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Tasting Scotch whisky from Islay (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

How to Drink Whisky

It smelled like bacon.

I was afraid to say it out loud, though—I doubt any real food and drink connoisseurs compare the smell of some grand old Scotch to an everyday pork product, but that’s what my nose captured.

In the heart of Edinburgh, in a room walled with brass- and bronze-colored bottles, I sniffed more and more whisky and soon captured a whole rainbow of aromas: cloves, apples, vanilla, sage and strawberries. And that smokiness I smelled as bacon? That comes from the Scottish peat they burn when heating the mix.

Not everyone loves whisky, but as alcohol goes, this bright and golden drink offers a rich taste of the land from whence it comes. Real Scotch Whisky is made with malted barley and pure Scottish water, and to qualify as Scotch, it must be aged for a minimum of three years on Scottish soil.

The range of personality in Scotch is so fascinating and explains why 90% of whisky is sold in blends as opposed to single malt (Glenfiddich is the world’s largest seller of single malt Scotch in the world).

Today, there are 107 different whisky distilleries in Scotland today and none of them make the same product. Like good wine or cheese, the individual peculiarities of Scotch bring out a thousand subjective qualities in every sip. In order to understand those differences, I spent the afternoon in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle, practically bathing in whisky.

Though I am an unseasoned traveler in the world of whisky, I sought the help of a professional guide—Angela Kier, the Deputy General Manager of the Scotch Whisky Experience. Angela grew up with Scotch, surrounded by distilleries and the culture of drinking Scotch in Scotland. After showing me the world’s largest collection of Scotch Whisky (3,384 bottles), she taught me how to drink Scotch in these five easy steps:

1. LOOK See the color of the liquid—this is part of the whisky’s personality. New whisky is clear, but gains its color from the oak barrels used during maturation. Color can range from brassy yellow to golden reds or a pale sunshine. The color of Scotch hints at how it was made.

2. SWIRL With your hand on the bottom of a round tasting glass, swirl the whisky until it coats the sides. Look for the “legs”—the drips of liquid pulling back down into the glass. Watch how quickly the legs run down the side of the glass—this reveals how light the whisky is. Some whisky is very light, with lots of legs (an indication of light flavor), while others can be viscous or oily indicating an older, heavier-bodied whisky. A very thick whisky will coat the glass like the golden silhouette of Scottish mountains.

3. NOSE Tasting whisky is an olfactory experience, so in order to capture all the nuance of flavor, you must “nose” the whisky. “Smell with your mouth open,” counsels Angela, explaining how it offers a fuller nose. “At first you might just get the alcohol. Adding a splash of water releases the aromas.” Bring the glass back and forth—nose it deeply again and again. “Whisky is a sensory experience, so get your nose right up in the glass!” says Angela, who told me that anyone can learn to nose whisky. “The best way to improve your sense of smell is to smell everything.” This allows your brain to create a kind of encyclopedia of scents. (My brain smells bacon.)

4. TASTE When you’re ready to drink, let the whisky coat the palate. “Some are creamy and smooth, others light and fruity,” explains Angela. Adding water releases aromas, adding ice will lock them in. “There are a lot of ‘rules’ about adding water, but don’t pay any attention to that. Different brands react differently to water, so find out what you like. The important thing is to just enjoy your whisky.” Also, remember to say Slàinte Mhath! (Good Health)

5. FINISH “Finish” does not mean tossing back your drink like real men do in the movies. Rather, the finish is the whisky’s grand finale where you feel the flavor and tempo of the drink. “Once you’ve swallowed, see how long it stays with you. Scotch whisky can be quick and short or it can be very long and warming.”

Perhaps most important of all, Angela advised me to never drink whisky alone. “Whisky is a drink for sharing—that’s what we do in Scotland, we share one another’s whisky. It warms you up when you’re walking in the hills!”

Like all food (and travel), whisky is also very personal. “My grandparents used to heat their farm with peat,” she told me, “so it’s a fond childhood memory that I get every time I taste a good peaty whisky.” Whisky is like that—it carries a lot of personal meaning and says much about who we are as individuals. This is probably why I smelled bacon—some of my fondest memories involve bacon.

But now some of my fondest memories involve Scotland, which is what I will think of every time I see a bottle of Scotch.