Each bottle of whiskey has its own distinct character so grouping them into flavor profiles, like wine, makes it easier to talk about them. How do you taste a whiskey to know what flavor profile it belongs to? Take a small measure of whiskey in a glass and stick your nose in it. Flavor is made of both aroma and taste. What scents do you pick up? Once you’ve visualized the smells, taste it. You’ll notice many of the aromas you’ve already identified but you’ll also want to concentrate on how the whiskey feels in your mouth. Does it coat your tongue and feel thick? Is it mouth-filling and refreshing? Once you’ve gone through all this, add a splash of water and repeat the process. There are several flavor profiles which are regularly referred to. I like Dave Broom’s descriptions the best and we’ll discuss them now.
“Smoky & Peaty” has a range of different aromas – soot, tar, smoked bacon, burning leather, wood smoke. It comes from burning peat when the malt is being dried. You’ll notice a slightly oily texture with a ‘sweet spot’ on the palate. Try young peaty whiskies mixed with soda and save older, richer examples as a stand alone after dinner.
“Fragrant & Floral” smell kind of like fresh-cut flowers, even fruit blossoms, or light green fruits such as pears, apples or melons. To taste they are slightly sweet, light, with a trace of acidity. These whiskies are great served chilled from the fridge and as an aperitif (drink taken before a meal to stimulate the palate).
“Fruity & Spicy” whiskies indicate ripe orchard or exotic fruits such as peaches, apricots, or mangos mixed with flavors of vanilla or coconut. The spiciness hits you on the finish and often tastes like nutmeg or cinnamon. These are considered a good choice for drinking under any circumstance.
“Malty & Dry” whiskies smell crisp, sometimes like cookies but often like breakfast cereal and nuts. This crispness is rounded out usually with a sweet oak flavor. These make for great breakfast whiskies, if you are so inclined.
“Rich & Round” whiskies tend towards dried fruits such as raisins, dates or figs, indicative of the use of European-oak ex-sherry casks. The oak casks often also distill tannins into the whisky that gives it a slightly dry feeling in the mouth. These deep whiskies are sometimes meaty and sometimes sweet. Either way, these are best as after dinner drams.
“Soft corn” is indicative of a Kentucky, Tennessee or Canadian whiskey because corn is the main cereal used in them. It means there is a sweet scent to it and an almost buttery, juicy quality on the tongue. These are good at any time.
“Sweet Wheat” is when bourbon distillers use wheat instead of rye and this adds a gentle, mellow sweetness to the taste. Bourbons of this kind lend themselves to idle afternoons.
“Rich & Oaky” in reference to bourbon references the fact that all bourbon must be aged in new-oak barrels. This aging provide vanilla, coconut, cherry or sweet spice smells and tastes. The longer the bourbon is aged, the richer these will be and can often lead to flavors like leather and tobacco. Younger bourbons of this kind are good in mixed drinks, try it in an old fashioned. Older versions are best kept for after dinner.
“Spicy Rye” appears late on the palate, adding an acidic spiciness that will wake you up. The rye itself lends an intense or sharp perfumed smell or even sometimes like a loaf of rye bread. These are good during any afternoon or evening, after meals.
Broom, Dave. 2010. The World Atlas of Whisky. Octopus Publishing Group Ltd.