Anyone who has ever been to a whisky tasting or on a distillery tour will know that sinking feeling you get when someone asks you for your response to a whisky and you can’t think of anything to say. Brand ambassadors and educators might tell us that ‘there is no right or wrong answer’ but I’ve said enough ill-judged comments to know that this isn’t strictly true.

But help is at hand! Put away all those Dave Broom books and don’t bother with the WSET because I have put together a brief guide to sounding like a whisky expert. Just memorise the following, and amaze your friends with your new-found whisky knowledge. 

Man evaluating a glass of whisky

Hold your glass like this

All purpose comments

These are for when you’re put on the spot and can’t think of anything to say. They work in pretty any circumstances rather like using ‘that would be an ecumenical matter’ in Father Ted. Once you’ve mastered these phrases, we’ve moved on to how you can describe whisky which makes you sound like you know what you’re talking about.

It’s a bit closed at the moment, I’ll see if water will bring it to life. 

This is the best holder comment you can make. It sounds like you’re really experienced but at the same time you don’t have to commit to anything. Warning though, you can’t keep using it, at some point you’re going to have to say something committal.

I think it would be better bottled at a higher strength

Unless the whisky in question is cask strength, this one never fails. You can add something about how a higher strength would bring out the flavours more.

Right, you’ve put it off for long enough, you’re going to have to put your reputation on the line and try to describe what is in the glass.

Tasting tips

Be really specific

Don’t say honey, say Greek lavender honey. Don’t say orange, say Seville orange. Don’t say coffee, say freshly-brewed Italian roast ristretto. Don’t say smoke, say distant bonfires on a chilly autumn evening on Skye with your brother’s ex-wife. You get the idea. The more specific the better. 

Be really vague

Oddly the opposite approach will also mark you down as a true expert. Don’t say peach, say stone fruit. Don’t say apple, say orchard fruit. Don’t say, cinnamon or nutmeg, say baking spices.

Useful words to use

Vanilla – this never fails, pretty much all whisky will have some flavour of vanilla in there.

Nuts – see above and then you can initiate a competitive specificity content over those nuts. For example, toasted salted almonds like you get in a cafe in Jerez. In April. 

Christmas cake – if there’s sherry involved anywhere in the production process, then this should have everyone nodding around the table.

Esters – esters are flavour compounds that produce fruity (and other) flavours. So rather than say fruity, say ‘fruity esters’. People will think you’re a total pro, or a total something anyway.

Phenols – These are aromatic compounds found in peated whiskies, so rather than saying peaty say ‘phenolic’. 

Rancio – high risk as someone who knows what rancio actually means might pick you up on it but most don’t. Also sounds really cool. If the whisky is an old one, you can’t fail.

How to sound like a whisky expert

Fruit esters being formed at Auchentoshan

And finally, here are two questions to ask to make you sound like a real aficionado.

Clever questions to ask

What kind of sherry was used to season the cask? 

The word sherry cask is used a lot but drilling down into PX or oloroso will mark you down as a real pro. You can take this to the next level by asking whether the sherry cask is Spanish or American oak. This also works for Madeira and, if you’re feeling particularly nerdy, Marsala, almost all blenders will be stumped by these last two questions. Other great cask areas for discussion include levels of char, varieties of oak, and what percentage the spirit goes into the barrel.

How long was the fermentation? 

And then follow it up with: ‘what kind of yeast was used?’ and ‘were the washbacks wooden or stainless steel?’ This shows that you are extremely knowledgeable about the whisky-making process. Even better, after initiating a fermentation discussion, smile, nod and mutter to yourself something about ‘fruity esters’ with your nose planted firmly in the glass. Everyone will be very impressed. 

If you really want to learn how to be a whisky expert, then our whisky guides are a good place to start.