I'm torn ..... writing this piece has, at times, felt like carrying out a DIY appendectomy without an anaesthetic. I have experienced feelings of evangelical delight, hypocritical guilt, bemusement and befuddlement, insight and obfuscation in equal measure. It all stems from a consideration of "the tasting note". How has it come about that many tasting notes now cause me a soupçon of irritation? Why is it that, when connecting and enjoying time with the whisky fabric on Facebook and Twitter, I find myself having to skip past a seemingly endless litany of "reviews" that appear to be no more than a set of tasting notes with a sentence or two containing an opinion as a finale? Why do I wince ever so slightly when I see yet another reference to some bizarre fruitery that no one (other than the reviewer) has ever heard of ("I'm getting hints of Shangrilarian Dodo grape"). Have I become that jaded, that pompous, that cynical......a thing that I used to mock as a younger man - the curmudgeonly old fart! (Q. Is "Bah Humbug" a tasting note?).
Please don't get me wrong, I come to praise tasting notes, not to bury them. They are an essential part of the whisky journey, they are invaluable, and are more than just an entry point into the experience of whisky. The journey from casual imbiber to a more considered shareholder in the whisky experience and by default, the whisky community, begins for many with the tasting note. They are part of the language of whisky, and as we know, the success and flourishing of any community is founded on a shared language. How else can one enter the community without having an understanding of what it is that you are tasting and a mechanism for conveying that understanding to others? How can you differentiate one whisky from another without grasping the essentials of taste and smell? If the language of the whisky community is, to a great extent, the language of the tasting note, then who would not want to possess a degree of fluency in it? ....and yet... is that it? I think not. There is more to the experience than this ever expanding lexicon of concrete descriptors. Where does the broader, more meaningful “experience" of whisky fit into the journey? Are we resting contentedly on a merry-go-round of colourful, jaunty descriptors, a carousel of flavour words, a cornucopia of clever (and sometimes clumsy) whisky "markers", on some Escheresque rotunda? Or is there room for exploration, sight-seeing, stepping off the ride and flexing the creative muscles that sit, sometimes undiscovered or dormant, in all of us?
As I see it, the challenges in relation to tasting notes stem from 3 different sources, namely volume, quality and scope. It is hardly surprising that, given the explosion of global interest in whisky at all levels, a vast increase in written whisky traffic has taken place. There are more blogs & Twitter accounts with a focus on whisky than ever before and the number is growing on a daily basis. Make no mistake, this is a valued development; if you’ve not done so already, get “out there” and express yourself. There are some writers who poor scorn on the increasing number of “opinions” being voiced over the internet and to those people I say “fuck off, we live in a democracy. If you’re concerned that they’re a threat to you in some way then up your game” The reality is that there are more and more opportunities to make meaningful connections inhabiting a world beyond politics, gender, and class. The whisky fabric, this global coalescence of like minded whisky passionistas, willing to listen, willing to share, willing to teach and learn, is strengthening on a daily basis.
But how do we make sense of the sheer volume of tasting guidance on offer? This is something that challenged and perplexed me for some time. At a personal level, I have a small list of whisky reviewers whose opinions and tastes I can relate to, whose views I have come to respect over the years, and whose writings I will seek out when I'm in need of a little guidance. Even then, I may not read the notes but I am comfortable placing a degree of trust in the person behind the tasting notes (this can often carry more weight than how he or she might describe the whiskies). My position is that I simply don't have the time read that many "reviews".
I would apply some of the points made in the previous category to the issue of quality. It is clear that there are many whisky drinkers who have developed an expertise in flavour identification, I love hearing them dissect a whisky in terms of its constituent sensual delights. Over the years my understanding and enjoyment of whisky has benefitted from their sage guidance, and I have become more confident as a result of their endeavours. However, if, in the moment of nosing/tasting a whisky, someone says they are getting hints of pineapple for example, when others don't, who is anyone to say they're wrong? One of the many beauties of whisky is its egalitarian nature, the fact that any drinker can, and should, feel free to venture their opinion of it, and the fact that each sip of whisky that is taken is an experience that is unique to the “sippee” (I know it’s not a word but I couldn’t resist!). Yes, there are similarities, yes, there are connections, and yes, there are taste parameters round which most whisky drinkers would concur, but at the bottom of the glass, it’s the drinker’s prerogative to make of it what they will. One of the functions of the guide is to instil a degree of confidence in the drinker in order that they feel able to express their opinions.
For me, one of the most challenging issues relates to the scope of tasting notes. In their most basic form, they tell us little or nothing about our broader experiences of the whisky. They offer the opportunity to locate the whisky in terms of our general likes and dislikes, (we may know that we like sherried whiskies or heavily peated drams), we may get to the position where we can make reasonably educated guesses in terms of the geography of the whisky (e.g. This is a Speyside dram), but what about the feelings the whisky evokes, the memories that percolate through to our consciousness, the connections with history, with nature, and with our fellow drinkers; there is spirit within the spirit.
I know that there are those who are, to say the least, sceptical of the more prosaic tasting notes, those descriptors that veer away from the concrete and into the experiential. There are those (who I might guardedly call "whisky technicians") who take a reductionist perspective and who are intent on demonstrating their acumen and status within the whisky community by trying to pin the whisky down to a very specific set of tasting markers. Then there are those who "lose themselves" in the whisky, who open up the full and glorious sensory and cognitive experience, who steep themselves in the enjoyment of this, the most glorious of liquids. I firmly believe that, on a continuum of tasting notes, from the "literal" at one end, to the "esoteric" at the other, there is room to be playful, to occupy a middle ground where we can be creative, where we can acknowledge the impact of the whisky on our imaginative juices, where we can surrender to the experience as opposed to treating it as if it were some sort of test or marker in our level of credibility, in essence, where we can have fun!
I will leave you with an example of a tasting note I offered during a recent Tweet tasting which I'm sure it will perplex, amuse & irritate many readers. However, it's a playful example of my response to a dram that, many months later, still captures very clearly for me, my experience of it at that moment.......and I can still taste it!
"I'm in a tanning factory (leather not UV), smoking cigars whilst crushing chocolate covered raisins with a plum"
NB This is a slightly extended piece that was originally written for Whisky Quarterly Magazine (Issue 2). It will be shortly be available as a free download.