The right size and shape if glass is vital, and makes a huge difference to one's ability to nose effectively. Traditionally whisky tumblers are hopeless. They were designed for drinking whisky and soda - for which they are fine. What is requierd is a 'snifter' which allows you to swirl the spirit and gather the aromas around the rim. A sherry copita or a small brandy balloon are ideal. The trade use a 'spirits nosing glass', made of crystal, for sharpness and clarity, often calibrated in fluid ounces so you can tell at what strength you are nosing it - eg, if the sample is at 60% ABV and you pour one ounce, then dilute up to the two ounce mark, the drink is now at 40% ABV. 'Black' glasses (they are really dark blue) of a similar style are useful for blind tastings, where you want to hide the colour of the spirit.
Whisky at proof strength anaesthetises the nose and sears the tongue, rendering you incapable of evaluating the sample. Almost all whiskies benefit from the addition of water which, with most whiskies, 'opens up' the spirit by breaking down the ester chains and freeing the volatile aromatics.
Very occasionally, one encounters a whisky whose virtues are better displayed neat. Outside the tasting room, many people prefer to drink their after-dinner malts straight - with sound medical justification. In these cases your own saliva acts as the dilutant, and they should be sipped in very small amounts. Blenders nose at 20% ABV, but this can drown some whiskies which tend to 'break up' with too much water. I once tasted a very special blend called 'The 500' made to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the first recorded mention of Scotch, and selling for £500 a bottle. Although I added only a small amount of water, it was too much and the £50's worth of whisky in my glass was rendered worthless. It is always best to add water a little at a time until any nose prickle has disappeared and the sample has fully opened up.
The water you use to dilute the strength of your dram should be still and not too high in minerals. True afficionados will use the water used in the production of the individual whisky they are tasting. This is often difficult to come by, although I know a man who regularly exchanges a litre of Glenlivet spring water for half a bottle of whisky, so much is it esteemed. Scottish water is predominantly soft, so if your local tap water has a suspicious taste, is heavily recycled or chlorinated, your best plan is to use plain bottled water from Scotland. At professional tastings, distilled water is used.
The ideal temperature at which whisky should be drunk varies according to the climate of the country in which you are drinking it. However, for the purposes of tasting malt whisky, it is best appreciated at the equivalent room temperature of an old-fashioned Scottish parlour (however difficult to recreate in these days of central heating, and hermetic glazing). In other words, you should nose at about 15ºC. Chilled whisky does not readily yield up its aromas and the addition of ice will close them down altogether. On the other hand, warming the glass in the hand - as one does with brandy - helps to release the volatiles in the spirit, especially when the sample you are tasting is neat.
This guide to holding a Tasting Event is an extract from the book Malt Whisky by Charles Maclean, published by Mitchell Beazley
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