Whisky flavors: What does whisky taste like?

A visual flavor map inspired by The Flavor Map by Dave Broom & Diageo Scotland Limited. Simplified for the beginner. Also see malts.com

Which flavors can you expect to taste in whisky?

Contrary to popular belief, you often cannot categorize a whisky’s flavor from its age or where it comes from. Although terroir and tradition often has an influence on style, each distillery can easily produce very different whiskies especially with todays modern techniques easily implemented.

How to read the flavor map

The above graph is a quick’n’dirty overview of the flavors in whisky if you try to divide them into categories.

Every whisky is different, and the above flavor map is a rough generalization only aimed to guide you within the main categories of whisky. You might pick up any of the above flavors in a whisky on the opposite side of the map– e.g. a floral and grassy note in a sherried peat monster of a whisky. Also, there’s a lot of more flavors you can pick up, but the rest of them are often more spread out amongst the categories.

Another note is, that the circles represent the category, where you are likely to find several of the category’s flavors – plus several of the neighboring categories’ flavors. When you cross the middle line towards smokyness, you’ll start getting hints of smoke.

Other typical flavors you get from whisky

The below smelling and tasting notes can be found in any whisky across the flavor map, which is why they are not included in it.

  • Honey or sirup
  • Citrus, lemon or lime
  • Oak
  • Malted barley
  • Orange peel
  • Pepper
  • Heather
  • Salt (no one knows why since there isn’t any salt in whisky, but you can clearly taste it in whiskies like Talisker or Old Pulteney)
  • Sherry or port
  • Sulphur (can be there intentionally or on rare occasions as the result of something went wrong in the production process)
  • Leather
  • White wine

There are many more but these are the ones I most often tend to find.

Also read: Whisky scores: How are whiskies rated?

Get your nose in it – Smelling whisky

It’s important to emphasize that you’ll get much more from smelling the whisky than tasting it. That’s because our palate is very limited, only able to taste sour, bitter, sweet, salty and umami, while our nose can differentiate between millions of combinations of stimuli.

Tip: Go with your first instinct

Nosing whisky is about finding what the smell reminds you of – not that the smells are actually in there. They didn’t ad apples to Glenfiddich 12 but it is one of the most common taste notes people give. And there’s no salt in Talisker but yet it clearly tastes salty. Just go with your gut. And try closing your eyes since that automatically enforces the sense of smell.

Also, if you have a hard time finding any of the above, try searching for one thing at a time. That can really help tune in your olfactory system (sense of smell). Happy nosing and tasting!


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