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What gives whiskey its flavor? Essential facts for beginners

We had a look at how whiskey develops its flavor and how to taste, appreciate and talk about whiskey flavors - from floral to peaty!

The best way to broaden your knowledge of whiskey and its vast range of flavors is to become familiar with the different whiskey flavor profiles and how they came to be. You’ll then be able to make recommendations based on your customers’ preferences. Here are some things you can learn to guide you on your way to becoming a whiskey connoisseur. 

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Before whiskey is placed in oak casks to age, it is a clear spirit, without any of those distinct whiskey flavors you might be familiar with  although many companies are selling white whiskey nowadays (giving whiskey distilleries entry into the clear spirit market but also importantly, providing smaller distilleries some cash flow while they wait for the rest of their products to mature).

The meeting of that clear spirit with wood allows for many interesting processes to occur, giving it those distinct flavors. While there has been some experimentation with fast-tracking the ageing process through innovative, scientific methods, the tried and true method of ageing in oak casks gives us the final product that has been loved across the globe for centuries.

Even though the majority of the aromas and flavors of whiskey are imparted by its contact with wood during maturation, the processes beforehand can also impact the taste of the final product.

How flavor develops before maturation

  • The distillery itself including its location (the quality of the water source, the weather and the natural environment that the oak casks will be exposed to, and the rules and regulations of distilling as dictated by the state), the quality of its equipment, and the skills of the distillers. However, it’s important to note that there is some disagreement about the role that terroir (to borrow a wine term, has on whiskey flavor profiles.   
  • The grain recipe will determine some of the more basic flavors evident on the tongue  sweet, creamy, peppery, malty, and so on. While there are rules about grain percentages for certain types of whiskey (bourbon, for example, has to be at least 51% corn mash), distillers can adjust grain recipes to aid in the creation the desired flavor profile.  
  • Alongside the grain recipe, the use of peat in the malting process is one of the most powerful determining the final flavor. If a distillery is using peat to dry the barley, a very distinct smoky flavor will be imparted  a common characteristic of Scotch whisky.
  • In the fermentation process, yeast also impart some flavors, and different strains are added to achieve different flavors.
  • The size of stills and the number of times the liquid is distilled will also have some bearing on the final flavor, as more contact with the copper of the still will create lighter and fruitier notes. Copper acts as a filter, getting rid of unpalatable aromas.

Want to learn more about whiskey?

Discover all the whiskey basics in our Typsy online course. 

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The importance of oak casks 

While there are differing opinions on the roles of the aforementioned on the final flavor of whiskey, there is no doubting the crucial role that maturation in oak casks has on what you get to taste.

Whiskey can be stored in new or used casks for maturation. By law, bourbon has to be aged in new, charred oak casks. These barrels, alongside sherry and port casks, are reused for the storage of other types of whiskey  imparting some of the flavors of its previous inhabitants. Bourbon casks, made of white American oak, impart vanilla, cherry, and spice notes. Wine casks, made of European oak, impart clove, orange, and dried fruit flavors.

Charring of the casks helps release vanillins, imparts toasty and caramelized notes, and gives color to the final product. Charring also helps filter out any impurities, such as off-flavors.

The size of the cask will also help determine the taste of the final product. Smaller casks expose more of the spirit to the wood, while larger casks prevent the wood’s qualities from overwhelming the spirit.

The wood allows oxygen in, helping to soften some of the harsher notes. As the casks are by and large kept in rooms without temperature control, the liquid will expand and contract with the seasons, seeping in and out of the wood and taking on more of its qualities.

Different whiskeys have different peak points, so age doesn’t necessarily indicate quality  and taking the Angel’s Share into account (the portion of the spirit that evaporates over time), ageing for extended periods of time can create losses without improving the flavor, if the spirit is already at its peak. The Angel’s Share also softens the spirit as the alcohol evaporates, making it taste milder with time.

Casks are also used more than once  the first use will impart the most wood characteristics, and this will diminish with further re-use. When the wood hasn’t got much more to give, the casks are re-charred and good to go again!

Tasting whiskey

Now that you know how those delicious flavors and aromas came to be, it’s time to get tasting!

For professional tasting sessions, the aim is to be as objective and analytical as possible, so conditions are carefully monitored. Everything from the scents in the room to the rigorous training of the tasters can impact their palate and vocabulary!

But for the rest of us, whiskey tasting is for pleasure so we don’t have to be quite as strict. Whether you’re attending or hosting a tasting session, or just enjoying a drink, there are some key things to take into account to make sure you get the most out of the experience.

  • Glass: While you can enjoy whiskey from any kind of glass, if you’re really trying to make the most of the experience, a nosing glass is very helpful as it is designed to direct the aromas towards the nose.
  • Appearance: The appearance of the whiskey can give you a bit of a background, as the color generally reflects how long the whiskey was aged. By swirling the liquid in the glass you will also be able to gauge characteristics, such as the age and the character  the viscosity of the legs (the liquid that runs along the glass after swirling) is a good indicator of the age and character of the whiskey.
  • Nosing: This is the most important part of the tasting process. About 80% of our taste comes from our sense of smell, so the actual tasting will already be largely informed by the aromas we smell prior to drinking. Swirl the whiskey in the glass to release the aromas, then bring it to your nose. Because of the high ABV of whiskey, make sure you nose it gently so you don’t overwhelm or numb your senses. Our nose can pick up hundreds of aromas, and smells are often linked to memories, so we can find much more detailed ways to describe what we’re tasting  our taste buds alone can’t decipher all the intricacies.
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  • Tasting: By nosing the whiskey, you’ve already begun the tasting experience. There aren’t many more flavors you’ll pick up through your taste buds  but what you will get to experience is the full character of the spirit  from the first drop to hit your tongue to the finish it leaves behind. Let the spirit linger in your mouth before swallowing to experience its flavors in full. Pay attention to how it feels in your mouth, what new tastes you’re getting, and what flavors are pronounced.
  • Adding water: While some argue that water dulls some of the aromas and flavors, it can also be very helpful when you’re trying to get the most out of your tasting session. It helps to release scents so that you don’t get overwhelmed with that high ABV!

Talking about whiskey

Finally, all that’s left to do is find the right words to express what your nose and taste buds have experienced.

In an interview with GQ, Chivas Regal and The Glenlivet brand ambassador Phil Huckle, says:

"In the wine trade they really go off on tangents, you know, like “you’re skipping through a meadow on a summer’s day and the dew is rising”  all this bullshit. I think in terms of flavor profiles with whisky, stick to sweet, fruity, floral, spicy, herbal, oaky, nutty, dry and smoky.”

There is basically no correct way to talk about whiskey flavors  it’s up to the drinker to determine what they are experiencing, and more importantly, what they’re enjoying. But there has been effort to come up with some basic flavor profiles to help us choose which of the many varieties we want to drink.  

In the 1970s, a group of sensory scientists in Edinburgh created The Pentlands Wheel for the industry, to help define the language of whiskey tasting. This outlined the major flavor profiles as: winey, cereal, fruity, floral, peaty, feinty, sulphury and woody. Others have come up with their own ways of explaining what you’re tasting. You might be able to taste everything from tobacco to chocolate to lemon peel to cinnamon.

Because smell is linked to memory, it’s often easier to note what the aromas remind you of rather than trying to pick up the exact aroma, or taste, you’re experiencing. That description will then allow you to hone in on the specific flavor.

As a whiskey drinker, you don’t really need to have the right vocabulary to describe what you’re experiencing  it’s still going to taste just as good. But, as a server, it’s very helpful to have these terms as you guide customers in their drink choices. Familiarize yourself with the language, the whiskeys you sell, and the most popular brands so that you can make informed recommendations, and won’t stumble over descriptions such as “rich and rounded” or “full-bodied and smoky”  you’ll know just what to suggest and how to talk about it!


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Ivana-Rnjak Ivana Rnjak is a Production Researcher and Content Writer at Typsy. A waitress and bartender in a previous life, Ivana is an aspiring academic with an unwavering love of brunch – no matter what Anthony Bourdain says!

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