At the World Whiskies Awards, we tasted more than 100 American whiskeys in a day. When I tell people what I do and how I judge whiskey, they're first question is, "How do you do it? Don't you get palate fatigue?"
The truth is, like track stars conditioning their bodies for the race, whiskey judges taste a lot of whiskey. Our bodies may be soft, but our palates are conditioned tasting warriors, ready to detect the slightest flaw in distillation and rejoice in a Bourbon's nuanced caramel. With that said, on tasting day, we taste differently than we do at home. And it all begins a week before the big taste off.
We prepare. If you're invited to be a prominent judge, you taste regularly. The World Whiskies Awards isn't selecting random hobos; they're picking some of the greatest palates in the world, such as longtime judge Steve Beal and Jack Rose saloon owner Bill Thomas.
About a week before a competition, I start drinking a lot of green tea, which clears my taste buds of fats and sweets. My hope is to have a neutral palate going in. If I'm consuming alcohol, I try to drink beer, so my whiskey palate isn't swayed by a particular flavour that could be found in a competition. The night before I eat little fat, which can stick around the palate the next day.
On the morning of, judges get into their routines. I know one judge who doesn't brush his teeth the day of or drink coffee. That works for him, but if you take coffee away from me, I'd probably need a straightjacket. What can I say? I love my java. However, and this is very important, I make sure my coffee is warm, not hot. After a week of cutting back on fat and sweets, I've noticed hot coffee can hit the tongue harsher than normal. I do not want to taste with a burnt coffee tongue.
When it's game time, we get the rules, our pencils, scoring sheets and set up our tasting area just how we want, including the proper positioning of the spit bucket.
Yes, we spit.
Spitting is the customary practice in beer, wine and spirits judging. Because if you didn't spit, well, you'd get drunk pretty quickly, collapse and your palate wouldn't be worth much. "How can you assess the finish if you spit?" Great question. And the fact is, even though you spit, there's residual spirit on the tongue and you can detect finish.
Since most American whiskeys must go into new charred oak and colouring is prohibited, I spend my initial moments analysing the colour, trying to understand the whiskey's age and proof. Then, I nose it several times. First, I'm looking for bad aromas. If none are there, I spot the good stuff, such as floral, caramel, fruit and baking spices. When I taste, I roll the whiskey around my tongue, seeing how it feels on the palate. Where does it begin and end? At what part of the tongue is it more prominent? Can I feel it on the roof? Then, I spit. How prominent is the residual flavour after I spit?
This process occurs three times, and I write my notes and score after each and every whiskey.
Some judges prefer to write their notes first, come back and score. Not me. I like scoring right away and revisiting if I have to. Of course, my scoring sheets are often chicken scratch with a bunch of lines, x's and scores in the top corner of the box. Yeah, I should probably get better about that; I'm sure my stuff is hard for the director to decipher.
As needed, I cleanse the palate. Sometimes all that is required is a swish of water. Other times you need two swishes. But there are moments you've tasted three nuanced whiskeys in a row and you need a little more. That's when I nibble on bread, cheese, almonds or something that can clear or absorb the flavour on the palate. I find sparkling water zaps the taste of wood right off my tongue, and Muenster cheese neutralises leftover alcohol flavour.
It's a marvellous process, and we judges take the competition extremely seriously. We genuinely feel our winner is the best thing we've tasted. Since we taste blind, we don't know whom we've chosen until the competition announces the winners months later.
That's the hardest part of judging... the suspense is killing. Who won?