Preconceptions in Tasting Whisky

Using a blind guessing game mechanic to examine preconceptions and subjectivity in tasting whisky, I hereby reveal how utterly rubbish I am at defining my favourite drink.

Line up of six whiskies

Could you match these six drams?

 

I often speak of how whisky is a multi-sensory experience. I enthuse about how it’s designed to stimulate our senses and make us feel pleasure at the very idea of being alive. While I strongly believe that to be true, whisky remains primarily about smell and taste.

Unfortunately, it would seem that when it comes to smell and taste, we’re not all born equal. It remains a fact that some are much better placed, from a physiological perspective, to seek out aroma and flavour. Many have been gifted, by means of genetics, a better set of receptors that can be employed to analyse flavour and aroma and pick out notable elements and familiar traits. It’s widely regarded that women have a better developed sense of smell and taste. I’m not a woman. It would also seem that, unfortunately, I have not been gifted with a particularly good olfactory system. So, does that mean I’m wasting my time by investing it in the world of whisky? Can I not tell a great one from an average one?

Great Whisky

Recently, I was asked to write a few words for the Spirits Embassy blog on “What makes a great whisky”. I got a bit tied up in knots writing about the whole whisky appreciation thing before I changed my tack altogether. But it did make me put together some notes on the subject with a view to writing this post; the subject intrigued me. Surely, one of the key elements to making a whisky great is it’s sensory profile? Which would mean the ability to decipher it would be pretty important.

When I enjoy a whisky, I like to think I can tell if it’s a good one or an also-ran. I can certainly pick out a bunch of smells and tastes and I love examining it. But they flash and disappear before I can recognise, label or recall them, and I can also be easily led into discovering things that may or may not be present, purely by the power of suggestion. I’m of the understanding that practice brings its rewards. Well, I’m practicing the life out of my whisky cabinets and I’m not sure I’m improving very much. While this doesn’t stop me loving the whisky and experiences I really wish I was a wee bit better at it.

Lead Us, Oh Whisky Expert

Many experts in the field analyse and profile a whisky and allocate some method of a score to guide their audience on their perception of it’s quality and level of ‘greatness’. Clearly, the key word here is ‘guide’ as I’m sure they would be the first admit that anyone else’s personal appraisal is just as valid, such is the subjectiveness of the practice. Yet, I’m often astonished at the shopping list of smells and tastes an expert can determine from a dram.

A great fun thing to do is pour a dram of something then sip along with a commentator. Have your preferred whisky guide book next to you, or find a blog article with tasting notes or a review on YouTube, and smell and taste while looking for the same traits as your chosen reviewer. It’s pretty eye-opening. Some of these guys really know what they’re talking about. Even if it’s the power of suggestion, you can find yourself picking out aromas and tastes based on their lead.

When I share whiskies with someone new to it I can be heard muttering something like “You should start to taste some toffee and vanilla notes…”. At this point I am compelled to explain that what they taste is simply what they taste – there is no right or wrong. But is this flawed thinking?  If you stop and think you may consider that a flavour is either present or it isn’t? If it’s a quality spirit – a good example of it’s style – that can surely be determined and declared as such, objectively? Should it not be that the only subjective element is whether or not an individual decides they like it?

I think it has so much more to do with mood, genetic ability, the condition of your palate at that moment, where you are on your whisky journey and of course – preconception.

Preconception

This is what I’m really intrigued by – the fact that if you think you know something about a whisky before you try it, chances are you’re going to find it. That could be as broad-brush as the fact it’s widely accepted to be great, or that it’s not, or that it’s smoky or spicy. If you’re a newbie it could simply be that it’s going to smell like whisky and be powerfully strong. If you’re a fan on a journey it could be that you’re led by the price, the packaging, the marketing or the previous experience of other similar examples from the same producer. It could also be that a trusted source has recommended it and enthused about it’s greatness. There’s often a time when you’re already fairly heavily invested in the experience before you’ve even tried it.

With few exceptions, when you see an expert appraise a whisky they are mostly doing it with clear knowledge of what it is, what it costs, what it should taste like and what their peers already think of it. Probably, if they’re going on record they’ll have done a little research up front too. It’s the least we’d expect. But does all of that skew their appraisal? I think, on occasion, without any doubt.

But what I’d really love to see more of is folk doing this sort of thing blind. I think I’d find it fascinating watching the results of an appraisal while removing the dynamic of preconception. That could be very interesting.

Whisky Wednesdays

Being middle aged and dull, I don’t get out so much now. Having a young family means I don’t really have the energy or ability to get out anything like I once did and I’m grateful to whisky as it’s here at a good time in my life, fitting snugly into my lifestyle and giving me fun distractions that can mostly be enjoyed at home. Most Wednesdays I join another couple of local dads and we get together to taste what’s new in our collections and talk about whisky and all the important stuff that middle aged dads talk about, very little of which can be recalled.

Now one of us, theWhiskyRev, has a better olfactory set up than I do, of that I’m convinced. He also has a pretty good memory. So he seems to be able to cannily navigate his way around a flight of drams with some idea of where he is. I can’t do this nearly as well. I’m not sure I’ve ever come out on top if the playing field has been level.

Regardless, to keep things fresh I set up little challenges and blind tastings. I came up with one recently that was in some way designed to challenge our preconceptions. We select six whiskies, all of which occupy a similar sort of area around the flavour map. There’s a mixture of regions and I slot in a NAS or two and try to keep the ABV’s similar to make it less obvious which is which.

Blindly Brave

These six drams are poured by a kind and steady handed third party (my wife) and we enter the room with no idea which is which and we’re left to try to match the drams to the bottles. Coloured dots are applied to the bottom of the glasses and corresponding bottle, and we do a reveal at some point when we feel ready to commit our guesses.

You may point out that, with the bottles in front of us, this looks a pretty easy task. That, whisky friend, is exactly the point – it’s not. In fact, it could be argued that seeing six possible options to the dram in hand is pretty difficult. Especially when the drams in question are fairly similar. I had originally planned this with a pressure dynamic involved, where the winner selects a prize from the line up. With whisky losses a real possibility I was sure that it would focus our concentration even more, but in the interests of keeping it fun that was abandoned (thankfully!).

What’s great about this is you can test things like No Age Statement (NAS) whiskies alongside their age-stated counterparts, as well as slipping in blends, grain whiskies, non-Scotches or anything you want. Before the reveal you rate your preferences in order one to six and commit to your six guesses. It’s likely there will always be at least one surprise, and this challenges your preformed opinions about a lot of whisky fluff. It certainly could be employed to tame your inner whisky snob, or perhaps subtly challenge the stubborn drinker in you who’s convinced he doesn’t like something.

It’s True, All Of It

Because even when you get it wrong, you definitely taste the differences and the flaws are not in the quality or diversity of the whisky. The flaws are your memory, your senses and your preconceptions. When you get it right, however, it’s remarkably powerful at reassuring you. There was a Clynelish in this lineup and when we approached it, it stood tall and shouted “I am Clynelish!” We didn’t even need to sip, we already knew. It was unmistakably Clynelish and we were unshakable, so sure are we that we have pegged some strong tells in that particular dram (some of the time!).

All of this proves to the novice or skeptic that there is substance to this concept and it’s not all smoke and mirrors or scenes from The Emperor’s New Clothes. We found defining tastes in all of our line up, and I’m convinced that another round tonight we’d all be guaranteed full marks. Next month though? I’m maybe not so sure.

It also lays bare the subjectivity of the practice. It shows differing opinions and throws up different favourites, that we each interpret the same notes as different things. One man’s vanilla is another’s toffee, and so on. This could be down to individual senses or simply the condition of our palate; what we’ve eaten, or at what stage the latest virus (brought back from the primary school petri-dish) is at in our system. Yet, when a really great whisky is in the lineup, it is shown to be so, often by reassuring consensus.

This has to, of course, remain fun. Taking it all too seriously is tedious for everyone. It illustrates the flavours in whisky are myriad and it’s down to you to explore them and catalogue them in anyway you can with the tools you have. Even if your memory is flawed, your associations fickle and your palate utterly subjective.

At the end of the day, everything from the producer’s marketing to the expert’s opinion is essentially only a guide. When we finally enjoy it ourselves and draw our own conclusions we can feel satisfied, but a canny whisky fan would also remain flexible. These experiences shape our understanding of whisky and our preferences gradually evolve with each step. We need to remember to take our conclusions with a little pinch of salt. After all, we learn it all in the knowledge that it could taste a little differently tomorrow.

And maybe, just maybe, next time I won’t be the loser. Again.

 

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