If I had to pick just one thing I have gained from going to whisky tastings, it is Knowledge. With a capital K.
The people I generally share whisky tastings with are drawn from every imaginable sphere of activity and background.
But the common factor across all of them is the love of whisky. They like whisky and they know stuff about whisky – whether it’s about production or consumption or anything in between. And they are totally willing to share what they know, unconditionally and for free.
There is a lot to be learned about whisky – the history, how it’s made, what the various flavours are. The How, the Where and the Why. Some people have bits of the knowledge, others have a whole lot. Since I have been going to whisky tastings, the biggest thing I’ve learned is how much there is to learn! But I have never found any preciousness or pretention about the knowledge or about freely sharing it.
I have learned that it pays to keep your ears open at a whisky tasting. A tasting is a place where, if you want to learn, plenty will be presented to you. There will always be something new, such as the effect that different production techniques, equipment, ownership or process will have on the final spirit outcome.
Tastings are the place where, for a relatively low cost, you get to taste some whiskies that would otherwise be unaffordable (or unobtainable!)
It may be that you will find out which drams you prefer and – possibly more importantly – which you don’t. That knowledge alone can save you a lot of grief, purchasing a whisky which you later discover is not really one you fancy. I can attest that the system is not universally fool-proof, but it’s better than none at all.
Tastings are also the place where, for a relatively low cost, you get to taste some whiskies that would otherwise be unaffordable (or unobtainable!)
Whisky tastings develop long-term friendships.
Stories of tastings past get told and re-told (and probably enlarged): the tasting where the offerings were so poor that the tasters elected to club funds together, go downstairs to the retail shop and purchase something palatable to share. Or the bottle where the label read “we have bottled this at 40% so more people can get the benefit of tasting our whisky” – when the first sip of this very substandard dram split into two layers in the mouth, the more prevalent layer being the 60% water content!
How do you know it tastes like licking a cricket bat??
Tasting comments from the floor are insightful, very personal, totally random and frequently indelicate. As are the comments that they engender from the assembled throng. “How do you know it tastes like licking a cricket bat??”
The humour is high, and frequently neither politically nor socially correct. It is insightful, unrelenting, unforgiving and very sharp. Laughter is the key, sometimes laughing at but more commonly laughing with.
Another by-product of whisky tastings I enjoy is the exchanging of small sample bottles of whisky brought from home to be given to others to try.
Here are a few examples of recent exchanges …
G&M Caol Ila (Islay), from Mel
Cask Strength 57.8% abv.
Bottle 6 of 223
Refill Sherry Butt
Distilled 27 Nov 1988, Bottled 10 Jul 2002 (14 yo)
Colour: Dark Amber
Nose: Dull peat, but not over the top. A matured cow pat. Alcohol heat comes through (not surprising, given the abv). A medium-rare steak.
Palette: Alcohol burn, brown & dark, sweeter and with slight smoke. With reduction, sweeter still & radishes.
Comment: This quite surprised me. Normally I have found Caol Ilas a bit too earthy and peaty for my preference. But this one is quite subdued peat-wise and I could get very used to it. Very yummy.
SMWS 76.126 “Racy Lady, Wearing Leather”. From Mel
Mortlach, refill bourbon hogshead, 57% abv, no age statement. Distilled 22 Sep 1987.
Nose: Laundry powder. Alcohol is up, sandsoap and a grassy meadow.
Palette: Alcohol burn, soap, fencing timber and a hot tongue. A big mouth, sweet and sourish. No obvious bourbon influence (eg no vanilla note). Dusty leather.
Finish: Long heat, tannic, dries off and slightly waxy. Thorax-warming, the pepper mouth stays.
Comment: The Scotch Malt Whisky Society do not reduce the abv of barrels they get – that option is left to the consumer. This Mortlach could tolerate some reduction to lower the effect of high alcohol and let the flavours through.
Bruichladdich Octomore 8.1. From Brian
8 years aging in ff American oak bourbon, 167 ppm*, 59.3% abv
Nose: Smoky, uncooked bacon (with no eggs). Sweetish.
Palette: Soft and a bit fizzy. Bacon & black pudding for breakfast, ash & high alcohol
Finish: The smoky bacon lingers on (and on). And on.
Comment: I can sort of understand why people go for this, but it’s considerably too peaty-laden for me.
*ppm: Parts Per Million – a measure of the phenols (the “peaty-ness”).
G&M Mortlach 15yo, 43%. From Graeme
FF and RF sherry casks
Nose: Peaches (stone-fruit peel), sweet sherry, fresh cookies, tinned spaghetti in tomato sauce.
Palette: Leather polish, sourish (oloroso?), not as sherry-sweet as I had expected. Wood, tannic (drying mouth)
Finish: Fades off early (from the low abv?). Dark, slight smoke towards the end. Raisins from a packet. The sourness stays, although it is not unpleasant. Warms the throat and chest.
Comment: Totally different from the SMWS Mortlach earlier. This is nice as a relaxing whisky, without the over-the-top alcohol level.
Cragganmore 12yo 58.4%, donated by Thomas (Pat’s tasting notes)
Matured in American oak
Nose: Coastal, seashore, salty, barbeque plate, sweet bourbon
Palette: peat, sweet & warming, smooth
Comment: I could quite happily buy a bottle.
Toki (Suntory) 43%, donated by Thomas (Pat’s tasting notes)
‘Toki’ means ‘time’ in Japanese.
Toki is a blended whisky from Suntory’s three distilleries. Its main components are Hakushu single malt and Chita grain whisky. This is a round and sweet blend with a refreshing citrus character and a spicy finish.
Colour: Very light
Nose: Soft peach, beeswax polish, honeycomb
Palette: Oily mouth feel, smooth, cherry
Finish: Short, with soft tannin
Comment: A “quaffer”. Pleasant enough, but not challenging, run-of-the-mill