The Scottish Whiskey Taste Test

Master of Malt Iain McCallum explains how to break down complex flavors and tell the difference between the perfectly aged and the merely old.

As Global Master of Malt at Scotland’s Morrison Bowmore Distillers, Iain McCallum has the enviable job of tasting aged whisky to decide whether or not it’s ready to go from cask to bottle. His major qualification for the job – those years as a distiller aside – is an extraordinarily sensitive olfactory epithelium. Tasting, he says, is something you do with your nose and eyes.

“The olfactory epithelium contains ten million flavor receptors which are constantly regenerated by the human body,” McCallum explains. “Some days the left nostril is more powerful than the right and vice versa.”

McCallum has to know when he’s having a right nostril day because his is sensitive work and he doesn’t trust his mouth. He says that he can’t tell the difference between grated onion and chopped apple if he holds his nose and shuts his eyes. No one can, which is why he recommends that would-be liquor tasters try this test: Add some green food coloring to orange juice, give it to a friend, and ask them what it is. Most will stammer. In McCallum’s experience, few guess right.

When you’re testing draughts of $200-a-bottle Auchentoshan, it pays to understand exactly how you’re experiencing the four whiskey tastes: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Age changes the consistency, color, and taste profile of whiskey in unpredictable ways, so differentiating between batches requires comparing disparate elements of the experience as well as the overall impression. McCallum estimates that casks – Scottish Whiskies must be aged for at least three years – are responsible for 50 to 60 percent of scotches’ final flavors.

That number is indicative of the fact that whiskey age is both extraordinarily important and occasionally irrelevant. If your whiskey is aged in a great oak barrel, than those extra years matter. If it’s aged in a lazily smoked barrel, than those twenty years aren’t going to make much of a difference. And unlike McCallum, most drinkers aren’t going to get to actually see the cask.

“Drink flavor,” says McCallum. “Not age.”

The best way to do that is to break down the drinking experience into its constituent parts and compare it to others you’ve enjoyed. Here’s McCallum’s process. It’s the perfect way to find out which whiskeys you really like and which whiskeys you enjoyed that one time.


Photo: Getty Images 

Check out the color, which McCallum says, “can give an indication of the wood used to mature the whisky.” Darker shades are not necessarily an indication of age. Generally, they’re a giveaway that the whiskey was aged in a sherry cask. The tannins that darken the clear liquor also dry it out, creating a richer, fruitier taste. Lighter whiskeys, on the other hand, “tend to show more vanilla and creamy characteristics associated with Bourbon cask maturation.” If you can see through your whiskey, expect oak lactone flavors, which are actually sweeter smells that – if you could separate them out – would resemble toffee.


Photo: Grand Tour / Corbis 

“Take a few short sniffs and then take your nose away from the glass and allow your nose to gently recover from the anesthetic properties of the alcohol,” recommends McCallum.  “Return to the glass and repeat this several times.  Gradually you will become less aware of the alcohol notes and begin to see the depth of flavor and complexity of the whisky.” McCallum further recommends that tasters keep their mouths open to promote the flow of air. That guy with his nose buried in the drink? He’s got no idea what he’s doing.


Photo: Getty Images

“Take a small sip then roll the whisky in the mouth like a mouthwash,” says McCallum, then swallow the whisky and let your palate get used to the alcohol. Repeat the process, but on the second go-round “open your lips slightly and draw in some air.” The intake buoys the flavor up the esophagus to the epithelium. Know that you’re getting the entire effect of the drink, try to local the areas of your palate most sensitized and the four primary tastes. Once you’ve got a handle on all that, you’ll have basically drawn a taste map. You’ll know how you got to enjoyment and you’ll know how to get back.