Pointers From an Expert: How To Taste Whisky

Hugh Thomas

About seven years ago, Cesar da Silva, now whisky sommelier and bar manager at the Capital Hotel in Knightsbridge, met Iain McCallum at the Auchentoshan Distillery in Scotland.

McCallum turned to Cesar and said, “If I ever met an Alan Sugar of whisky at your age, it would have been you.” From that point onwards, as Cesar says, he has “dedicated everything he can towards whisky.” Cesar is one of the mere 2,180 people in the world that are members of the elite society known as the Keepers of the Quaich.

He is also the youngest sommelier to ever receive the honour in the UK, which is regarded as the whisky industry’s most prodigious. It’s so exclusive, in fact, that you cannot be nominated twice.

At the Capital Hotel in Knightsbridge, not a stone’s throw from Harrods, I’m hoping learn a thing or two about whisky tasting. Given Cesar’s experience in the field, I’m beginning to think I might not go home empty handed.

In the mood

First off, as Cesar tells me, “It is imperative to establish the mood of the individual.” That means a drink must be selected to match the mood of the palate, as the same whisky can have a very different taste at different times of the day.

In other words, there’s a good chance that, one evening, you enjoy the whisky you detested earlier the same afternoon. Believe it or not, the same goes for your location. “If a room is to change, than the taste of whisky will as well. If there were purple orchids next to us on the table, then your brain will see that and will colour your perception and your mind could be that much more open.”

Experienced judges, it would seem, are no exception to the rule. “If a panel of judges came in, say, from a thunderstorm, and all under the same conditions, then it is likely that they will all fall for the same drink. So each drink will best suit a particular occasion.”



For a beginner with a burning sensation in their throat, such a noticeable variation in taste might seem a bit of a luxury. “At first, people should know that the burning is normal, as it is normal to be shocked when your brain encounters something new. That is not to say there is something wrong with the liquid or the person, but we do know we need to establish an explore zone.”

One way to do this is to introduce an ingredient that will help break the barrier between the person and the liquid. “This could be a chocolate, a digestive biscuit, a cheese, certain spices, or many other things that will compliment the whisky’s flavour and open up to you a completely new world.” Consequently, when the drink is revisited at a later time, the initial ‘shock’ experienced at first taste will begin to dissipate.

The tasting process

By this point you may have noticed that Cesar’s best employed tactic, as any other sommelier’s should be, is to gently ease the person into the tasting. As part of the experience, a ‘mapping of the palate’ is one of the initial steps Cesar will take the taster through.

This involves talking with him about what the taster’s previous experiences with whisky have been like, whether they have been enjoyable or not, and why. “Otherwise, people might never understand why they did or didn’t like a certain liquid, and if the latter, would certainly be reluctant to ever try it again.”

But too much talk and not enough whisky is a bad thing, because with an excess of discussion, the palate will become extremely dry, and an overwhelming of the senses by the whisky is inevitable. “This is not a good introduction. In order to warm up the palate, I might give you some light flavours such as bread, marmalade, chutney, or maybe some apple before the whisky is sipped.”

Apple, by the way, is one of the best things to clean up a palate. “Then the drinker will be able to refer to his or her original thoughts – was that like the initial stiffness you experienced? Was that like the one you thought was too alcoholic?”

After the reintroduction comes the cheese – the perfect accompaniment to the sweetness of the whisky. Perfect in that they both age well, and are fairly limitless in terms of variety. “In my opinion, cheese is the most diverse food there is – you can get any type of cheese matured in barrels of cider, apple juice, rum, and just about every other type of liquid you can think of. Much like in life, two strong characters will either go together extremely well, or they’ll clash. In this case, cheese and whisky go extremely well.”



Next will be a medium style whisky. “That is to say something like an ex-bourbon finish, or an ex-bourbon and cherry finish – something quite sweet and not at all aggressive. And that goes with a 3-6 month-old cheddar which again is delicious and won’t attack the palate.”

The important thing about the middle stage is that it’s still within your comfort zone. It’s not until the next step that you try something you’re really going to go home with. “This last drink will be one to remember in that the taste of this whisky will be like an explosion of flavours, because your palate will be more used to a whisky you tried before but did not enjoy.”

As the tasting experience winds down, one may want to leisurely finish their drink, listen to one of Cesar’s many anecdotes of grandeur, perhaps mop-up the palate with some apple, or settle with another for the road. Either way, I wouldn’t for a second count on walking out of the Capital in too much of a hurry.

Whisky Tasting Etiquette

Cesar’s guide to how to taste whisky

In order to make a serious judgement, it’s wise to taste each whisky at three different occasions, and only when surrounded by the same conditions. For example, you must not alter the type of glass, atmosphere, temperature, or environment, as that will affect your palate’s references.


“First,” says Cesar, “You will taste a lot with your eyes. You learn a great deal by the deepness of the colour and the creaminess of it, and what to expect when it reaches the tongue.”


“Then, when you smell, it is important not to take too much of a whiff, as your senses will get shattered and your palate will become cramped.” Likewise, it would seem, with the quality of the glass. A narrow glass with a thinner rim is advised, as the vapours from the liquid are better contained and will not as readily escape through the nose.


“Often my first interaction with a new drink is in the palms of my hands. You spin the glass with your palm over the top of the glass to catch some of the flavours, and only then might I decide to gradually dip into the glass.”


“When you taste you have to be aware that this is going to be a complex product, so you need to give it enough time in the mouth each sip you take, holding it for 5-10 seconds, before gently letting it down the throat. That’s when you really start to pick up the different flavours.”


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