Developing Your Palate, Redux; Courage In Your Convictions

Two years ago I wrote a general take on developing your palate. Based on some personal conversations and some internet silliness that continues to persist, it seems as good a time as any to revisit the subject in more depth. The old post is fine; if you’re curious about the basics of glass selection and so forth, it’s as good a place to start as anywhere.

Anyone Can Taste

Consider it a mark of fatherhood; the first thing that comes to mind for me these days on the subject of tasting is Disney/Pixar’s Ratatouille and Gastineau’s cookbook, Anyone Can Cook. It’s a point of contention and a matter of interpretation in the movie. I’m not sure I agree entirely with the movie’s resolution of the debate, as given voice by the character of Anton Ego. I truly believe that anyone, given the inclination to try, the curiosity to learn and the willingness to be wrong and make mistakes can be a solid taster – certainly on par with any who blog about spirits. I’ve shared drinks with many and we all bring our own experiences to the table. This may manifest in different ways, but I can’t think of a time when I’ve gotten up and thought to myself, “that person has no clue what they’re talking about”.

The first and most important thing I would urge to anyone trying to taste is to resist the impulse to edit or discard. Just write what comes to mind. You’re going to start with a limited vocabulary. Accept it and don’t worry about it – the exercise is more important than the results for some time. As you build up a body of experience, you’ll taste things that make for slight variations on themes you recognize. Finding a familiar taste presented more prominently in a different drink may help you realize you’re tasting the influence of oloroso sherry, or perhaps unaged spirit (showing a lack of wood influence, for instance). Don’t worry what anyone else says about what you’ve tasted.

Second, it’s important to frequently live outside your comfort zone. When your experiences  are constrained to one narrow thing, you’re going to have a narrower set of references to draw from. Try other spirits – if you’re a scotch drinker, you’d do well to have some bourbons of various ages and mashbills; trying sherry will help you understand what it might impart. You probably would do well to try wines like port and sauternes which frequently shows up in stunt-casking. Keep your eyes on what things are finished in and make a note to try them. The variety isn’t huge.

Beyond that, try other drinks categories altogether. I can think of one particularly questionable whisky I had this year that could have passed itself off as a gin. I can think of one gin that drinks more like a whiskey. There are whiskeys that have notes in common with beer (in higher concentrations). And who knows – you might find something you like. I certainly didn’t miss whiskey this summer.

But that’s incomplete. You should be paying attention to what you eat and drink over the course of your days. You could take notes on it if you want, but paying attention is the important part. You can’t always be on, but for new things – or for very familiar things – it can help provide a little more dimension to the experience.

You Need To Go Deeper

I’ve seen some people toss aside the idea of critical tasting, as if it’s all made up. This is usually pursued along one of two lines. First, most commonly leveled at someone like Dave Broom, either a statement that “no one knows what xyz tastes like” or that “you can only discern so many tastes at once.” These are statements that are two sides of the same coin, a belief that someone takes a sip, gets some nondescript impression (e.g., “this tastes like whiskey”) and then makes up a bunch of adjectives that make for good copy.

I’m willing to concede to science which says people are only able to distinguish a handful of aromas and flavors. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t analyze those components for more clarity. If you taste apples, what kind of apple? Is it ripe? Is it a bit young? Explain it more. What about “wood”? It’s a common tasting note. Do you think of an old study? Does it taste like wet wood? Does it smell like freshly sawn lumber? Dry pencil shavings or something else? Going down this avenue of exploring the first level tastes in more detail lends additional detail. You shouldn’t be afraid of inspecting your first impressions closer.

On the flip side, there’s the impressionistic tasting note. Sometimes there’s an overall feeling you get from things that doesn’t map cleanly to a single set of descriptors. I remember Octomore Orpheus to me was the “Beach cookout at PCH”. Another scotch was “a rainy driveway with the car running”, and another was “beef barley stew cooking in the winter”. Sometimes it’s that Ratatouille thing: you take a bite, and analysis be damned, you’re transported to a different time or place, and no words suffice to paint the picture that is evoked in your head. Maybe you can hammer it out, but sometimes it’s best to leave room for the imagination of your audience.

The other avenue for disagreement is usually the, “I don’t know about all that, it just tastes like whiskey to me” response. This is a willfully ignorant stance to take. If it’s one you want to take, that’s fine. It’s the equivalent of saying “all apples taste the same” (how about Fuji vs Red Delicious vs Granny Smith?). Certainly there’s a rough bounding box that lets you say, “this is whiskey”, but  even “bourbon” is an awfully broad category for taste. It’s worth a willingness to go beyond the simple answer.

Don’t Forget To Live

There’s a boring achievement-driven, fear of missing out mindset that plagues a lot of discussion of food and drink. Take this practice of taking notes too far, and you’re the guy at the bar with friends who has to find a drink he’s never had, pitch a small fit about the way it’s served, and embarrass everyone by whipping out a notebook and writing down stuff. All the while, that guy expects the world to go on hold while you determine if he’s getting more diastatic malt powder or fresh barley on that independent Bunnahabhain.

I’ve been this guy. It’s nothing to be proud of. You have to ask yourself what you’re chasing? What happens when you have the notes for that Brora you’ve been hunting for? Does anything really change? Can you enjoy a moment anymore without quantifying it?

At the last few LAWS meetings I was at and in get-togethers this summer, I’ve made a conscious effort to be less notes-driven. I went three months without taking a single tasting note, and it was great. I’m able to be present, reflect on other things and connect with the people I’m with. Certainly we might discuss things related to the drink (Stone’s Enjoy By IPA has been a favorite; our consensus was that it’s continued to lean more malty and the hopping has gotten a little less floral), but there’s not a desperate analytical need to track down every trace of seville orange, mustard seed, and chewings fescue that might exist.

That’s not to say “I go back on everything I just said”, but to advocate for balance. If it’s a casual, fun encounter, then just go with a known quantity. Odds are that Scott’s Selection Lochside will be there next weekend. The strange, competitive undercurrent to gather the most tasting notes is really bizarre race. What motivates it? Why count it? As far as I know, there’s not a lifetime achievement for tasting the most whiskey.

Stand By Your… Notes

We are the sum of our experiences through the filter of what our bodies can perceive. Due to genetics, culture, our innate preferences and so on, our perceptions are different. Some people hate cilantro; others barely taste it. Some people hate bourbon, others consider it the only legitimate form of bourbon. These are individual preference. Trying to tease an absolute truth out of subjective opinion is a fool’s errand. Some people want to explain away differences in critical opinion by some scientifically quantifiable factor – a bad bottle, unclean glassware, a tainted sample container, light exposure, et cetera. It’s possible that these factors come into play in some cases, but at the same time, maybe one person simply doesn’t like an aspect of the flavor. Maybe it reminds them of something they ate once and hated. Maybe… it just tastes bad to them. It’s just the way they perceive things.

Needing to normalize humanity out of the equation is about as obsessive and ill-advised as the need to note absolutely every beverage that passes your lips.

Because of this subjectivity, it’s important to realize we all paint from a slightly different palette when describing our experiences. Taking the time to write down your impressions on your own will help you develop your facility to discuss them. It’s painful to see someone talk about something and then slip into long-established, “known” tasting notes. Some stereotypes exist for a reason, but I bet there are a fair amount of people who have tasted Bowmore and reflexively used “parma violets” because that’s just how people describe it.

The most painful example I’ve ever seen, and I almost cringed reading it, was when a person wrote their notes on a whiskey and described it in relatively unflattering terms, highlighting a relatively thin and estery profile. When they were informed it was a grain, they immediately backtracked and started talking about the vanilla and so forth – as if they were going from The Standard Book Of Grain Whisky Tasting Notes. An unpalatable drink suddenly became great just because of a person’s lack of conviction in what they said, and their apparent need to get the “right” notes for something.

It’s OK to like something no one else likes or hate things that people love. I thought K&L’s ’72 Glenfarclas was too woody and concentrated. People told me I was insane. I, like many in LAWS, have a deep fondness for Charbay Release I and Release II. I’ve heard tons of people say they can’t stand it. Who’s right?

By extension, it’s OK to have your own impressions because your body and mind are distinct from everyone else’s. Believe in what you say. And if you don’t know or are not sure, it’s fine to say “I don’t know” or “what’s that taste”?

In short: Practice and build your experience. Give yourself a wide variety of opportunities to learn from. Dig deeper beyond your first impressions. Don’t be afraid to struggle in finding the “right” words – sometimes a feeling says more than words could. Believe in yourself and your preferences.

If you want to improve your skills, you can, unless you tell yourself you can’t. The only dishonest approach is to use other people’s words and beliefs as your own.

 

Greed, Gear, Grails

Rumors of my blogging demise are greatly exaggerated.

Over the summer I’ve had a host of conversations with people at various levels on the whisky enthusiasm scale – from self-doubting newbie to well-known names to whisky lovers. It’s been an interesting few months withdrawn from the active, frequently self-referential and repetitive online discussions. While I’ve drawn a distance that I’ll likely maintain from that (stick a needle in my eye if I do a twitter tasting, please), I’ve found some more interesting things to mine in general. I think there’s only so many times you can say “prices are up, quality is down”.

The interesting thing I’ve seen against the backdrop of rising prices is a sense of paralysis in the face of things you own suddenly being “worth” more. As I’ve detailed in the past, my mindset continues to be one of reducing my footprint and owning less. Thus, the few offers I’ve gotten I’ve been predisposed to take.

I was asked about someone who saw a bottle they owned being sold for $1400 in a liquor store back east. They’d bought the bottle years back at a small fraction of that, and here it was – worth $1400! What to do?

The truth is not so simple. Here’s some basic facts to remember. First, if something is on the shelf at a price that seems staggeringly high (and it’s rare), it’s likely to note that it isn’t generally believed to be worth that price, or else it’d be long gone from the shelf. That’s an asking price. Similarly, I have a 90 year old rare snare drum I restored. It’s not for sale unless someone was willing to pony up $25,000 today. Does that mean it’s actually worth 25 grand? No, it’s just my “go away” price unless someone is desperate to own one, in which case I won’t be totally ridiculous.

Second, it’s not worth getting wrapped around the axle of how much something is perceived to be worth unless you have an offer for cash in hand. If you have no intention of ever selling, then why even worry about what other people are getting for it?

Finally on this point, don’t let those high prices spoil your enjoyment. Let’s say you’re the proud owner of a bottle that you paid $100 for. You find out it’s worth $1400 right before you open it, and you’re now in the throes of indecision and feeling unworthy. If you wouldn’t take $600-700 for that bottle, then don’t worry about it. Just drink it, and pat yourself on the back for having found a bottle that time has smiled upon. The worst thing is to just lock it away and promise yourself to have it “one day”. Odds are you’ll deem yourself unworthy. Enjoy it. Things are meant to be used.

I have a camera that has appreciated in value by almost 40% in the last five years. When I sold off my camera gear, it was the last one standing, with the intention of using the hell out of it. Just because the market agrees with my choice years ago that something is high quality doesn’t mean I should suddenly feel like I shouldn’t use it and should lock it away, unseen, untouched and unused. What good is owning something that you’ll never use and never sell, and in essence never see a benefit from? It’s a curious materialistic quirk of the concept of ownership to take this view.

This leads me to the “gear” issue. As a musician, it’s all too easy to get wrapped up in everything but the music. Entire forums are dedicated to just talking about the mechanical working of certain pieces of equipment, or pseudoscientific analysis of marketing claims. There are times when there’s an appropriate level of attention paid – researching a new purchase to address a genuine need, or dealing with defects or ideas for improvement. But when a musician gets tied up in getting the next must-have piece of gear, they stop paying attention to the music. You really don’t want to buy an album of someone just describing in exhaustive detail the construction of their instrument and the marketing speak that explains why it’s so much better than anything else that’s ever been created.

Whisky culture is dangerously close to mimicking that equipment-obsessed gearslut mindset. Part of the current hype is fueled is fueled by a weekly score of new “exclusive” and “limited” releases. It’s so hard to single one out – mystery bottles from Glenlivet; hashtagged Aberfeldys; Glenfarclases for wealthy Poles; Dalmores for wealthy people whose decisions otherwise must be made by power of attorney to avoid harming themselves;anything from LVMH. Throw something in a nonstandard cask, spin a submoronic story, toss a few samples to a couple bloggers and everyone goes crazy trying to obtain a sample. There’s no sense of perspective and all discussion centers around the new-release production line. It’s been the equivalent of seeing a new article online and just being the mouth breather who has to first-post it.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t seek out things we’re interested, but a degree of discrimination is useful. There’s a difference between “Boy, I’d like to try a 70s Ardbeg because I’ve heard so much good stuff about it” and “I’VE GOT TO TRY THE BOAT-ENCASED HIGHLAND PARK BECAUSE REASONS!” You want to try a Macallan distilled in your birth year? Have at it (bring your wallet!). But take some time to form your opinions and learn about your tastes at a more affordable level. 90% of the exclusives out there are just carnival huckster level ploys: This will be gone and never again available, act fast (…and if it sells well, we’ll start finishing more barrels this way and extend the line)! PT Barnum would be proud.

Having had some of my grails though, I will say the experience rarely lives up to the hype. I think in the last two years the only two that met my expectations were Tun 1401/3 and Lagavulin 21 (2007). Meanwhile I had Brorageddon, PLOWED Ellen, a host of old bourbons and ryes and scotches galore in that same time. Don’t get so caught up in the hunt for the rare and exclusive that you lose sight of the bounty available every day. As I said to Sku at lunch yesterday, “if you told me the only bourbon I could have was the standard off-the-shelf 100 proof Four Roses Single Barrel, I’d be totally fine with that”. Find your everyday drinkers.

As a proof of the “unholy grail”, here was one of my momentary pursuits. Glen Flagler was a distillery-in-a-distillery (a la Glencraig) – in this case located inside the Moffat grain distillery. A few years back I found an official 30yo bottling from a 1973 distillation. Why did I care about this one? Because it’s closed and rare! Of course, I should have learned the lesson that “closed and rare” does not necessarily equate with “good”. Here’s the play-by-play.

The nose starts somewhat predictably, with a relatively gentle honey sweetness and some nice barley notes. It gets a little more grassy and is also gently floral. It’s fairly standard stuff for a lighter-profile older whisky, with an overall feeling of a meadow that’s overdue for a visit from a few hummingbirds.

The palate leads with some grassiness and then gets woody. There’s a low-level oakiness underneath everything, it’s got some moderate but zippy white pepper notes and some barley sweetness. It’s also a touch musty.

The finish leads with pepper, followed by bitter greens and woodiness. It retains heat but dries expectedly to bitter greens and oak.

It’s fairly textbook overoaked lighter-bodied whisky. It’s got a nice presence on the nose but the spirit can’t stand up to the rough handling that 30 years in oak gave it. And here we go, another check in the “unremarkable closed distillery” column.

At a glance:

Glen Flagler 1973 (30y OB) 46% ABV
Nose:  Honey sweetness with some nice barley as well. Grassy; gently floral. 
Palate:  Grassy at first; moderately woody, a low level oakiness underneath some moderate and zippy white pepper. Some barley sweetness; faintly musty.
Finish: 
Pepper leading, followed by a mix of a little bitter greens, and some woodiness. Stays fairly hot, but dries a touch bitter and oaky.
Comment:  Nice sweetness and gentleness, but marred by a little too much out of balance oak and the grassiness doesn’t sit right for me. 
Rating: C+