Tag Archives: tasting

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.

 

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.

Developing Your Palate

In recent weeks, perhaps in response to my constant blogging, I’ve found myself in more regular conversations about whiskey. One of the most common things that I hear is, “Oh, my palate just isn’t that good, I can’t really taste anything.” Close behind that is, “I would love to try insert whiskey here, but I just feel like it’s beyond my ability to appreciate.”

The truth is, there’s no superpower involved, and there’s nothing that isn’t beyond the average person’s ability to pick up – especially not among a lot of my friends who have an incredible ability to describe their food at any of the great restaurants here in LA. In my opinion, it’s largely the ability to make associations with things you’ve had before, and it’s something that gets easier the more you do it. There’s certainly no reason to be intimidated or to assume something is “beyond you”. (Beyond the range of the wallet? That’s a different story. In that regard, Glenmorangie Pride will forever be “beyond me”.)

As I’m writing this, I’m preparing to taste a sample of a bourbon that was part of a group buy with some like-minded friends. We each walked away with about 6 ounces, which is a good split  of a bottle – enough to have room to do tasting notes, but plenty to enjoy.

The first thing I use is a good glass. I alternate between two primary glasses for tasting: a Crate and Barrel Sipping Glass, which is a nice all-around glass for spirits, or the whiskey nerd standard Glencairn Whisky Glass. To be honest, I prefer the Glencairn glass because it feels slightly more durable and substantial, but the C&B glass is just fine. They’re slightly different in the aroma that they present, but it’s a relatively minor variation. To my nose (I tested blind), the Glencairn Glass presents with a little more sharpness to the nose that helps make some notes a little more clear. Notable whiskey personality (right, right, “Whyte & Mackay Master Blender”) Richard Paterson favors a copita glass like you’d use for sherry. Glencairn also makes a nice one but for whatever reason I prefer the version without the stem. (Richard, on the extremely remote chance you read this via ping back, I simply think “Master Blender” is inadequate to contain the sheer force of your personality. I hope you’ll forgive me). Try to avoid the traditional “rocks” or “old fashioned” glass as they don’t help. It turns out that your ears are not an important part in the process of tasting a whiskey.

Truth is, over time you’ll break glasses anyway so you can always try something until the next one breaks. My hard-won advice is that a bottle of Auchentoshan will beat the Crate & Barrel glass when they collide 10 times out of 10.

Next, we pour a reasonable amount in. I go for a standard 1.5 oz. It’s a reasonable amount of whiskey to start with.

The first thing to do is move in for a couple sniffs. Be mindful of the strength – something like the George T Stagg can easily numb your sense of smell for a moment. Even whiskies in the upper 40s can be a bit much, especially if you’re new, so let your nose be a guide. You might need to let it sit a minute. No problem.

When you sniff it, yes, you’re going to smell “whiskey”. But this is where the exercise begins… what IS the smell of whiskey? It’s actually quite different from whiskey to whiskey. This is where the process gets fun. Try to decipher what you smell. Don’t worry about “right” notes or not – everyone’s nose and palate is different, and we all have different sensitivities. The whiskey I’m drinking, an 18 year old wheat recipe Willett, is an absolute treat on the nose. I smell pepper, wood (like an old study or library), and wheat. It’s kind of earthy – think of that wet forest and damp, heavy clay soil. It’s sweet with some flavors of a creamy vanilla, like homemade ice cream. There’s also a hint of toffee in the background.

There you have it – two major “not food” notes. But they’re absolutely part of how I’ll describe it. OK, proceeding on to the enjoyable part, the drink.

You’ve got about an ounce and a half in your glass. Resist the urge to slug it back and grimace like you’re in a John Ford western. Take a small sip and let it move over your mouth. You might not even want to worry about what you taste. Just enjoy it… if anything jumps out at you, make a note of it. Take it through your mouth – the front of your tongue, the middle of your tongue, the very back. Let it get underneath your tongue and let it sit in your mouth. Paterson suggests holding it in your mouth a second for each year. I don’t disagree at all.

On the whiskey I’m having, I get some good spice – cinnamon and pepper again. It’s subtly sweet again, with notes of toffee and caramel immediately present, but some more rich maple syrup notes and a bit of molasses in the mix too. The earthy notes for the nose are there, as is the oak – it’s ever so slightly bitter. After a few seconds, there’s a definite hint of orange.

Some whiskies are absolutely going to burn out your tastebuds, especially initially. It’s OK to dilute with water. Just be aware that older whiskies fall apart quickly – for a 20+ year old whiskey you should proceed very slowly and literally add a drop or two at most initially. If you drown it, it’ll just be kind of a bland, watery whiskey-like substance and you’ll feel disappointed in what remains in your glass.

Water can and will change the flavor of the whiskey as you taste it, which is part of the fun of getting to know a whiskey over the course of the bottle. Some whiskies become more clearly focused with water. Others open up new dimensions entirely. I actually am a fan of a couple drops of water in Macallan’s 18 year old sherry oak expression, which adds a nice wet straw and grass note that takes the drink in an entirely different direction. You’ll never know unless you try.

So, down the hatch. Let it sit and observe what happens. This whiskey I’m having dries out substantially and the orange note from late in the palate comes to the forefront. There’s an earthy sweetness to it, and the bold oak notes and pepper continue.

Don’t sit too long before having your next sip – that first sip sometimes just helps get the system primed. The second sip can be even more revelatory than the first.

As you’re doing this, pay attention to what you’re tasting. There will be all kinds of things that as you dig into them, may surprise you. If you have a hard time describing things initially, try going with the basic tastes – salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. I’ve tasted all of these on different whiskies, so nothing is “wrong” – whiskies absolutely can be salty. Write down your impressions. Ask yourself what it resembles. Sour can be sour in a distinctly vegetal manner, for instance, and I notice a lot of young whiskies smell like corn husks on a hot, humid day. Sweet is an easy one to dissect and we’ve all had plenty of junk food to base our tastes on. Write all your impressions down and remember, there are no wrong impressions! We’re all different, and our palates can differ greatly from day to day.

Of course, this entry is called “Developing” your palate, and I’ve taken you through a straightforward tasting. So how do you develop further?

Practice.

No, really. Practice. Write things down. Try and dig deeper when you’re specifically tasting to develop your palate. Take your time, go slow, and realize it will come easier with experience.

Pay attention to EVERYTHING you eat. Smell it, savor it, remember the nuances. Fruit can be a huge part of spirits (apples come up frequently and Balblair has a distinctly pineapple note to me) and you’d be amazed how close these taste sensations can be.

This is also a recipe for a great way to live and eat, because you will enjoy and be aware of what you’re tasting more often. I believe strongly that food can be one of the great joys of our lives, and if you really savor it you will appreciate it that much more. Plus, if you take your time, you might find yourself getting full and eating less. Not a bad thing! This approach will serve you well when you go to a good restaurant and try and pick apart the sauces and seasonings. It can also help your cooking immeasurably as you learn how to balance flavors in different ways.

Ultimately, this all ends up with an ability to quickly pull things apart as it becomes a more reflexive approach to eating and drinking. It’s fun to be able to pull something apart and understand it, and then shut off the analytical mind and simply enjoy.

That’s the most important part of all of this: enjoyment. This is yet another avenue to appreciating whiskey (actually, all food and drink) even more. I encourage you to try this so you can understand more accurately what you like.

And, as spirits sensei David Driscoll would note, sometimes you need to just forget all of that crap and just enjoy. Because that is the single reason to be consuming whiskey or any good spirit – enjoyment and community. Getting knotted up in the tasting note cleverness battle is ultimately a weird construct on top of what’s supposed to be an enjoyable activity. Going too far down that path makes you one of those tiresome bores who corrects endlessly about when to use an e in whiskey and when it’s just whisky, or who obsesses to no end over the legal definitions of what a bourbon is and if Angel’s Envy actually qualifies because it’s been finished…

Don’t be that guy.

But I do encourage you to try and be mindful of what you’re having and explore everything. You may not be able to detect some obscure note that someone else can. Don’t worry, that’s not the point. The point is to help deepen your enjoyment of a good thing, and enjoy the dividends that pays in the rest of your life.

At a glance:

Willett 18yo Barrel 12A Paws & Claws. Barrel 56 of 96. October 2010, 66.4% ABV
Nose: 
Nice and woody with some good, gentle spice – white pepper. Subtly earthy, slightly sweet – wheat notes peeking out a bit of gentle toffee. Some subtle creamy vanilla. 
Palate: 
Nice, even, moderate mouthfeel, good spice upfront with some pepper. Subtly sweet, toffee, caramel and a bit of vanilla, with some maple syrup and a touch of molasses. Some good earthy notes and oak. A hint of orange late in the palate. 
Finish: 
Drying, with orange and the earthy sweetness above some big, bold oak and pepper. 
Comment: 
This is great. The wood’s a bit heavy in the balance overall but it’s a very, very solid old wheater. There’s nice nuance to the sweetness on the palate, and the finish is great. 
Rating:
 B+