The Best Tastings Tell A Story

One way to be certain we’re in the midst of a whiskey boom: tastings are springing up everywhere and marketed to the ever-more-casually interested. The other day during the KCRW pledge drive, I heard a whiskey-related premium up for grabs, which went almost immediately. Whisky is undeniably mainstream.

However, as we all know, whisky can be insanely expensive, and unless you’ve openly declared war on your liver, a bottle can be a long-lasting commitment. Sure, you can swap samples with friends or do group buys, but that can be slow going until your whiskey-mania sets in, or until you’ve found many more people to trade with.

One of the best options to survey if you have some similarly whiskey-curious friends is to run a tasting, or to all submit to one. However, a good tasting is more than just grabbing five bottles at random and splitting the costs with several friends. The best whiskey tastings have some sort of narrative to them. It’s not necessarily a deep structure, but having an aim in mind before you start will help you get the most out of the tasting.

First things first: Is this a class or a group adventure?
Some tastings are instructional. One person has a depth of knowledge on a particular subject and presents the key things you should take away on the topic – which can be both gleaned from the experience of drinking, as well as facts imparted during the tasting. If you’re leading a tasting, make sure you’re familiar with what you’re pouring! You don’t want to be discovering a whiskey as everyone else is and trying to weave it into the narrative.

Others can be a group adventure: someone may have an idea about something they’d like to learn more about, and the group at large learns. The “leader” in this case may discuss some bottles they’ve sourced or what gave the idea, but in all likelihood, everyone is on equal footing. There’s an element of risk here, but like attending a Pearl Jam, Phish or Dead show, part of the fun is not knowing what’s coming next.

What Story Do You Want to Tell?
There are several easily-told stories that you can go to and will teach you a wealth about a given subject.

The Effect Of Age
Taking one distillery’s standard range, assuming age is the only variant (Macallan Fine Oak and Macallan Sherry Cask ranges are good examples), this can show you the effect of age on a particular distillery’s character. You can stick strictly to official bottlings, or you can make it interesting and go with independent bottlings as well – a chance to find “in between” ages or especially old/young bottles from a given distillery.
Sample: Macallan Fine Oak 10, Macallan Fine Oak 15, Macallan Fine Oak 17, Macallan Fine Oak 21

Distillery Deep Dive
Taking a broad array of official and independent bottlings, you can sample a range of casks and ages by augmenting official offerings with independent offerings of unusual age, cask provenance, or especially notable vintages. For certain distilleries, this can almost be a whole series of tastings unto itself. You can have the opportunity to find “off-profile” casks which is a great point for discussion. This can teach you a great deal about what the distillery does outside of official bottlings – how it can be altered by casks, age, how it’s changed over time, odd casks, and so forth.
Example: Glen Elgin 1976 “Green Elgin”; Glen Elgin 1975 “Perfect Dram”, Glen Elgin 1971 Cadenhead’s 19y; Glen Elgin Centenary (1981) 19y; Glen Elgin 1991 Signatory 19y; Glen Elgin 16 (OB); Glen Elgin The Manager’s Dram 16y; Glen Elgin 1985 The Bottlers; Glen Elgin Manager’s Choice 2009 (OB). Note: This was a LAWS tasting.

Distillery Style Evolution
Sometimes there’s an interesting question in tracking the evolution of a distillery’s profile over a long period of time and (ideally) holding age statements constant. That’s not always easy to do, but you can ballpark it. Some distilleries showed rapid changes over a short period of time and you may not need to survey multiple decades – others are interesting to track over a long period of time.
Example: Macallan 15y 1952 Campbell Hope & King, Macallan 15y 1956 Campbell Hope & King, Macallan 15y 1959 Campbell Hope & King. I covered this very tasting a while back.

Mashbill Variation (primarily American)
The more free regulations regarding mashbill in American whiskeys allow for some interesting experiments in understanding how variance in the grain content affects taste. Ideally try and keep it to a single distillery in an attempt to control the yeast variable. Do this one and spend time with it and you’ll start being able to pick out things that you see in wheaters but not rye, rye but not wheaters, and so on.
Example: Old Weller Antique (wheat – no rye); Buffalo Trace (low rye); Blanton’s (high rye); Sazerac (straight rye)

Yeast Variation
This is one that I was initially made aware of during a High West tasting in which we tasted an array of whiskies differing by yeast only. There was a distinct difference in each of them. Since then I’ve tasted several (but not all) of Four Roses’ yeast recipes and it’s been similarly interesting. You’d be surprised what yeast can do to a whiskey.
Example: Four Roses Single Barrel OBSK; Four Roses Single Barrel OBSV; Four Roses Single Barrel OBSQ; Four Roses Single Barrel OBSO; Four Roses Single Barrel OBSF

Deconstructing A Blend
This is not necessarily an easy one – with very few exceptions, blend recipes are fairly closely-guarded secrets. However, various blends have had aspects of their makeup hinted at strongly if not outright divulged. Tasting the original blend and the component whiskies, then returning to the original, can show you how sometimes multiple whiskies come together to make an entirely new thing.
Example: Johnnie Walker Green; Talisker 10 (or better yet, 18); Caol Ila 12; Linkwood 15 (Gordon & MacPhail); recap with Johnnie Walker Green

These are just a handful of options. If you think in terms of themes or bigger ideas, you can really take yourself to interesting heights or in unexpected directions. You’ll learn a lot more about where your whiskey comes from, its place in the whisky landscape, and so forth. You might even be able to find interesting and unexpected opportunities if you keep your eyes open – sister casks from a closed distillery, for instance.

Other good options would include a look at similarly-aged sherry-matured whiskeys; a brief survey of the peated whiskeys on Islay (pay attention to how it changes from one location to the next); the effect of cask finishes on peated whisky; North American single malt whiskeys; closed distilleries; etc., etc. The list is endless.

Of course, rules are made to be broken. Sometimes it’s fun to just have a potluck with basic guidelines on the bottles brought (“independently bottled whiskies from the Highlands region, max $200″) if you’ve had a series of themed tastings. You can also up the ante by doing the tasting blind.

The bottom line is push yourself and your knowledge. There’s a lot you can learn, and all you need to do is step beyond shelf-talkers and alphabetical displays or categorization at your store.

Postscript

It’s been a couple weeks since I’ve posted a review. I’m in the middle of fighting a bug that has me taking plenty of meds and sweating like a malaria patient in Southeast Asia. I’m hoping to have something new up this time next week. Until then, enjoy what you’re having and drop a comment about it so I can live vicariously through your enjoyment.

16 thoughts on “The Best Tastings Tell A Story”

      1. Heal up! I’m sipping on some Willett 5-year-old rye, and the Four Roses 2012 Limited Edition Single Barrel—both are really tasty!

        1. Thanks for the well-wishes. I keep wanting to try the 4R 2012 but no one around me has it at a price I’m even remotely willing to pay (worst offenders, Wally’s, selling it for $120 – HAH). Probably will either end up splitting or sampling it.

          1. I picked up a bottle at Party Supply for $90. I haven’t cracked it yet but I tried it at WhiskyLive in April and it was one of the highlights of the show. I’ll gladly send a sample your way when we get there.

          2. Yeah, a guy shot me a link to TPS’s price and that seems to be the best deal shipped. Everyone’s talking it up but I just can’t bring myself to pull the trigger. Looks like we should fire up a swap soon.

  1. Feel better Tim. I’ll have a for you tonight. Went to K&L yesterday in Hollywood and picked up the 21 YO Clynelish. Delicious stuff! Not a very impressive selection at K&L though. I’ll stick to online shopping ;-)

    1. God, I love that 21y Clynelish. LAWS wasn’t as big of a fan of it as I am, but I really have been digging the hell out of it. I ended up going back and think I wound up with three or four bottles. There’s still more and I keep having the temptation. Something about it just works.

      From what I understand, the K&L motherlode is up in Redwood City. The Hollywood store has a fairly active stock and is worth checking in on regularly, but I’d say I do more of my K&L purchases online and then just pick up.

      If you like that 21y Clynelish, I picked up a 35y sherry casked Glenlivet (signatory) from Binny’s earlier in the summer that I think is cut from a similar cloth (my notes are on LAWS). It’s worth hunting down…

      My sense of smell is so off that we were using lavender hand wipes today at the grocery store and I thought they were juniper. Wonder what a little gin would smell like… hmmm…

  2. Feel better soon, Tim! I’ve led tastings organized around the major geographical regions of Scotland, the major flavor profiles in Scotch (ocean flavors, highland/spey fruit basken, lowland sweet & light, Cambeltown, & peat monster) I’ve also done “trends in US craft whiskies”. I have a public event this fall – I wonder what theme I’ll go?

    1. Thanks, Josh. The geography one – have we had this discussion? – is a hard one for me because I feel like it can be misleading. I’ve set up some on something that closely resembles Broom’s flavor chart & its axes because that works more for me mentally than regions.

      I feel like regions have so many exceptions to their “rules” that it’s not useful as any indication of terroir. Hell, if Lagavulin could clone Laphroaig’s stills and they’re separated by a scant mile and a quarter (and by most accounts, Malt Mill was not a successful replica of Laphroaig), it really puts a hard stake in the heart of terroir as a real vital part of whisky for me – at least, at that level. Nationally I think is a different story, but even then, production is so varied from country to country that aside from Japan and Scotland there’s not much in the way of apples to apples comparisons.
      I think I’m out of step with a lot of people with my opinion on them, but my impression has been that the regions were more of a legal/tax-based framework for carving up the country than any sort of descriptor of taste, and I just don’t want to spend time educating newbies on them… they decide they love peat and buy a Bunnahabhain 12 or Laddie 10 (or worse, hate peat and then think that Benriach Curiositas looks interesting….).

      Fall theme: good question. Guess it depends on where it is and who it’s for.

      1. Your arguments about geographical regions are true. Klimeck has posted the same at some length and the results of his blind tasting showed that to be the case. The unpeated Caol Ila had everyone thinking peated Spey. The Loch Lomond 1965 showed the impossibility of teasing sweet Highland from Speyside. My blind tastings have showed me that I can’t distinguish the gentle high rye mashbill US ryes from the Canadian pure flavoring ryes. Indeed, tasting blind I just found I can incorrectly attribute a whisky even 24 hours after I wrote about it. Anyway – the cavalcade of incorrect assumptions that makes thinking in terms of geographical regions in the context of a blind tasting an unmitigated disaster is also what makes it of some reasonable use in presenting the major flavor components of Scotch to newbies in a public tasting. Some of these components have clear terrior aspects: i.e Island and coastal Highland drams with ocean salt and iodine flavors tend to get them from the sea. Highland peated expressions are less peaty than Islays because the maritime peat has ocean essence in it. Lowlands are extra sweet and clean because triple distillation is now only done in the lowland region (within Scotland anyway – Ireland is a different case). The fact is that geography is a peg to hang your hat on. It might be counter-productive – particularly as it does prove to be misleading if you conclude dogmatically from these basic tendencies – so I’m reconsidering including geography in future orientations. I’m certainly attempting to abandon geography thinking in my own tasting mental process. That’s for sure.

        1. I think the system that clicked with me more immediately was David Wishart’s, of which I view Broom’s a more elegant simplification of. The shame with Wishart’s is that it doesn’t really seem to be updated much but it’s probably one of the most easy ways to get flavor. Broom’s is a really great simplification, and his book has a really solid “if you like this, then try this..” path. I think if you went through that book you’d have a good handle for future steps.

          It’d be interesting to crowdsource flavor camp placements and there was even a guy who emailed me with a site that aimed to do that, but on a slightly different plot. I think if you could drop it in along Broom’s axes you’d see some trends (and with enough data be able to intelligently recommend next steps).

          I think increasingly I’m less afraid of pushing people online for data – there’s no shortage of information, and if you have a scotch budget, there’s certainly an internet connection for you… I think the right thing is to give people the tools to ask the right questions (based on taste) versus blind brand buying, etc…

  3. Thanks for the advice about tastings. I moved recently to LA, and having tastings with friends is something I really miss, especially accentuated yesterday when a friend from my old city sent me a bottle of Oban 14, which I’ve only tasted once before, and it was easily the highlight of my day/week. Loved the fruit notes and subtle sweetness, which I contrasted with a Balvenie doublewood that I finished off and then some from a new bottle of Buffalo Trace, which tasted almost candy-sweet in comparison. I’m trying to find some new whiskey-loving friends here but it’s been tough with my work schedule, though I’m holding out hope that it’ll happen, eventually…

    1. Hey Freddy, welcome to LA! Where did you arrive from?

      There’s tons of great spots around town if you haven’t explored. You should hit the Daily Pint and Seven Grand for starters. Tons of LA people to be found on Straight Bourbon & to a lesser extent, whiskywhiskywhisky.com. Feel free to check my twitter stream as well (@tmread) – you’ll see there are a few LA peeps I chat with pretty regularly.

      Given the LA traffic, spread-out-geography and, yes, hassles of having to maintain a job, it is tough to meet people which is why I think the net is so useful for our loose cadre of whiskey folk. I have a similar challenge trying to get things to happen around my schedule with a 1 year old, which even then frequently gets disrupted (as with this weekend) by kidborne germs. :)

      Feel free to keep in touch, too.

  4. Great post! I did a different kind of post on hosting a whisky tasting on my blog a while back. Interesting & fun to see so many different ways to approach the amazingly vast category known as “whisky.” Hope you feel better, Tim! It’ll be Suntory Yamazki 12yr in my glass tonight :) Perfect end of summer whisky. Cheers!

    (here’s the link to my post about whisky tastings – more of a “how to” approach for those getting started: http://thewhiskywoman.wordpress.com/2011/12/05/create-your-own-whisky-tasting-party/ )

    1. Great points! I think there’s one thing I’d add to your list, which is “Talk about it”. I’ve had tastings that are kind of dull until people start discussing what they’re tasting. I’ve had people put a name on the one note that is there but I can’t put a name to, and I’ve managed to get people to reconsider things based on things I’ve said as well. Sometimes the give-and-take of a good group of knowledgeable people can really take a tasting to a new level. Working with newbies? I think volunteering some thoughts – or directly asking people to put stronger words to what they’re tasting (even if not “notey” in their nature) – can help people dig a little deeper into the senses.

      The other nice thing that is frequently a feature of the super-nerdiest of tastings I’ve been to: extra pens and index cards for taking notes.

      Thanks for sharing. Yamazaki 12: I can almost taste it myself. Great vanilla with just a little white pepper on it. Love it.

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