Become a whisky expert in 15 minutes

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Plus: two exclusive distillery tours to be won

May sees the return of our annual Whisky Festival. Once again we’ll be celebrating all things whisky with a perfect blend of tasting events, dining experiences and even a chance to win a VIP distillery tour. But even if you aren’t flying through Heathrow, you needn’t miss out. Here’s how to impress your friends with your whisky knowledge (as well as a home-mixed cocktail or three).

Ready to be an expert?

Charles MacLean

Whisky is acknowledged to be the most complex spirit in the world. It takes great skill to make, and a long time to mature, so it rewards contemplation and proper appreciation.

Whilst it may take 15 years or more for some whiskies to reach their full maturity, we can turn you into a connoisseur in just 15 minutes. Let’s hear from Charles MacLean, a leading expert and World of Whiskies‘ chief adviser.


Flavour is a combination of smell and taste. Much of the assessment and appreciation of whisky is done with the nose, so it is essential that the glass you use has a bowl (so the liquid can be swirled and warmed in the hand) and a rim which narrows (so as to direct the aroma to your nose).


Two glasses of whisky
Colours range from pale gold to deep amber

The first stage of appreciation is to look at the colour of the liquid, which will range from pale gold to deep amber. The colour comes from the casks in which the spirit has been matured. If you like, you can then swirl the liquid and consider the droplets which slide down the glass, called ‘legs’. Slow, thick legs suggest the whisky will have a big texture; fast, thin legs indicate a lighter style.


Swirl the liquid in the glass and sniff it. Your first impression is likely to be simply ‘whisky’, but sniff further. Does it have any physical effect – prickly, warming, cooling?
Try to distinguish groups or layers of aroma: are there any cereal/malty notes? Fruity notes (fresh, dry, tinned, cooked, citric)? Floral notes? Peaty/smoky/medicinal notes? Woody notes (vanilla, oak)? Do any of these scents remind you of anything? Add a drop of water and try again.


‘Evaluation by mouth’ is usually done at reduced strength, after you’ve added water. Hold the liquid in your mouth for longer than usual and first assess its texture (smooth, creamy, acerbic, etc.). Then note the distribution of primary tastes: sweet (front of tongue), sour/acidic, salty (sides of tongue), bitter/dry (back of tongue. ‘Smoky’ — not a primary taste — is also registered here). Note the length of finish (short, medium, long) and any aftertaste.


Set the glass aside, then return to it after 10 minutes and see how the aroma and taste have changed. Sit back and simply enjoy it without analysis.

Whisky cocktails to try at home

Boulevardier cocktail

60ml whisky, 60ml Campari, 60ml sweet vermouth, ice, orange slice for garnish
Combine the whisky, Campari and sweet vermouth in a cocktail shaker and fill it halfway with ice. Stir until the outside of the shaker is frosted, about 30 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with the orange twist. Serves 2.

Pear Fizz cocktail

Muddle 1tbsp tarragon with 60ml whisky and 1 teaspoon brown sugar. Add 300ml pear juice and shake over ice. Strain into coupe glasses and top with prosecco. Garnish with a slice of pear and a sprig of tarragon. Serves 2.

Enjoy a cocktail at Heathrow

Whisky Festival mixes from airport restaurants and bars.

Competition Time

Glenlivet distillery

For this year’s Whisky Festival we have not one but two VIP distillery tours to be won.

To this day, The Glenlivet remains the benchmark that all other Speyside single malts are measured against. If you are lucky enough to win, you will be able to see the distillation process in action, indulge in a whisky tasting and truly immerse yourself in the oldest legal distillery in the parish of the River Livet.

Enter Glenlivet competition

An unconventional Speyside distiller, BenRiach creates a ‘troika’ of styles — unpeated, peated and triple distilled — and holds some of the region’s most experimental casks. Small wonder the BenRiach team have nicknamed the distillery ‘The Lab’.

Enter BenRiach competition


Whisky glasses

Heathrow’s Whisky Experience

Celebrate the wonderful world of whisky with us. Our May festival brings you sampling events, whisky-inspired dining, special offers and more.

Whisky Festival events

Order whisky to collect at Heathrow

Please drink responsibly, and remember that you must be 18 or over to buy whisky in the United Kingdom.