How to taste....

How to taste....

Pip Hills, author of Appreciating whisky, elucidates on the subject of tasting whisky- a seemingly simple exercise that requires a wee bit of thought before being fully appreciated.
Pip Hills

16 June 2001

Publication: Issue 16

The editor has asked me to write a few words on taste and tasting. It’s a big subject and the basics have been well covered elsewhere, so I will restrict myself to a few topics which I think may be of interest. They are of interest to me, anyway, and hopefully will be to those of you who have progressed a little beyond the hyperbole which so often passes for information about Scotch whisky. It’s a fair bet that if you bought this magazine, you are interested in what whisky tastes like: the notion of flavour in whisky is central to the concerns of the magazine and to most of the Scotch whisky industry. The latter wasn’t always true: the mere idea that folk should care about what whisky tastes like, is a relatively new one. It arose from – or, rather, it was the cause of – the malt revolution. Until ten or fifteen years ago, very few people bought whisky because they expected it to taste nice. That is still the case for lots of whisky drinkers. Most brand-marketing works by getting people to buy things because of the things' associations rather than their intrinsic quality. Lots of blended whisky is sold to people who couldn’t care less what it tastes like and who value only the associations of the brand. Indeed, the fact that whisky has flavour makes it hard to sell to huge numbers of folk, especially the young, who by and large prefer to drink alcoholic fruit juice.Alcopops notwithstanding, taste is the most subtle of our senses. We can discern the presence of some flavour compounds at extremely low
concentrations: the equivalent of being able to see occasional photons in the blackness. Actually, our powers of taste are even more acute: some tasting is more akin to being able to detect stray photons, not in blackness, but in bright light. For we can taste against a background of flavour, by blacking out the background and concentrating on only those aromas which interest us. A pretty neat trick, really.Whenever one writes or talks of taste, the discourse tends to be of smells rather than tastes. This is because taste happens in both mouth and nose – but of the two, the nose is by far the more important. We taste only four things in our mouths: sweet, salt, sour and bitter, while our noses can discriminate among thousands of odours. The mouth is much less sensitive than the nose, requiring relatively large doses and high concentrations to fire off neural messages up to the brain. Recent research, however, has suggested that it has something which the nose does not: receptors for pleasure. These appear to be feel good organs which explain why the use of compounds such as monosodium glutamate make food so much enjoyable. The feel good effect of whisky however is thought to be related to quite other causes. Before saying anything else about taste, I ought to mention one factor which has not been much mentioned in connection with tasting whisky and which ought to be borne firmly in mind. The downside to the sensitivity of taste is its subjectivity. We have the equipment to detect the faintest traces of some flavours, but we have a built-in propensity to fool ourselves. This is because the neural pathways of flavour sensations are very closely associated in the brain with the circuitry of emotion and belief. The tendency to kid ourselves is hardwired into the brain. Consequently, the expectation of a particular flavour is strongly conducive to our perceiving it.I must say that when I first discovered this, I came to understand a lot of things which had puzzled me. It explained why some folk who I knew to be no great shakes in the matter of taste, seemed suddenly to become expert at discerning flavours which I knew were very hard to detect.It also explained why tutored tastings were so very successful in demonstrating the existence of flavours which I knew to be really difficult. I even tested my hunch. When conducting a tutored tasting, I would sometimes announce the existence of a flavour in the whisky which I knew for certain was not present. In every case, the people attending the tasting said they could taste the particular flavour. Now some of them may just have been too timid to say they didn’t get it. But most, I am sure, did taste the flavour. They did so because their acceptance of my authority caused them to believe it was there. I say all this as a prologue to a consideration of flavour in whisky. In everything to do with flavour, we should employ a degree of scepticism and humility: scepticism of what other people say, especially people trying to sell us something and humility about our own apparent perceptions. There is an awful lot of bullshit around.Analytic tasting
I guess most readers’ interest and pleasure will be in analytic tasting: the inspection of whisky with a view to discovering its component flavours and to the enjoyment of the same. Certainly the two go together and what facilitates the one will facilitate the other. The equipment is deceptively simple: a decent glass, some whisky and some water. So is the technique: you put whisky in the glass, add some water, slosh it around, stick your nose in the glass and sniff. Then try drinking it. Think about what you smell and taste. Look into your mind and ask yourself what your sensations are. Separate real sensations from imagination. Then describe the real sensations. All pretty straightforward, really. If only it were! At every stage the process is fraught with error and doubt. We can separate the sources of error into objective and subjective factors. The objective ones are fairly easy to remedy. They fall under the heads of the glass, the water and the environment. If you don’t use the right glass, you won’t get the desired result. Try any good malt in a nosing glass and then in an open-topped tumbler. The spirit in the latter will yield very few of the flavours which you will discover in the former. Big balloon-sized brandy glasses are little better, for the glass is so large that unless you put a half a pint of whisky in it, the aromas will be dispersed. The copita-based nosing glass used in the industry is by far the best. I recall that when with the Scotch Malt Whisky Society we introduced the world to cask-strength, unfiltered malt whiskies from really good casks, everyone said the flavours were amazing. They were, but the tasters’ response was only partly down to the whisky. For most of them, it was because it was the first time they had ever had whisky from a nosing glass.The water should be good and as far as possible, free of flavour. It doesn’t have to be bottled: if you have decent tap water, use it. It isn’t necessarily bad because it’s chlorinated. Chlorine is volatile and will evaporate off within an hour if left in an open jug. On the other hand, if the water requires to be chlorinated the chances are it isn’t too great to begin with. ‘Environment’ covers a multitude of factors, of which the immediate surroundings are the most obvious. Don’t arrange your tasting in a room which has odours from the kitchen floating through it. The mere presence of odour is not so important as variation. We can accommodate to background odour, but if different smells are borne on the air, it ruins one’s perception of all but the grossest flavours. One’s physical and psychological environment matter. You can’t taste if you have a head-cold: the air passages which carry aroma from the mouth to the olfactory epithelium are blocked and you won’t be able to tell the difference between an apple and an onion (you really can’t – try it next time you have a cold). And don’t expect to be at your olfactory sharpest if you have just had a fight with your spouse. Remember that smell is wired into emotion so that if your emotions are jangled, so will be your taste perceptions. The subjective impediments to accurate judgement of flavour are much the more serious. Mere foolishness takes many forms. One idiot at a tasting can spoil things for everyone else, so get your company right.Not so obvious as foolishness, but more insidious, is enthusiasm. I use the term here in its old-fashioned meaning of an uncritical
adherence. ‘Nerd’ I suppose is the contemporary equivalent. There are few things which leave so bad a taste in the mouth, or get up the nose so much, as instant and opinionated experts. Think carefully about what you think you taste and ask yourself whether you really do taste it, before announcing to all the world. Indeed, avoid announcements altogether, for whether right or wrong, you spoil things for other people.Be sceptical of tutored tastings. Especially tutored tastings conducted by people who work for the makers or sellers of the whisky. It’s hard enough for the amateur to be objective. Think how much harder it must be if you work for a big corporation and are immersed in the values of the company, and are being paid to tell people of the marvellous flavours to be found in the corporation’s whisky. When the hawk of marketing alights, the owl of wisdom flies out the window.

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