An essay on tasting notes

“a smell exists only as the interaction of some airborne chemical with the membranes of the nasal cavity, together with the brain’ s response to the resulting nervous stimulus.” Douglas Burnham and Ole Martin Skilleås, Whiskey & Philosophy, page 140

A tasting note is a description of the flavours and aromas perceived by the taster.
On my website, www.whisky-news.com, whenever I have the opportunity of tasting one whisky, I try to share my impression by publishing them.
Tasting notes are always subject of controversy, since they are always subjective.
Subjectivity cannot be avoided, but one can try to be as objective as possible. In order to do so, I try to be as descriptive as possible (in describing a whisky by using terms such as “heather”, “peat” or “caramel”) and using qualitative adjectives such as “slightly” or “strongly” for a clearer description of the flavours. Furthermore, I sometimes include temporal information (e.g., development of flavours over time). To support these descriptions, esthetical attributes such as “rich”, “complex”, or “pleasant” are provided.

The appreciation of a whisky depends on severable variables, including the taster, the procedure, the environment, and the whisky itself.

Don’t look the answer to the question “what is the best whisky? “ on my website, since it simply does not exist. The best whisky for ME is probably not the same for YOU. Everyone is different. Some people appreciate heavily peated whiskies, some not at all; some enjoy very sherried whiskies, some not at all and so forth. Do not forget: whisky should remain a pleasure and fun and enjoy it like you want.

The taster:
Every taster is physiologically different and unique. In a sensory evaluation conducted by M. Lee at the end of the 1990s for her thesis, she reported that the threshold for the detection of different aromatic groups present in the whisky could vary of some degrees of magnitude between different trained sensory experts. This conclusion can be extrapolated for the general population of consumers like you and me. Furthermore, over the years, our sensibility evolves. Pregnant women are particularly discriminative due to hormonal changes. Our sensitivity tends to decrease over time. With age, we develop a liking for bitter products and our sensitivity varies over time within the day. For instance, we are more sensitive in the morning or at the end of the afternoon, in the fasted than in the fed condition. If you ate spicy food, your olfactory bulbs might be saturated and not very perceptive.

Perception of aromas is also a matter of training and experience. If you have never tasted liquorice, how can you detect such flavours? The more you train your nose and your palate, the easier you will recognize the different chemical aromatic constituents present in your favourite beverage. If your eating habits are limited to hamburger and chips, your discriminative power should be lower than someone with a more varied diet. Based on the experience of the reader, tasting notes might be difficult to understand. Not everyone has tasted Turkish Delights, liquorice, or gentian or can differentiate, for example, cacao from Ecuador and Venezuela.. To make my tasting notes as accessible as possible, I try to avoid descriptive terms such as “After Eight” of “Werther’s Original” that might be country or region specific. This cannot however be always avoided.

Tasting procedure:
How you taste your whisky influences the perceptions of its flavours. If you would taste your whisky in a large tumbler glass with ice cubes made from chlorinated water in a smoking lounge or in a Copita (sherry) glass in a clean fragrant-free room with the water coming from the distillery source, the result might be rather different. Not only can the olfactory environment affect your perception, but also the context. If you taste a single malt at the water source of the distillery with his (or her) distillery manager or in a noisy discotheque, you might not have the same feeling (experience).
The order of tasting might play a role, although this question is still debated. If you would start with a cask strength highly peated whisky and then proceed to a light floral unpeated whisky reduced to 40%, you might not be able to enjoy the later at its best.
In order to minimize bias and to be as consistent as possible, I try to taste my whiskies in the fasted condition, at the same time of the day using the same ISO glasses and products from the same distillery (or style).

The whisky:
Since I am not sponsorized by any whisky producer, the whiskies tasted on my website are coming from my personal collection, obtained via sample exchanges, or from samples purchased during whisky fairs or on whisky forums. Some bottles can be old and thus subject to the “Old Bottle Effect“ (OBE). Of note, whisky evolves with time once a bottle has been opened and samples can come from recently opened bottles or from bottles opened a few weeks or months ago. Some flavours might be restrained or rough on freshly opened bottles and might become mellower and rounder after some weeks. On the other hand, with time, the flavours can become very thin (weak) and the alcohol going below 40% abv. Since every cask is unique, there will be differences in the product from two casks filled and bottled on the same day as well as for standard batches of bottles (e.g., Ardbeg Ten or Glenfiddich Ancient Reserve). For the later, blenders select the casks in order to minimise the batch variation.

Of note, another source of variability is the production process. Over time, a distillery can change parts of its equipment, processes, or might want to change its style of whisky. For instance, a Benromach distilled under the management of UDV (Diageo) will be very different from a Benromach distilled under its new owners, Gordon & Macphail, since the size and shape of the stills have radically changed. Another example could be Glenglassaugh, where the new owners decided to change the type of water (from soft to hard) and to swap the wash and spirit still. This list is not exhaustive and other alterations (e.g., changes in the heating of the stills, type of barley or wood policy) can have major impact on the whisky flavours.

For my tastings, I proceed to horizontal tastings (i.e., tasting of whiskies from the same distillery or brand) as much as possible and by using the following procedure:

Of course, if I do not feel like (e.g. after a cold), I do not taste whiskies. Every producer is trying to deliver their best products and if not tasted in good conditions, this would not be very fair.
Ideally, whiskies should be tasted at the same temperature, but this is practically difficult to achieve. During summer, when the temperature is too high, I simply stop tasting whiskies.

Typically, I am trying to taste about 3 to 5 whiskies at the time. Once I have poured whiskies in my ISO glasses (about the same amount of whisky in each glass), I wait a few minutes before starting nosing and tasting them. Once I have written down my impressions, I nose them again to verify if the whisky has evolved, before adding a few drops of water and tasting them again. Such a tasting will take approximately 30 min.

Some might ask why do you taste a whisky only once and not a few times? Proceeding to tasting “repeats” would be a good procedure to minimize some bias, however I do not have time to do, might not enough whisky left to do so and when I have tasted the same whisky in different occasion and time, the difference was generally within 1 points, therefore, I consider the current procedure as sufficient. In the event that a whisky tasted “unusual”, I retest it again after a couple of days later.

In addition to my subjective impressions, I provide a score (see http://www.whisky-news.com/En/tasting_comment.html). Scoring is probably the most controversial subject in whisky tasting, since appreciation of a whisky is and will always remain subjective. I could have only published my tasting notes without any rating. However, I felt that a rating would be more efficient in communicating to the reader which whisky I preferred amongst the different products of a distillery. This is based on MY preferences and YOUR preferences might be widely different. For instance, I am quite sensitive to rubbery notes and I don’t enjoy very much young whiskies. Therefore, if you like young and rubbery single malts, MY subjective rating might differ radically from YOURS. As mentioned previously, many factors can contribute to a different appreciation of the product. So, I might be enjoy a whisky rated 09/20 as much as a whisky rated 18/20 depending on the circumstances.

Well, with all these caveats, what is the use of my rating? Simply to provide you with the most complete report of my experience for a given whisky, so that it might help you to select the next whisky that you might want to taste. As written by Serve Valentin on his website (www.whiskyfun.com), “It is not recommended to buy whiskies before YOU tasted them first”. Tasting notes should not be used blindly as a buyer’s guide. They are simply there to help you. Read first the tasting note and if you want to compare two whiskies with a similar profile, the rating will tell you which is the one I preferred. Of course, do not hesitate to compare tasting between different sources (e.g., Malt Whisky Companion of M. Jackson or http://www.whiskyfun.com).

Tasting notes is a matter of intense discussion and controversy. Tasting notes are and will always be subjective, since several factors influence the perception of the flavours of one whisky (e.g., environment and the taster himself). However, by standardizing the procedures, tasting notes can be more objective. In complement to tasting notes, rating are provided in order to provide some guidance and should not be considered as the absolute truth and used blindly as a buyer guide. Always try to taste the whisky first before buying it.



Whisky-news.com ©10 Jan 2011