Intro to Whiskey Tasting
Posted on May 23 2018
Intro to Whiskey Tasting
Part 1: Rating Whiskey on a Scale
This is the first installment in a series outlining some of the high points to consider when tasting whiskey. In this one, I illustrate some of the different rating systems that are available for assigning scores to whiskeys. In future parts, I will lay out some tips for making notes describing your tasting experience and will make suggestions to keep in mind while hosting your own tasting event.
If you’ve ever participated in a wine or spirit tasting, you have no doubt dabbled, at least a little, in rating drinks on a scale. If you’ve ever perused the aisles at the store and made your choice based on a score, then you’ve relied on someone else’s scale. Early in my whiskey-drinking career I began experimenting with different rating methods. There are an un-ending number of options out there, so I chose to include some of the most popular along with my personal favorites, starting from simplest to most complex.
Binary – Yes or No
When people first get started in rating something, they tend to fall back on the simple question, “Do I like it or not?” At the end of the day, this is probably the single most valuable attribute of a subject. However, it is not very informative in terms of comparability.
Three Options - Good, bad, neutral
I like this one when I taste something outside of my comfort range but not completely new. When I go to wine tastings with my wife, we use this method to decide whether or not to buy it. If either of us says it is bad, then it’s a no go. If one is neutral and the other says it is good, then we discuss whether to buy. If both of us say it is good, then we get a bottle or two. It is good for making purchase decisions, but it is not always useful when ranking multiple options.
I came up with this scale recently because I wanted to strike the best balance between too few options (which hurts comparability, as in the methods I listed above) and too many options (which inserts ambiguity, as we will discuss below). My hope was to make it a clean 5-point scale, but after putting it into practice, I determined another level was necessary. This is my favorite scale to use when doing blind tastings with a large number of people.
0 - Drain Pour; Very Bad; Can't Finish the Glass
1 - Can Drink It If Obligated; Would Not Choose
2 - It's Ok; Below Average But Not Offensive
3 - Average; Might Make a Good Daily Drinker
4 - Above Average; Gets Me Excited
5 - Outstanding; For Special Occasions
6 - Unicorn; It Cannot Get Any Better Than This
With clear designations and little room for ambiguity, it is very likely that everyone participating will interpret the methodology the same. It’s biggest flaw, however, is that it might not work as well for a single person to rank a list of whiskeys. With a large number of tasters, the scores average to as many decimal places as you like and make for easier ranking. However, with one person providing scores, they will likely end up with a long list of 2s, 3s, and 4s.
The 100-point scale is probably a familiar one, not only because that’s how many of us were graded in school, but also because of the rating systems made popular by whiskey experts like Michael Jackson and Jim Murray . However, Jackson and Murray took very different approaches to the 100-point scale, and therein lies its biggest flaw, ambiguity/lack of comparability across scorers. Jackson would start with 50 points and add points based on quality, up to a possible 100-point total (making it effectively a 50-point scale). I know others that start at 70 and go up from there (making it effectively a 30-point scale). Murray, on the other hand, would assign up to 25 points each to the categories of Nose, Taste, Finish and Balance. These different approaches can and should be interpreted differently.
A few other considerations:
Whether we’re talking about cars, music, drink, or anything else we consume or use, everyone is looking for something a little different. We all like different things, so it makes sense that we might not rate things the same, all else being equal. If you like it, it’s a winner.
A great technique for removing bias is to do the tasting blind. If you don’t want your results to be influenced by pre-conceived notions based on brand loyalty, price, reputation, or other factors, figure out a way to blind yourself from the identity of a handful of samples and try them. You might be surprised at your results.
There are so many options out there for rating scales; it can be daunting to try to pick a favorite. One need only visit the Bourbon subreddit or any of the many Bourbon forums to see a wide array of options. If you haven’t experimented with many of them yet, it might be worth trying them out and seeing what works best for you.
Intro to Whiskey Tasting
Part 2: A Brief Overview on Tasting Whiskey
This is the second installment in a series outlining some of the high points to consider when tasting whiskey.
One of the most exciting parts about tasting whiskey is nosing and drinking to identify the different flavors contained in the glass. These are not flavors that are individually added. Rather, these flavors come naturally from the fermentation, distillation, and aging processes. Even though there is no actual caramel or vanilla added in straight bourbon, they and up to dozens of other flavors are often present.
Background: Where do these flavors come from?
The most common ingredients in whiskey are malted barley, rye, corn, wheat, water, and yeast, and they all have an impact on the final product. Malted barley, the main ingredient in Scotch whiskey, is popular for its roast-y toffee flavor as well as the enzymes produced during the malting process that help convert starches to sugar. Rye imparts a lot of spice and some fruit notes to the whiskey. Corn typically adds syrupy sweetness, and some strains of corn can also impart herbal flavors. Wheat gives a subtle, light bread note to whiskey. The mineral content of the water plays a big part in the mashing process, and also, since whiskey is sometimes almost 60% water, it stands to reason it would affect the taste. The yeast used to ferment the sugars in the grain can produce many byproducts besides alcohol, particularly esters and fatty acids, that add flavors, typically fruit or herbal notes, to the whiskey. (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/j.2050-0416.1971.tb03370.x)
The first thing you do when someone pours you a drink is to look at it, so it makes sense that a lot of reviewers start by commenting on its appearance. It is very popular to describe the color Scotch whiskeys because they can vary quite a bit. The different types of barrels used in aging and finishing Scotch influence the color, and as a result, can tell you a lot about its story. In general, I find it less useful to describe bourbons and ryes at length because they are typically within a pretty narrow spectrum of amber.
Setting the Stages
Typically, the flavors of whiskey are evaluated in three stages: the nose, the palate, and the finish.
Since our sense of smell is 10,000 times more sensitive than our taste (http://www.tsbvi.edu/seehear/summer05/smell.htm ), it is very valuable to nose the whiskey in the glass for a while before tasting.
One of the toughest challenges for people new to nosing whiskey is getting past the alcohol burn. With practice it becomes less of an issue, but there are a few methods for reducing its impact on you. One suggestion I’ve heard is to hold your nose a little bit back from the glass and waft the aroma towards you with your hand. I haven’t had much success with that. When I was starting out, someone suggested sticking my nose in the glass and breathing in through my mouth. I had more success with that method, but after years of nosing whiskey, I just stick my nose way in there and inhale deeply. A special treat that I have come to really enjoy is nosing the glass again once the glass is empty. I find I can usually pick out some extra notes once the alcohol is all gone, and there is only the residue left in the glass. Try it out, and you will see what I mean.
To get the flavors on the palate, most tasters take in a small amount and move it around the tongue to get a good read. I like the way Fred Minnick succinctly describes how he evaluates the palate, “I’m expecting what I nosed and hoping for more.” (https://www.fredminnick.com/2015/05/07/scoring-new-products-blade-bow-22-year-old-bookers-dots-batch-temperance-trader-michters-rye/) I’ll admit I have never been good at getting many flavors on the palate. Every now and then something on the palate will jump out at me, but it’s not generally something I do successfully.
The finish has always been my main focus when rating a whiskey. As the whiskey goes down your throat, the flavors that linger throughout your mouth can tell you quite a lot about what you are drinking. I think of the finish like a chromatography experiment I did back in school. We wrote on pieces of paper with ink pens and dipped the edges of the paper in water. The water caused the pigments in the ink to spread out on the paper and separate. Similarly, I imagine the flavors of a whiskey separating on my tongue with time and revealing details that were previously obscured.
The type of glassware that you use will have a substantial impact on your tasting experience. Rocks glasses are popular for drinking whiskey on ice, but the ice cools and dilutes the whiskey in a way that makes it harder to pick out flavors. Also the wide rim does not help in concentrating flavors. The Glencairn is widely accepted as the official whiskey-tasting glass. Its bulbous bottom creates more surface area, allowing more flavors to evaporate, and the narrowed top of the glass concentrates the vapors, giving you a more impactful nosing opportunity. There are many types of glassware out there with similar features to the Glencairn, and some people prefer them, but so far it is my personal favorite.
We will go into this topic further in the next installment, in which we give you some tips on hosting your own whiskey tasting event. Stay tuned!
Shawn was born and raised in Houston but followed his wife to Nashville where they spent a wonderful and exciting decade. It was there that Shawn established his photography company, Sundel Perry, which was focused primarily on serving the music business. While living in Nashville, he fell in love with bourbon and co-founded a club in 2010 called The Bourbon Trust with some of his neighbors and friends. He orchestrated several barrel picks for the group from different distilleries before returning to Houston in 2015 and has been there since. In addition to drinking, talking about, and writing about bourbon, he loves capturing the visual beauty of bourbon in photos. His wife and his two young daughters are all very supportive of his bourbon obsession. For now.
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