Whisky Round Table #12

Peggy Guggenheim: art collector, poor little rich girl and whisky faker
For nearly a year, Nonjatta has been taking part in the "Whisky Round Table," a discussion forum that is hosted every month at one of 12 participating blogs on a topic chosen by that month's host or hostess. There have been some fascinating questions and really stimulating discussions.

Now, the time has come for Nonjatta to act as host. This is the question I hurled at my fellow bloggers:
The socialite and art collector Peggy Guggenheim used to pour bottles of cheap blended whisky into premium bottles and, presumably, laugh down her sleeve at those sniffing and simpering over her drams.
How confident are you of your whisky tasting skills?
Is there any purpose to the pursuit of objectivity in whisky tasting (unless you work in the industry) or does it suck the joy out of a essentially subjective experience.
Is it possible to categorise a sip in words and is something lost or gained in that process?

The answers from my fellow whisky "knights" took the issue way beyond my cheeky scepticism:

Keith Wood (The Whisky Emporium)
Just fancy that; being invited round to Peggy's place and being offered something along the lines of a Dalmore Trinitus bottle, only to find that it contains Dalmore 13y, or even JW Black. Or perhaps not so extreme an example would be a Macallan 25y containing 12y. The possibilities are endless and I'm sure she had a little private giggle or two over this.

But could I tell the difference? Now, there's a good question and one which would depend upon the bottle and whisky being offered. Yes, I am very confident in my tasting skills, or at least my ability to assess a whisky rather than immediately identify it. This was not always the case. My personal whisky adventure started just over 30 years ago when I learned to appreciate the main two offerings at that time: Glenfiddich and Glenmorangie. In those days I tended to prefer the smoothness of Glenmorangie to the fire of Glenfiddich.
Obviously, over the last 30 years my palate has become far more experienced, perhaps mostly so in the last 4-5 years as I started to not only enjoy my drams, but also to study and evaluate what I was drinking.
So, do I see any purpose in my pursuit of objectivity? Well, I guess we are all quite vain and would like to think so, but I believe that if one is going to dedicate a significant portion of one's life to a hobby, then it really should be on the basis of knowing what one is talking about!

For me, evaluation of a whisky does not detract from any enjoyment of it. In fact, I find it increases my enjoyment as I search for hidden or less-pronounced flavours and nuances, only to be delighted when I find them, perhaps after allowing a whisky to breathe in the glass for what can be anything up to 30-45 minutes.

You ask if it's possible to categorise a sip in mere words? Is anything lost in doing so?

Well, having experienced many instances where long-lost memories of specific times and places are suddenly thrown into recollection just by nosing a certain whisky, I feel that in putting these recollections and experiences to paper, or website in my case, actively enhances the process and at the same time, hopefully gives my readers more insight into the dram(s) and a more interesting read too.

In fact I recently addressed this subject with another whisky blogger as we looked specifically at how closely connected the olfactory sense is with memory. This alone is a subject on which I could endlessly pontificate and elaborate to the complete boredom of all, but worry not as I will refrain from doing so here, other than to say don't be surprised the next time you see me compare something like a magnificent Port Ellen to a childhood day out in Scarborough some 40+ years ago.
Peter Lemon (The Casks)
"Is there any purpose to the pursuit of objectivity in whisky tasting (unless you work in the industry) or does it suck the joy out of a essentially subjective experience." Uh...what about people who actually find joy in the pursuit of objectivity? Not being in the industry, I'd think it would be the opposite, that is, having to be objective for your job is more likely to suck the joy out of "subjective" tasting than tasting for what's basically a hobby.

I enjoy tasting (or at least trying to taste) objectively and find that what I've learned from doing so makes those times when I'm just sipping a whisky for no reason other than to enjoy it even better. As for my tasting skills, am I confident that I can sit down with a glass and pick out the flavors and nuances that reflect the process and make it enjoyable or not? Yes. For me, that's part of what makes the experience, subjective or objective, enjoyable.

Am I confident that I can take a blind sip and know exactly when, where, and how a whisky was made and whether or not a rivet was loose in the still that fateful Thursday, making the feints taste smartly of heirloom cantaloupes rotting in the Chilean sun? No, and that doesn't bother me one bit. If after years and years, I drink enough whisky to be able to conjure that knowledge out of thin air, then I'll know for damn sure I've wasted too much time drinking and learning about whisky.

I think it is possible to categorize and describe a sip of whisky, we do it whether we want to or not. Our brains subconsciously want to break down and compartmentalize experiences and sensations so we can understand them better. That some of us take this categorizing and describing one step further with whisky and do so in tasting notebooks and on free blogging platforms perhaps makes us better appreciators of the stuff. On some level, though, I do think a little something is lost when whisky is dissected in this way because that pure, initial experience can get lost. The first time I tried Laphroaig 10, I really had no information on the stuff other than it came from an island called "Iss-lay".

That first glass was a revelation, but it was also the last time that I had that raw reaction, that I experienced it that way. From that point on, I'd categorized it as challenging, pungent, smokey, etc., and thought about it that way every time after. In the end, though, the positives outweigh the negatives in terms of categorizing and describing each sip, doing so helps create a common language about this stuff we love which in turn helps share it with others.
Chris Hoban (The Edinburgh whisky blog)
I think perhaps this question needs to be split into its component questions.

1. How confident are you of your whisky tasting skills?

In the last 4 years I have tried pretty much every brand of single malt Scotch, as well as many blends, single cask editions, grain whiskies, square barreled whiskies, 50 year old whiskies, 70 year old whiskies and 90 percent abv new spirit (plus many more crazy things I can't remember). Whisky from Japan, New Zealand, Wales, USA, Ireland, Sweden, India, Czech Republic, England. I have been very lucky!

Does that make me think I am confident in tasting whisky? In some ways, yes. I can recognise area styles (Islay or Kentucky for instance). I can normally make quite educated guesses in blind tastings and I know what I like, so I can recognise what for me is a good whisky and what for me is a bad whisky. I understand some of the science behind why certain flavours appear. Whether it is the type of oak, length of distillation, shape of still, consistency of wash, type of yeast, type of barley or the many other variables which contribute to this fantastic spirit.

But then I think about the blind tastings. I make educated guesses, but I consistently get it wrong. I may get the region right, or I may be able to justify why I made the guess that I did, but I cannot state that I have a world class, Usain Bolt/Messi/Muhammed Ali level palate (these guys being world class in their sport, rather than having amazing palates. Although I wouldn't put it past Messi!) I think because I enjoy fine wine, whisky, beef and the many other pleasures of life (a spicy curry and a beer for instance) that I am slowly eroding my palate. Because I taste so much, I am constantly training my palate, but to truly develop the palate and maintain a sensitive palate, you have to water down the whisky and spit out. These are two things I rarely do.

Also Women naturally have a better palate, so if there was a palate Olympics, their natural advantage would shine through.

2. Objectivity and subjectivity in our business

I think this is where it gets complicated and it depends on the purpose of the whisky tasting. If the tastings purpose is to judge the liquid for a competition, then the aim is to make the tasting as objective as possible. I am always more of a fan of the idea that the judges would be told a region, since this gives them some sort of yardstick to judge the whisky against. Why taste a Glenfarlclas alongside Islays? They are almost completely different drinks. Competition tastings should be blind, with minimal information (e.g region) and the judges should be as neutral as possible.

As competitions should be fair, objectivity is key. When it comes to blogs, I think it becomes a little more complicated. We are in an opinion business. We get wrapped up the history of the distillery. We tell a story of our day and at the end of it, there are some tasting notes. We have a philosophical outlook, so objectivity can become slightly skewed. The key for Lucas and I, is that we try and remain as objective as possible. We try to separate our emotions and feelings towards a distillery, its history, philosophy and people from the liquid itself. It is hard to do.

The questions I ask myself as I write tasting notes on a dram: Is it any good? Would I buy it in a bar? Would I buy a bottle? Is it the best thing I have tasted from this distillery and does it represent their house style well? How does it sit with other whisky's from that region?

To get to the crux of the matter, I think constant blind tastings, with scores out of 100 would drain the pleasure out of blogging for me and make my blog dreadfully boring. I enjoy learning about the history of a distillery and meeting the people who run it. I enjoy hearing about the philosophy of a distillery. The tasting notes are, for me, just a handy way of keeping notes of the whisky's I have tasted along the way. I think that since I try so many, it is important for me to write down tasting notes and opinion, otherwise I would never remember! I hope anyone that reads them is encouraged to try the whisky and make their own minds up, even if I have said that the whisky is not to my taste. If they read the tasting notes and like the sound of it, they should try it regardless of whether I liked it or not. I read other peoples tasting notes to get an indication of things to try, but I always try to make my own mind up over whether I like the whisky or not.
Joshua Hatton (The Jewish Single Malt Whisky Society)
How confident am I in my whisky tasting skills? An interesting question. I know that I can blindly taste a whisky, tell you what I'm smelling and tasting as well as how I feel about mouthfeel, balance--basically the whole experience. This is quite possibly the most objective way of whisky tasting.

Take the blindfold off and things can and do change.

Preconceived notions with regards to brand, color, age, cask, ABV, chill and non-chill filtration, caramel coloring are all formidable opponents when it comes to a completely objective, unbiased review. These are tough to get past and to help do so, I've actually started tasting a minimum of two whiskies at time and I review them blindly to help in being as objective as possible.

There's another element here as well, especially when it comes to whisky reviewers like ourselves. And that is how the sample given can affect the opinion... Or to put it another way: some people who give samples and some people who read reviews of whiskies that were written up from a sample (a sample given to a reviewer by the distillery or brand representative) might expect the overall review to be tainted or have a more positive spin on it than the whisky should actually have. I wrote a piece on this particular concern a while back (it can be read here). My simple answer to this concern -- I've done a good job pissing some people off by not giving the shining review they were expecting. Oh well...

When it comes to the delivery of my review I feel my personality needs to shine through here so I'll take all of the information I've gathered in the reviewing process and deliver it with my patented "JSMWS feel".

I particularly like the following definition of 'subjective'.... the wording of it: "Subjective is a statement that has been colored by the character of the speaker or writer. It often has a basis in reality, but reflects the perspective through with the speaker views reality. It cannot be verified using concrete facts and figures." (Here's a link to the quote's source.)

My approach is to base my reviews on the facts, being as objective as humanly possible: first a blind review, then a gathering of all the information on the whisky, then delivery of the information to the readers of my blog through my view of reality; my writing style.

Lastly, you asked, "Is it possible to categorize a sip in words and is something lost or gained in that process?" One can never taste or experience whisky vicariously through another person's review. I hope that my reviews do help people not only choose a whisky because of the flavors and experience I describe but also the suggestions I give as where, when and how to enjoy said whisky. The 'loss' for people is in not going out to try new things. The 'gain' is to know, or at least pay heed the suggestion, when and how to enjoy new things (whisky).
Mark Connelly (Glasgow's Whisky and Ale)
Yes, a reminder that sometimes life (and all things in it) can be taken too seriously. Since this post is on a Japanese blog, I guess this is a good time to take a step back and look at the bigger picture given the events there and how even basic things like a roof over your head can’t be taken for granted.

I recently had a discussion at a tasting regarding tasting notes. Someone started off by asking what they are and why people write them. I then veered off into various recollections of some people who can’t try a whisky without writing a note about them. I suppose it’s a form of collecting (or OCD, perhaps) whereby not writing a note would be detrimental to the growth of that collection but also the knowledge. And a note can be a valuable memory tool at a later date.

I tend to only write notes when I’m at a tasting, writing a review or in the mood to. Fairly often I don’t bother as I simply want to enjoy the drink in front of me. I still find myself nosing it out of habit (and have caught myself nosing tea and even a glass of water) but I don’t have that urge that some do to record every detail of everything drunk.

I think that tasting notes are a great way to express what you thought of a particular drink but as has been discussed elsewhere at length this is one person’s opinion and naunces and shouldn’t be taken as a definitive guide. We all need to try for ourselves and make our own minds up. It is certainly better than a mark out of 100, which to me is meaningless.

This all leads me to conclude that indeed we can lose sight of the fact that this is only an alcoholic drink to be consumed for pleasure.

Again, let’s try to remember that there are more important things in life and my thoughts are with Japan and its people at this time.
Gal Granov (Whisky Israel)
I am quite humble when it comes to my whisky tasting skills, I tend to remind myself of that when participating in "blind" tastings, or "blind " whisky swaps. Will I be able to pinpoint all of my favourite drams when they are given to me blind folded? Probably some, but I would not claim to be able to guess all of them. It would be very embarrassing to mistake an Ardbeg 10 for a Laphroaoig 10 (though I am quite sure that would not happen).

I am fairly "new" to the whisky tasting business, but not a newbie. I've been sampling malts for the past few years, as opposed to the decades some have spent. Researchers have shown that the amount of pleasure you get from sipping an expensive and highly respected malt or wine (say a Port Ellen), is greater than the same amount had you been told it was "only" a young Islay 'mystery dram'. So, I say that what makes us happier and makes us enjoy our dramming sessions more is what's good for us.

There is no such thing as a completely "objective" experience, since we are always affected by the past, our conceptions (or misconceptions), and a bias towards some drams. But this just goes without saying and is a fact of life.

I do hope when I am tasting a new dram, knowing what it is, I allow myself only to be only a wee bit affected by my past experiences/things I've heard about it/how other bloggers or whisky industry 'experts' rated it and what they thought of it. Am I completely innocent? Probably not, but my blog is not a scientific endeavour to rate whisky. It is a means to document my journey through this wonderful world of Whisky.

I am having a ball, and I hope my readers are enjoying the ride, and then experiencing the whiskies for themselves.
Matt and Karen (Whisky for Everyone)
An interesting question – let’s deal with the tasting skills first. If you can’t trust your own whisky tasting skills then who will? More importantly, if you don’t trust your ‘skills’ (sorry, having a Napoleon Dynamite moment now …), then who is going to take any serious note of what you tell them face-to-face or write in your blog? The aroma and flavour notes that each of us will find in a certain whisky will vary according to our individual tastes, although the basic characteristics will/should come through. This can be seen by selecting a whisky and then reading all of the reviews that you can find online of that whisky, not just on the blogs of the Whisky Round Table members but on the multitude of other whisky or spirit-related blogs that exist.

The beauty of tasting a whisky (or a wine or any other spirit for that matter …) is that there are no right or wrong answers. This is something that we try and encourage, especially with our ‘beginner’ readership and it helps to break down some of the perceived (and real) snobbery and intimidation that surround the subject. The reality is that once you get to a certain knowledge level about whisky, then it becomes second nature to analyse (and over-analyse!) whatever you may be drinking, be it in a day-to-day drinking scenario or a formal tasting scenario. You cannot help it and it is the same if you get to a certain level of expertise in any subject, be it within your job or a hobby – eg. can a film or restaurant critic ever just watch a movie or eat a meal without analysing what they are doing? Do they ever just enjoy a film or meal or the experience for what it is?

Is it possible to categorise a sip of whisky in words? Maybe … but the key is the objectivity of the description. People want to listen and read our opinions and hundreds do everyday from all over the world. This is one of the primary reasons why they read all of our whisky blogs – readers want to find information and get reassurance about something that they are planning to buy or try. Equally, we get comments from readers who use tasting notes on blogs as a tool to try and build up their own tastes, words and experiences of drinking whisky so as to educate themselves and gain confidence.
Ultimately, if you strip away elements such as writing style and a blogger’s personal tastes, most readers want a sip of whisky characterised into words and to know what characteristics to look out for or what style of whisky to expect. This is the same as us reading movie or restaurant reviews to find out what the storyline is or what the quality of the food is like.

And my take on this?

Chris Bunting (Nonjatta)

First, I suppose I should apologize for asking such a cheeky question.

The issues surrounding tasting and tasting notes are something I have been mulling over for some time. On my own blog, among notes from a number of outside contributors, I publish the tasting notes of a whisky expert in Australia who writes really interesting reviews. I really look forward to them. My own notes are published much less regularly. I have also refused all invitations to judge whiskies in competition settings.

There are a number of reasons for this diffidence but the easiest to explain is that I am intensely sceptical of my own tasting skills. I am not sceptical of other people's abilities to discern and describe whiskies, but I am acutely conscious that I am a rank amateur (judging the products of professionals who devote their lives to their drinks) and that I have only been seriously sipping whiskies for a few years. Perhaps, with time, I will grow more relaxed, but I don't want to be the egit who goes trampling all over a bed of exquisite snowdrops looking for a daffodil.

This is why I have completely rejected any attempt at objectivity in the notes I do publish. My rating system is a very simple 5-star system, which only attempts to describe my subjective assessment. I think it is quite possible that by not trying to be objective I may be stunting my own whisky development, but that is what I am comfortable with.

I would make one plea to other whisky drinkers on this topic, however: embracing subjectivity does not necessarily have to devalue whisky tasting. For a whisky drinker like myself, who is determinedly wallowing in subjectivity, mulling over the rootless, shifting nature of our impressions can actually be a point of departure rather than a troubling challenge. I feltt Keith's mention of memory in his response to this question was really interesting, for instance. It is a really fertile area for thought.

I am not so much in the business of problematising the pursuit of objectivity. (If I were, the cheap shot here would have been: "What if Proust had set himself the challenge of numerically ranking the taste of cakes according to a strict 100 point rating system, designed to standardize his preferences and impressions over his whole life?" That is a facile point). But I am in the business of espousing the interest of a parallel pursuit and exploration of subjectivity. For me, with my very limited tasting experience, getting away from a stolid obsession with categorizing sense impressions seems to open up the possibility of playing more freely with the relationships between words, environment, memory etc. in creative and rich ways, and thinking in different ways about what publishing about whisky is about. There are endless lines of thought and practice arising from the dropping of objectivity. But a basic, practical one would be descritions of a single bottle over its whole life, embracing varying impressions. Or reviews that described in great detail the circumstances of tasting: the leather chair next to the fire, the conversation with a friend, or the sterile competition room....


Keith said…
Chris, thanks for hosting this months Round Table and also for what I personally believe to be one of our most interesting questions so far. I note with interest that you seem to have received some of the longest answers yet for RT.
Well done to all the Whisky Knights.
Joshua said…
Keith, I'm with you - this was a great question & RT. Thanks so much for hosting, Chris!
Michio said…
some really interesting answers from everybody. thanks
Samuel said…
What a great way to make your blogs known. I spent the last few days browsing through some of them, most were new to me.
Thank you very much.

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