Tag Archives: Willett

Tasting With Your Mouth (For A Change)

“But I always taste with my mouth!”

Me too.

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.
Rating: B-

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.
Rating: B

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.
Rating: A-

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.
Rating: B-

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.
Rating: B+

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.
Rating: B-

A Tip Of The Hat…

My friend Sku so graciously linked my blog the other day that I have to take a moment to return the favor, and not out a sense of obligation.

Sku’s Recent Eats is a regular stop for me, and an instant click in my RSS feed. I’ve broken bread with Sku at a number of local Los Angeles restaurants (all his choices, and all wonderful), and had an opportunity to connect with someone whose perspective on local food and drink that I value tremendously.

I realize the vast majority of readers have come to me via Sku, but for the dozen or so who haven’t, you absolutely need to add him to your readers. Yes, he’s got an incredibly deep knowledge of whiskey, but he’s also got a ton of great spots to hit in the K-town area. (Timon, you’ve experienced the greatness of Papa Cristos and I will attest for the greatest of Jeon Ju). He’s also a big coffee fan and travel’s enough that it’s not just a sad, locals-only LA blog.

Though we differ from time to time on our notes, his opinion and perspective is one that I always respect. And most importantly, he has been my Obi-Wan Kenobi as I’ve gotten much more deep into whiskies and bourbons. The knowledge I pass along, I’ve learned from him.

In honor of someone whose opinion I respect, here are notes on a whisky which actually supplants the George T Stagg as the highest rated whisky on this blog. I dislike rating a limited-release so highly, but it’s so tremendous that I had to share.

Bottom line: There are some amazing old Willetts out there. Go split a bottle with some friends. If they’re like this one, you’ll go be done before the night is over.

Willett 17yo Barrel L10-7389. Reid & Emerald XVII-3, Distilled 4/6/93, Bottle 48 of 126, 72% ABV
Nose:  Nice wood and pepper, a very pleasant mix of sweet and spicy. Some cherries and cinnamon. Slight hint of bubblegum and marshmallow.
Palate:  Thick and mouthcoating, rich and bold. Cherries, cinnamon, pepper. Warming nicely. Oak in the background, toffee, slightest caramel; bubblegum. Sweet.
Finish:  Hot, drying, becomes somewhat bitter on the finish with some early vegetables – romaine, endive, a bit of celery root. Then a huge, absolutely massive cherry blast, followed by dry wood.
Comment:  Stunning. Immense. Massive. Easy drinking. This one is near perfection. The slight bitterness is just a nice interlude.
Rating: A

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+