Cognac casks, they need to be tricky to be allowed to place the word “Cognac” onto their whisky label. Isle of Arran does many variations of cask finish whiskies. The way they do it with Cognac is that they set a deal with Hardy Cognac, USA.

Set up your own tasting

A whisky tasting is easy to organise. Don’t take it to seriously - it’s meant to be fun, but follow the 6 steps below to be able to distinguish between different whiskies.

What you need is A) a range of whiskies (e.g. blended scotch variants, various single malt whiskies, Jack Daniel’s against bourbon whiskies, etc.) B) sampling glasses (preferably stem glasses, than whisky tumblers, e.g. Glencairn) C) water, and bread or biscuits to cleanse the palate.

Step 1 Pour about 2cl whisky into a glass.

Step 2 Check to colour by holding the glass up to the light. This can tell you a lot about its taste and character. The colour may vary from very pale to a rich caramel brown, depending on how long and what kind of casks was the whisky stored in.

Step 3 Check out the ‘nose’ (aroma) of the whisky. This tells you about its flavour as 80% of what you taste is actually through the nose.

Step 4 Now add the same amount of water to your whisky and nose again. You should feel a real difference, more intense aromas then before.

Step 5 Take a sip of the whisky and look for the following: the body (texture), the palate (flavour), the finish (aftertaste).

Step 6 Have a drink of water and some bread or biscuits to cleanse your palate before trying the next whisky.

Join the Pact

The Pact simulator is a tool of Johnnie Walker to promote its Responsible Drinking programme. It is a futuristic pod, which will provide consumers with a practical demonstration to remind them of the dangers of driving under the influence of alcohol in a controlled virtual environment. It is better to crash yourself in the virtual world and learn from it. You have several lifes in the virtual world, while only one in reality. Don’t risk it! No whisky is worth it.

Yesterday, I have found an issue of Whisky Magazine from 2008, which included a short leaflet attached to the magazine. The leaflet is about the best whisky bars from around the world according to the expert staff of the whisky magazine. Of course, I checked out whether is there any bar mentioned from Hungary. There is only one! What a shame! There are good bars listed from Prague, Vienna, wherever from our neighbourhood, but not even a tiny little bar from Budapest. I am so much disappointed. And a wee bit upset on my fellow Hungarians who do not need really good, high-class whisky bars. I will check, visit and put together a list of some more bars with the best whisky offer in the town of Budapest.

Whisky Show 2011 Budapest

We are here again! The Whisky Society of Hungary and WhiskyNet proudly present the 2nd Whisky Show in Budapest. The event will take place on October 15, 2011 in the very same hotel just like last April: Ramada Plaza Budapest Hotel.

Isle of Arran, Glenfarclas, Benromach, Gordon & MacPhail, Inverhouse, BenRiach, Pernod Ricard whisk(e)y brands, William Grant’s & Glenfiddich, Brown-Forman’s Jack Daniel’s and Woodford Reserve, as well as WhiskyNet with the wide selection of its whisk(e)y portfolio will definitely be there.

15 masterclass seminars, bagpipers, Irish band, celtic harp, lounge DJ and short whisky presentations will be on stage.

Buy your ticket online now! » HERE

Whisky & Whiskey for Everyone!