I have been regularly providing tasting notes on the new releases for Whisky Magazine for five years. My Malt Maniacs friends keep a detailed account of their notes and can easily provide their mileage which, for a lot of them, has outnumbered 1 000. An impressive performance! As for me, I could not tell how many whiskies I have tasted. A fair number I would think but this is not the important thing for me. What matters is not so much what I taste as how I taste.
The way I undertake the tasting with my colleague (and great buddy) Dave Broom is interesting as there is no communication in the tasting. We both receive the same samples which just feature a number, the age (that’s new) and the strength on the label.
We taste, write the notes and email them to Rob Allanson and we only discover what the other has written when we receive the magazine copy. Before reading the notes, I look at the scores to spot any which are ‘miles apart’. It rarely happens, we keep consistently close in our scoring but sometimes, the big gap occurs like with Ardbeg Corryvreckan when Dave gave it a triumphant 9 and I delivered it a poor 7!
We thought it would be interesting to have a conversation about our tasting-notes and try to understand what makes the difference and the similarities. Readers often ask us how, even when we appear to agree, our notes are apparently completely different.
Let’s take the Balblair 2000 tasted in issue 93. We are close in the scoring (8,1 and 7,8) but more interesting, also close in the way we assess the whisky and the choice of our descriptors. We both start by qualifying the whisky as being “delicate and floral”.
The floral aromas themselves differ: marshmallow for Dave, rosebud and narcissus for me. Dave notes a powdery sensation when I find a dusty one. And we both recommend to avoid water. I must say I was jubilant when I read his “Dare I say whispering?” for the palate as I felt my brother in drams was finally acknowledging my concept of ‘whispering whiskies’. An old teasing between us. “That Balblair is a good example of how we more often than not agree,” says Dave. “We arrive to the same conclusion, using different words. For me, this comes down to a cultural aspect. Our sense of smell is closely linked to our memory. I grew up in Glasgow, brought up on a West Coast diet of sweets and biscuits.” This is obviously different from the one I received in my small Norman village, fed on cream, butter, vegetables from the garden and cider. I notice that I often find cider apples, or cider cellar notes especially in old Speysiders. I also tend to refer a lot to cooked dishes, not surprising given my passion for cooking.
Whereas Dave will easily convey images of outdoor activities: wet socks, green fence post, hot bracken… The hiker is not far !
Finally the tasting-notes give as much information about the taster as they do on the whisky itself !
Science can be called for help as well to explain a different descriptions. “People naturally enough, believe that everything has an aroma unique to itself, yet they are shared,” Dave continues across. “Kiwi fruits share aromatic compounds with oysters for example. It’s no surprise that we’ll say the same thing with different words.” So when I write oyster and Dave finds kiwi fruit, we are on the same wavelength?
It is not obvious for me but it becomes so when it comes to herbs: basil and tarragon for instance are both members of the aniseed family and the likeness makes more sense.
Have you noticed that burnet tastes like cucumber ? There is a chance they share the same DNA.
In Issue 93, the comments we gave on the Lagavulin 1989 are interesting to look at. We differ not so much in the descriptors – we both find smoke, seashells, brine/sea spray and some floral notes – but there is a gap in the appreciation. Dave was totally carried away and scored this version of Lagavulin a 9, raving about its “complexity”, its” power and energy” while I was somewhat disturbed by this tidal outburst. Even if I appreciated this “clean cut frisky hearty Ileach”, I was less enthusiastic.
Another area worth exploring is the way we discover new flavours.
Dave with his frequent trips to Japan is familiar with miso soup and other Japanese dishes. Walking on Islay beaches, I have discovered a lot of nuances in seaweeds. I also have explored the great family of peppers. And just quoting “pepper” in a note is not enough. It has to be cubeb, Malabar, Indonesian, sechouan or another origin.
Dave and I often remember our trip to La Réunion a few years ago. We went to a local market and marvelled at the richness of aromas and flavours like kids in front of their Christmas presents.
Vetiver was the revelation. We never had smelled that aromatic root used a lot in perfumery before. Since then, we happen to find it in some whiskies.
Exploring new olfactory areas, constantly practising our senses is the key to produce accurate tasting-notes. But they would not make sense without one essential pursuit: the reader’s enjoyment and of course our own.