What Does Scotch Taste Like? All About the Spirit’s Flavors from Taster's Club
If you’re just getting into drinking Scotch, or even if you’re a seasoned pro, you might be curious about what goes into the drink’s flavor profile and why Scotch can taste quite different from one to the next. Here, we’ll answer all your burning questions, like what does Scotch taste like, along with how to assess the complex spirit’s many flavors.
Where Scotch Comes From
Scotch comes from Scotland and its six main Scotch whisky regions or subregions that have their own unique approach to crafting the historic spirit. These include:
- Islands (though not recognized by the Scotch Whisky Association, the Islands still produce some amazing Scotch).
Assessing Flavors When Drinking Taster's Club Scotch
Scotch is a complex liquor and comes with many flavors. To properly experience these flavors as they were intended, it’s important to follow these steps.
Now, don’t just pour that Scotch into any glass. To bring out the flavors as intended, you’ll want to choose a glass that tapers at the top, like a ‘tulip’ glass or snifter. In it, pour 1-1.5 ounces of Scotch. Swirl it gently, which will release vapors and show its viscosity.
When it comes to Scotch whiskey, part of experiencing the full flavor is physically smelling, or “nosing”, the drink as well as tasting it. This is because it literally contains hundreds of thousands of volatile compounds that can only be identified by smell. Follow these steps to properly nose your Scotch:
- Place your nose about one inch above your glass’ rim and tilt the glass toward your face.
- Slowly breathe in, but pull the glass back if you feel a burn or tickle in your nose.
- If you’re not smelling too much, move your nose further into the glass or tilt the Scotch closer to you.
- Focus on what you smell and try to identify each individual aroma (or “note”).
- Try adjusting the glass in different positions for about a minute or two so that you can smell all of the aromas while swirling the liquid once in a while to release even more volatile compounds.
Don’t sip too much at first - just enough to cover the top of your tongue - and hold it before swallowing for about 10 seconds. If it burns, which it will for newbies to straight alcohol, you’ll find this will dissipate after a few moments. At this point, you’ll start to taste the Scotch’s sweetness. Swirl it around, this time covering your entire tongue, and notice the different flavors before swallowing.
After you’ve held the Scotch for at least 10 seconds before swallowing, you should find that it goes down smooth without burning. Breathe slowly out of your mouth and observe the flavors that linger throughout your entire mouth. This is what’s referred to as “finish”, which can last from a few seconds to hours. Breathe in gently and note the aromas that you’re “tasting” on that finish.
What Affects a Scotch’s Flavors?
Region or Environment
The region, physical location and actual distillery in which a Scotch is produced greatly influence the flavor profile of the final product. This includes the weather, natural environment to which oak casks are exposed, and water quality.
The ingredients that go into a Scotch are another major determinant of its flavors. The more obvious and basic flavors come from the grain recipe, including those that are malty, sweet, peppery, and creamy. Different types of Scotch call for different combinations of grain — for example, blended Scotch contains both malt and grain whiskies. That said, distillers are often able to tweak grain recipes to produce a particular flavor profile. Besides grain, using peat in the Scotch malting process to dry barley has a huge effect on the spirit’s flavor profile. Peat gives a distinct, smoky flavor which Scotch is known for.
Processes and Techniques
The distilling process and techniques are another factor that highly affects the flavor of Scotch. Yeast gives flavor during the fermentation process, so distillers use various strains depending on the flavor they’re going for. As well, the still sizes and how often the spirit is distilled affect flavor — you’ll get fruity, light notes when more contact with copper stills is made. Other processing factors include equipment quality, distilling regulations of the region or state, and skills of the distillers.
Aging or Maturation
Longer aging doesn’t necessarily mean better quality, since aging at a Scotch’s peak point can mean some of it evaporates without leaving improved flavor. However, aging or maturation in oak casks does have a huge impact on what you’ll taste once a Scotch is ready to pour.
Scotch can be aged in either new or used casks. Since bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak casks, they’re often reused for Scotch aging, along with port and sherry casks. This means some of the notes of the previously stored spirit linger and are imparted onto the Scotch being stored. For example, the white American oak casks that bourbon sits in give cherry, spice and vanilla notes, while the European oak of wine casks leave orange and clove notes behind. As well, when casks are charred, impurities are filtered out and toasty, caramelized notes and color are released.
A cask’s size also plays a role in Scotch flavor. The smaller they are, the more the liquid gets exposed to wood which lets oxygen through and helps soften harsher flavors. The liquid contracts and expands over different seasons, taking in more or less of the wood’s qualities depending on time of year.
Taste These Top Scotches from Taster’s Club
Here's a rundown of some of our curator's top Scotch picks:
Kilkerran 12-Year-Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky
The lightly-peated Kilkerran 12-Year-Old single malt has a coastal influence in its tasting notes, much like Campbeltown malts in general. Many consist of grassy, leathery and oily flavors.
This single malt is similar and gives a sweet, creamy character of marzipan, lemon curd and cinnamon scones followed by chalk, smoke and peat. It finishes with coated, long and dry notes of pepper, oak, anise and lemon zest. This whisky is balanced off well with bright, citrus fruit notes, too.
Old Particular Ben Nevis 12-Year-Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Founded in 1825 as one of Scotland’s oldest distilleries, Ben Nevis makes a peated malt that isn’t released too often on its own but rather goes into blends.
The Old Particular line features hand-picked single casks with no coloring or chill-filtration. This 12-year-old full-bodied single malt brings zesty, fresh lime and pepper, cream soda, and toasted wood aromas with a rich, dark chocolate, orange and pistachio taste. You’ll get a long, satisfying finish of malted barley, peanuts and caramel.
Gordon & MacPhail Connoisseurs Choice Caol Ila 2002 Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Caol ila whiskies are known for a distinct peaty smokiness unique to the Islay region. Gordon & MacPhail’s tall copper pot stills produce a light spirit that matures well in both their sherry and bourbon casks.
In this caol ila single malt, you’ll get toasted cereal, caramelized banana and lemon peel aromas, along with green apple, vanilla and a slight smokiness. You’ll taste melon, apple, banana, pear and black pepper, along with peat smoke, charred oak and a bit of sea salt. The whisky finishes with a citrusy, salty edge and lingers with more peat smoke.
Bladnoch Samsara Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Bladnoch uses small copper pot stills, as many Highland distillers do, to create their rich, flavorful spirits. Rather than double-distillation, they triple it and use unpeated barley to bring a zesty lightness, somewhat like an Irish whiskey.
The Samsara single malt is aged in ex-red wine barrels and bourbon casks and delivers a rich, creamy texture with citrusy, apple, vanilla and floral aromas. On the palate, you’ll get candy, vanilla fudge, butterscotch, peanut brittle and candied citrus along with floral and freshly cut grass. The whisky gives a medium finish along with refreshing citrus and a bit of pepper.
Now that you see how Scotch gets its wonderfully varied flavor profiles and how each tastes distinctly different from the next, why not try some for yourself? A membership from Taster’s Club is a great way to try different Scotches to see what you like, and the best part is you’ll get a new one delivered right to your doorstep each month.