Tasting whisky: not sympathy, but understanding
Agreed, it’s the time of year for it. The wind lifted a tile or two off the roof last week, and since then armfuls of rain have been slapping about the house and, I fear, sprinkling the cumulus of orange mineral fibre which fills the attic and pretends to insulate us from the winter cold. Let’s move swiftly to insulation of a different sort...
In the last month, I’ve twice blind-tasted fifteen or sixteen whiskies. The first time, for a Speyside comparative (an edited version of the orignal FT article is now up in the ‘articles’ section of this site), and the second time, to look at the Johnnie Walker family against some of their peers (this appears in the FT Weekend edition of 18/19 January).
These are the hardest tastings of all. Tasting whisky is logistically, physically and sensorially far more strenuous than tasting wine. First of all, the contenders are all bottled at different strengths (40%, 43%, 46% and every oddment in between) and getting them into identical glasses at identical strengths using little splashes of Scottish spring water is complex. (To taste blind, you need an assistant to do this for you, of course.) In the case of blends, they can only sensibly be tasted against their price peers, which requires three or four different flights.
They’re best nosed at about 40% first, then ideally watered to about 25% (one is all too aware of the inexactitude of the science here), renosed and finally tasted. Even at 25%, the spirit begins to anaesthetize the tongue after a while.
And then … the truth is that they are all far closer to one another in profile, style and quality than an equivalent run of wines is likely to be. Great concentration is required, and endless recalibration to check that you are being fair and not getting carried away by the theories as to identity which inevitably develop as you taste. In the case of blends, in particular, often the difference between them is simply a nuance of style: it’s ultra-subjective, in other words.
I can readily imagine the gales of laughter and snorts of exasperation which must emanate from whisky blending rooms up in Glasgow or Perth when they read not just my tasting notes, but all whisky tasting notes.
I’m not fishing for sympathy, of course; just understanding.
By the way, the biggest surprise of that Speyside tasting was to see the Glenfiddich 12 Year Old perform so well. Perhaps I was misguidedly snobbish about it before; perhaps it’s the contempt bred by familiarity; but I had never seen it in the past as being genuinely competitive with the likes of Cragganmore and The Glenlivet – but it is. Or at least in its 12 Year Old incarnation, it is.
(Note, those who saw the original article, that it was illustrated with a bottle shot of the 15 Year Old, but it was indeed the 12 Year Old I tasted. It is still called ‘Special Reserve’ + the age statement in some markets such as the USA, but the ‘Special Reserve’ verbiage will disappear before long, as it already has in the UK.)
Lesson learned. That, of course, is the great advantage of blind tasting: it sweeps away all one’s treacherous preconceptions. It’s worth the effort, in other words.