The Tasting Experience
I like whisky tastings.
That’s not true.
I LOVE whisky tastings.
I stalk websites looking for whisky tastings. And when I find one, all life stops until I’ve managed to get myself a booking to it!
I’ve been going to tastings now for about 12 years, and in all that time I really can’t remember a bad one.
They’re places for bonhomie, for laughter, for meeting old friends and making new ones, for learning, for bad taste jokes and sometimes even worse taste descriptions. For discovering what’s good and what’s not so good, what you’d like to add to your collection next or what really should have not been put in bottles.
I’ve heard of a whisky tasting where the offerings were so average that the tasters all clubbed together, went downstairs and collectively bought a different bottle to take the taste away. For the record, the bottle they bought was a Bowmore Legend – and it was subsequently declared the top dram of the night! Apparently by a clear margin.
I went to a tasting a couple of years ago in Edinburgh. The event was called a Stramash, which I understand is Scottish for a disturbance or racket – a fair description, really. I went because it was my birthday, because we happened to be in Edinburgh at the time, and because my wife lovingly bought me a ticket to it for my birthday present.
It was held at the Surgeon’s Hall on a lovely warm, sunny, late spring day. I went on my own, so I knew no-one there.
By the time the queue of whisky fans had reached the gate I was good friends with a couple of likely and chatty lads from Rothes. Two hours, a lot of samples, and a curry and rice dish later we had become life-long friends. They were great company for the afternoon.
I wish I could remember their names.
Over my tasting life there I have been to three or four tastings that will go down in the records of Memorable Whisky Tastings. One in particular was of a degree that set the all-time benchmark. That mark is unlikely to ever be beaten but if it is I would surely want to be there!
Three of us came out of that tasting together: only one if us noticed that it was raining beyond belief. It wasn’t me.
I think every form of tasting has its pluses and minuses. In the early days, when I first started going to tastings, I knew nothing about whisky other than I generally liked the taste.
I found it best to know in advance what whisky I was drinking. The presenter would explain what each whisky was about – where it came from, what casks it had been matured in, for how long, what effect the cask had on the spirit, what the “style” was. I tried to soak all the knowledge up – not surprisingly, some of it got lost in a haze of fumes but some bits have stuck.
With more experience now, the “mystery” event has its interest. You know the whiskies but not which glass they’re in. Nosing through all the glasses, everyone calling out their impressions. Some of the comments are predictable, some are brilliant, some rather disturbing (“it tastes like licking a cricket bat”. Really? How do you know that? What life experience got you there?). “Smells like my granny’s laundry” – way too much information, my friend! Some are less inspiring, like “smells like baby sick”. I think a count of match-heads is a good barometer of peaty-ness on the nose.
Then tasting through – does the pallet reflect the nose? Bourbon or Sherry influence? Strong upfront peat or late developer? Christmas cake or vanilla/caramel ice-cream?
I also like vertical tastings, where the tasting is a range of six or seven expressions from one distillery. I went to a Glenmorangie vertical tasting a while back: it was very interesting to experience side-by-side the range of whiskies available from that distillery.
I usually go tastings with two good friends. We’ve been doing it for a while now. Our whisky tastes are not necessarily the same, but they are similar and we generally like (and dislike) the same things. And we tend to buy different things for the home supplies, so that there is always a variety to re-test when official tastings get hard to find.
Ah, the sacrifices we make in the interests of scientific research!