Whiskey flavors can be a conundrum in a glass. Whiskey is powerful, yet subtle. Spicy, yet sweet. And each glass is completely unique! Read the official tasting notes and you’ll see what we mean. Here’s a review for the most popular whisky in our database, Lagavulin 16: “Dry peat smoke fills the palate with a gentle but strong sweetness, followed by sea and salt with touches of wood”
So how do the experts tell so much from a humble glass of whiskey? The key is knowing what to look for and knowing how to categorize each of those subtle flavor notes into a broader context. Enter the Abov Flavor Compass:
One of our goals here at Abov is to help make whiskey more approachable. The goal of the Flavor Compass is to help any whiskey drinker ‘place’ the flavors in their glass, nose, and mouth into a broader context. Where an expert taster may be able to taste a note as specific as ‘dark cherries’, the average whiskey drinker may be able to place that flavor as ‘fruit’ and they’d be right!
We ran through nearly 1,000 professional and amateur reviews to compile this flavor compass. Read on to learn a little more about the different flavor categories and what flavor notes are most common.
From anise to vanilla and everything in between, spice can be found in almost any whiskey. It is often most easily identified on the nose and immediately when the whiskey hits the palate,
Sweet flavors can be hard to pick out specifically, but it’s more about the mouthfeel. Sweet flavors can feel either light, like honey, or thick, like cream or butter.
Fruity flavors come across in a multitude of ways. Citrus fruits, like orange or lemon, are sharp and a little tangy while orchard fruits, like apple or pear, can be more mellow and slightly sweet.
Vegetal / Herbal
The most famous and obvious vegetal flavor is peat, which is ubiquitous in many scotch whiskies. Other more subtle vegetal flavors are floral like tea or herbal like mint. Look for these flavors on the back of the palate and in the finish.
Woody flavors are the gift of the aging process. Barrel flavors like oak, maple, or cedar can give whiskey a robust feel and a tannic finish that makes the mouth pucker. Syrup and resin also fall into this category, and bring a sweetness to the palate.
Smoke, ash, fire. Elemental flavors are often found with what’s left on the palate when the whiskey is gone and only the finish remains.
Powerful and pervasive flavors, distinct notes often dominate the whiskey they’re found in; but can otherwise defy categorization. A whiskey that tastes leathery or medicinal is certainly distinct!
Roasted flavors are often extensions on other core flavor categories. Sweet, herbal, and grainy flavors can all be altered to give a warm ‘roasted’ impression in a whiskey.
Grain / Cereal
The backbone of any whiskey is the core grain. Running throughout a whiskey drinking experience, grains can differ from a spicy rye to a sweet corn to hearty barley.