Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Taste Appreciation

Keeping in mind that there are trained professionals out there, tasting a whisky can be as straightforward as having a rum and coke, or as complicated as wine-tasting. Personally, I've never spit out any whisky (on purpose) while tasting, but I'm sure it's been done. One of the reasons I originally decided to pursue whisky as opposed to wine was that it seemed less snooty and more approachable to the beginner. Wine seemed like the head cheerleader (hot, but out of reach) while whisky was the cute girl I felt confident enough to ask for a date . All psychoanalysis aside, suffice it to say that I found the identification of spicy brioche, burnt raspberries and/or buttered asparagus notes in wine to be slightly intimidating.

Whisky tasting can be just as snooty, with people describing flavours from multiple species of seaweed to Battenburg cake. Don't let yourself be intimidated. The important thing is to work at this slowly, as your tastebuds will develop in time. My first time picking out citrus flavours which were subsequently "confirmed" in the literature resulted in a hip-hop hooray!

I like breaking the tastes down into categories and making these increasingly more detailed or complex as my tongue becomes better at distinguishing them. A good way to start is to pick some whiskies that are at opposite ends of the flavour spectrum. I'll bet you a 34-year old bottle of Highland Park that even the novice will be able to taste the difference between a sweet toffee Speyside malt and a smoky, peaty Islay malt. You'll also smell the difference long before anything touches your tongue! As you get adept at picking these opposites apart by taste and smell, start trying to distinguish malts which are closer in character.

Categorization will really help you remember what types of whiskies you like, and others that might be similar to them. David Wishart's wonderful tome "Whisky Classified" is absolutely brilliant in this regard, and is highly recommended not just for beginners, but also for those less interested in scoring whisky and more in learning of their specific characteristics. It will help you determine which malts fall into similar tasting and nosing categories.

Start with "fruity" aromas and tastes. Glenfiddich 12 y-o is a good one in this category. When you feel comfortable picking out fruity aromas, how about distinguishing between orchard fruit (apples, pears, etc.) vs. citrus (orange, lemon)?

Scapa 12 year-old (distillery bottling) has some excellent orchard fruit notes (think pear juice) while the Cragganmore distiller's edition bottlings have some strong orange notes.

How about "woody" aromas and tastes? These include toffee, vanilla and caramel notes which are imparted by the wood casks the whiskies are aged in. Speyside malts like Longmorn, Aberlour and the Balvenie are good examples for these notes.

Looking for smoke? Talisker 10 y-o could be considered the benchmark, and although it can be a rough start for beginners, it will definitely make you familiar with smokiness.

The stereotypical Islay malts (Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Laphroaig) are shining examples of peat smoke and iodine character. This might not sound appealing at first, but once you've acquired the taste for it, there is no substitute!

In closing, have confidence in your tasting abilities and start with malts that give you a variety of flavours and aromas. Practice blind tasting and nosing to see what you can distinguish and above all, enjoy what you're drinking. You'll be picking Battenburg cake out of peat and pears in no time!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Good, the Bad and the Gummi

"There is no such thing as a bad whiskey. Some whiskeys just happen to be better than others."
-William Faulkner

Unfortunately, there really are some bad whiskeys out there. However, which ones are bad will depend on who you talk to. Everyone will have their own preference, and as many scotch drinkers will tell you: "The best whisky is the one you have in your hand."
Over the course of several years of whisky drinking, I've discovered that people can become obsessed with scoring whiskeys and trying to rank them in some sort of hierarchical way. What are the criteria in these ranking systems that result in a score of 87 vs 90 or 4 vs 5 stars? Well, these can vary substantially, and it makes tasting notes and whisky ratings somewhat akin to movie reviews: When something is really bad, everyone pretty much agrees, but for drams that fall in the fuzzy gray area in-between, personal preference can have a huge influence.
When The Spirit Safe was in its planning stages, a lot of friends advised me to include tasting notes and opinions on whiskeys that I have been drinking and to provide recommendations of whiskies that I like.
Every book on whisky has its own rating system, but in speaking to Blacker S (my Spirit Safe partner) we decided to divide our criteria for whisky into 5 categories which are outlined below:

1) Nose - In case it isn't obvious, this is the smell of the whisky. It's remarkable how much the aroma can affect how you enjoy a dram of something. If I could buy cologne that smelled like Highland Park 18 y-o, I would.

2) Palate - In the context of The Spirit Safe (TSS), the palate will refer to the mouth feel of the whisky. Is it oily, thick, or light? Consistency of melted butter (MacAllan 18 y-o) or syrupy like sugar water?

3) Taste - You won't get any argument from me that this isn't the most important criterion, but it is more closely associated to the nose category than you might think. Try drinking a whisky you're familiar with when your nose is stuffed up and see what you miss.

4) Finish - For connoisseurs, this is a big one. I like to think of it as bang for your buck. The longer the finish, the longer you'll taste the whisky - even after it's down your throat. That being said, a long finish on a bad whisky can be a pretty unpleasant experience. A friend once tried every beverage in his refrigerator in a vain effort to eliminate a finish he didn't like (including milk)!

5) Value - I've included this criterion because I believe there should be a reward for whiskeys that punch above their weight class. This is what becoming a connoisseur should be all about: Finding the best bottles in different styles at any price. Anybody can tell you that 18 and 25 y-o whiskeys are better than 10 and 12 y-o, but how do they match up in value? Older and more expensive isn't always better!

I hope that having whiskeys described through these criteria will help you decide which ones you'd like to try. TSS isn't going to give you too many numbers, but you'll know which ones we like and how they match up to comparable drams. This website will also allow you to post your opinions on our tasting notes. Did we get it right or are we on crack? Maybe somewhere in-between....?
The more information we have on any dram, the more accurate the description will be, so I encourage everyone to share their opinion. The next blog post will have tips on tasting - then on to some whisky reviews/recommendations/warnings!

For the record, my favourite tasting note of all time (from an unrelated scotch website):

In describing the taste of Loch Dubh whisky: "Burnt gummi bears dissolved in gasoline".