“But I always taste with my mouth!”
My brain can play an unfortunate role sometimes. I’ve wondered if I’m liking a whiskey because it’s, say, a Port Ellen, or if I actually liked it. As you build up some experience and taste preferences, you’ll start to wonder about your objectivity when you start having new expressions. I try not to be swayed by fancy packaging, old age statements or auspicious provenance. But I’m only human – it’s hard not to think that stuff may be playing a role.
The best way to nullify that concern is to conduct blind tastings occasionally. This is absolutely great with friends, but it can be done on your own (ideally with the help of someone to ensure that it’s truly blind). I can’t recommend enough that you try this with some like-minded friends; the discussion and experience is just vastly better. I wouldn’t however, waste time on blind tastings until you’ve got some experience under your belt. Get to a point of comfort with your palate so you’re confident in your ability to taste and identify. (Or, just jump right in…)
Recently I was at a tasting of six old bourbons and ryes that are no longer available. It was a great model of how to conduct a blind tasting. All six whiskeys were decanted into unlabeled, empty bottles. If you’ve got a particularly favorite whiskey you regularly consume, you might want to save a few empties for this purpose. The bottles were simply labeled with numbers – one through six – and we tasted them in sequence. Only after everyone had tasted and formed their impressions (and graded if applicable) were the details revealed.
To help the nose, tastes common to ryes and bourbon were laid out in bowls – apple slices, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, and so on. I personally used these more than a few times as I’d started to wonder if it was an off night for my palate. It turned out that I was just detecting the apple skin note really prominently on most whiskeys. However, this sort of thing is great to have around, especially if you have an idea of what might be encountered. In moderation it can also be a nice palate cleanser.
Blind Sample #1 had a nice nose. Light spice, cinnamon, light vanilla, a hint of coconut and some mild wood. On the palate it had a light mouthfeel, was bitter, woody, with a prominent apple skin note, light cinnamon, a bit of turbinado sugar, dust, and concrete (with two question marks in my original notes). The finish was short with the fruit skin notes and bitter wood. I thought this was unusual tasting. It wasn’t bad but bitter to my palate – worth a try though. I rated it a B- as it was an interesting bourbon that was certainly worth trying, but not something I’d probably buy a bottle of. It ended up being Black Maple Hill 21 year old, Cask #5.
Blind Sample #2 was sharper on the nose with some prickle. It had a slight solvent note, some orange, slight molasses. After a few moments it became a little more creamy with vanilla notes showing up. The palate was a treat: very smooth with a great wood influence. It started to sweeten with some moderate warmth, some vanilla, light apple and a touch of pepper. The finish was dry and fruity with a hint of orange. I thought it was pretty decent overall and would definitely consider buying a bottle (if it was still available – which it wasn’t). It got a straight B from me – a very worthwhile bourbon. It ended up being W. L. Weller Centennial - discontinued about 5 years ago. This was where I felt like things were on track for me: I like wheat recipe bourbons and Weller in particular, so a B was about where I would expect things to land. (And this is a great bourbon – if you see it, do pick it up.)
Blind Sample #3 poured with little ceremony. I was starting to feel like it was a good night for tasting. This one garnered the initial note of “Nice!” on the nose. Cinnamon, red hots, spice and pepper, with oranges and light cherry. This was a nose I liked – deep and rich with that fruit and cherry note. The palate continued with pepper, warmth and really perfectly balanced wood, light black cherry, creamy vanilla. There were some slightly earthy notes like clay – a sign I’m starting to believe means lower-cut barrel staves based on the experience so far with the Single Oak Project. There was a hint of caramel and bubblegum. The finish was nearly ideal – slow, lasting, slightly grainy, with black cherry and some vanilla. This was very close to my ideal bourbon profile. I ended up rating it as an A- because I’d have it pretty much any day (if it was available). I only wished the flavors had a slight bit more intensity. This whiskey was revealed to be the highly sought-after late 70′s/early 80′s Very Very Old Fitzgerald (12 Years). This meant the whiskey was distilled at the Stitzel-Weller distillery, which has become a major cult distillery among bourbon fans. I personally can’t recommend this one enough, but it’s unlikely you’ll find it without paying a pretty penny — bottles go for $400 and up on eBay these days. (This is why group buys are so great).
I wasn’t expecting much out of Blind Sample #4 given what we’d just had. The nose was nice and slightly prickly with some definite rye notes. It was slightly creamy and I just noted it as “interesting”. The palate was smooth and slightly warm, but a bitter wood influence was evident, as were apple skins and a dusty note. I was pretty sure this was an older whiskey at this point based on my experience. The finish carried through some of the rye spice notes and it was dry. At this point the dry and bitter notes went off for me and it had a slightly vinyl taste. This was an unfortunate sample for me – one that started good but went off the more I had. My comment at the time was “I’m forgainst it.” I rated it a B- because again, it was worth trying. Sample #4 ended up being Vintage Rye 23 which is an independent bottling of rye from an unknown distillery.
Blind Sample #5 had a phenomenal nose. Dark red fruits like plums and black cherries; slight bubblegum and light cinnamon. It was nicely spicy in general with some maple syrup as well. The palate was warm and kept getting warmer. It was spicy, with slight wood and lots of heat. It was also lightly bitter. The finish was still hot and had caramel and spice. It was really evident from the nose that this was going to be very high proof – potentially into George T. Stagg territory. However, it managed to be quite good and have some nice flavor to it. I gave this a B+ because I liked it a lot but didn’t get a ton of nuance. It turned out to be Willett Rye, 1984, Barrel 618. It weighed in at a hefty 68.35% ABV, confirming my suspicion.
At this point we were looking at our last sample: Blind Sample #6. There were some strange glances going around the room between the guys running the tasting who knew what it was. This was very strange tasting and I couldn’t make heads or tails of it initially. It had a light, cookie dough and baked good scent on the nose, and was generally sugary and sweet. This to me seemed like notes I’ve gotten off of new-make ryes in the past so I was wondering if it was a very young rye whiskey. The palate was kind of dry, but then took a very strange turn into being slightly farmy, slightly musty and earthy, with bitter wood, apple skin and a note of caraway seed. The finish was apple skin, pepper, wood, cookie dough and caraway seed. I couldn’t make any sense out of this one and gave it a B-. The strange looks continued – I was pretty sure it was either a young rye or maybe urine laced with multivitamins given the strange looks floating around. Blind Sample #6 ended up being Old Potrero Hotaling’s Whiskey – 11 years. This was unique because it was a single malt rye – meaning that the rye was actually malted, which is extremely uncommon.
This was an interesting night and it’s an interesting experience. This can be especially fun if you find some odd bottlings – but it can be just as good to revisit whiskeys that you might be biased against because they’re produced in huge quantities. Sometimes you will get the results you expect – but be prepared to find out you like something more than you would have thought. (And don’t be surprised if you don’t like something that other people liked! My grades for the Vintage Rye and the Willett were lower than other peoples’)
At a glance:
Black Maple Hill, 21y, Cask #5. 47.5% ABV
Nose: Light spice, cinnamon, light vanilla. Coconut. Mild wood.
Palate: Light, bitter, woody. Fruits – apple skin; light cinnamon, turbinado sugar, dust, concrete (??).
Finish: Short, fruit skin notes continue, slightly bitter wood.
Comment: Unusual. Not bad at all but a bit bitter to my palate. Definitely worth a try though.
W.L. Weller Centennial, 10y. 50% ABV
Nose: Sharper, some prickle on the nose, slightly solvent. After a moment there’s some orange notes, slight molasses. Creamy with light vanilla.
Palate: Smooth, good wood influence. Sweetening; moderate warmth, some vanilla, light apple, and some pepper.
Finish: Slightly dry, fruity, and a hint of orange.
Comment: Pretty decent.
Very Very Old Fitzgerald, 12y. 50% ABV
Nose: Nice! Cinnamon, red hots, spice, pepper, orange, and light cherry.
Palate: Pepper, warmth, great wood influence, light black cherry, creamy vanilla; clay & slightly earthy. Slight caramel and bubblegum.
Finish: Slow, lasting, grainy, black cherries and some vanilla.
Comment: Yeah, any day. Solidly in the alley I like. I’d like the flavors up a bit though.
Vintage Rye, 23y. 47% ABV
Nose: Nice, slight prickle. Pretty sure it’s rye, kind of an interesting nose overall and slightly creamy.
Palate: Smooth on the palate, slightly warm, slightly bitter wood. Apple skin. Somewhat dusty.
Finish: Spice notes continue, dry. It starts to get a slightly vinyl note.
Comment: I’m forgainst it.
Willett Rye, 22y. Barrel 216 selected by Doug Phillips of Ledger’s Liquor.
Nose: Dark, red fruits, slight bubblegum, light cinnamon. Nicely spicy, maple syrup.
Palate: Warm and continues to get warmer. Medium mouthfeel, spicy, slight wood, lots of heat. Lightly bitter.
Finish: Heat, caramel and some spice.
Comment: Hot but so good. Really nice upfront.
Old Potrero Hotaling’s Whiskey, 11y. 50% ABV
Nose: Light, cookie dough. Baked goods, sugary and sweet.
Palate: Kind of dry, farmy, bitter wood, musty, earthy, apple skin and caraway seeds.
Finish: Apple skin, pepper, wood, cookie dough, caraway.
Comment: The nose does not have anything to do with the rest of this whiskey.