How To Taste Whisky

You have to trust that a man with a nickname like the "Godfather of Whisky" knows a thing or two about how to best taste the spirit.

Dan Tullio is the brand ambassador for Canadian Club and has been with the company for more than 30 years. He can talk whisky. He'll tell you about the brand's unique proprietary pre-barrel blending process — a technique that the distillery has been using since it was founded in 1858, and the key to the spirit's smooth, velvety quality. And why whisky should be tasted in clear, stemmed, tulip-shaped glasses. And even what flavor notes you should be identifying on the different parts of your palate. 

We recently caught up with the expert for a primer on how to properly taste whisky.


1. Determine the tasting order. When evaluating a group of different whiskies, the order in which you taste them is important. Tullio notes that you should start by tasting the "lightest" whisky and work up to the one with the most aggressive flavor profile. So, for example, a tasting of Canadian Club whiskies would start with their six-year-old variety and move on to the 10-year-old, then the 12, and finish with the the flavorful eight-year-old variety that is finished in Sherry casks. 


2. The glassware matters. Tasting glasses should be short, tulip-shaped, and stemmed. You want the glass to be clear, Tullio explains, so that you can hold it up to the light and check the color and clarity of the whisky — you want to make sure the liquid isn't cloudy, it should be clear and sparkle. Another small detail not to be overlooked? The glasses should be washed with a good, neutral soap that won't impart any flavor to the spirit.


3. Evaluate the aroma. The importance of the shape of the glass really comes into play when evaluating the aroma of the whisky. "Cup the underside of the bulb, and warm the spirit by gently swirling it in the glass. As it warms, the volatiles come up and it allows you to better describe the aroma — the fruits, spices, and earthy tones."


4. Add a little water. While Tullio admits that this practice isn't universally adopted, he believes that adding a little good quality, room temperature water to the spirit — about ¼ ounce of water to two ounces of whisky — helps it open up. "I think diluting the whisky with a little water can help you better describe the whisky — at full strength your tongue can get numb," he says.


5. Describe the taste. When tasting, focus on what you taste on different parts of your tongue — sweetness on the front, bitterness and a little burn on the back, a zesty, prickly sensation on the sides. "Then concentrate on the finish," he says. "Is it dry? Is there a lingering oak finish? Strong, fruity? Go through each mark."


6. Keep palate cleansers handy. Tullio advises always having unsalted crackers and water on hand to eat and drink between tasting different varieties so that your palate doesn't get overwhelmed.