Saturday, 2 July 2016

Nuances of Bullshit. My thoughts on the state of whisk(e)y tasting notes

My fellow whisk(e)y writers, I'm afraid there's a log in our eye.

I’ve put off writing this article for a while now. Partially because I didn’t quite know how to shape it, and I’m not really the sort of writer who can just jam and ad-lib and see where it gets me. Partially also, I suppose, because I’m just plain lazy – and other articles were more pressing anyway. But mostly because I don’t like ‘writing angry’, and I knew, when it came to this particular article, that I would struggle not to. 

Quite apart from the fact that on the whole I try to inject a little fun and humour into the whisky world (no comments on my success therein, please) I generally reckon writing about something that particularly angers you is a recipe for hamstringing your critical faculties. By and large I try to be circumspect, to avoid generalities and to look at both sides of the argument from a reasoned point of view, before coming to a judged conclusion. (Anything to keep my old History teachers happy.) But when this topic rears its head I regress completely, and my words become thoroughly doused with vitriol. It’s a somewhat odd topic to be the most fervent bee in a whisk(e)y writer’s bonnet, but it’s mine, and I can’t help it. And it’s nothing to do with the various issues surrounding whisk(e)y production, marketing or cost. (Though whisk(e)y cost would run it a close second.) It’s tasting notes.

My long-suffering friends, finding themselves bombarded with my pulpit-thumping spleen on a subject they don’t give a second hand breakfast about, struggle to understand why tasting notes – or rather most tasting notes – reduce me to such fits of vehemence. I can sort of see their point. At face value it seems like getting really angry with Michael Gove for looking like a cartoon hamster – and completely overlooking his actual politics. So by way of explanation, here’s my tuppenceworth on how tasting notes are done so outrageously poorly, and why that’s something that actually matters.

An admittance, first of all, lest the digital air become thick with cries of ‘hypocrisy.’ My own tasting notes need a lot of work. Whilst certain bad habits have been beaten out of me by the WSET’s Systematic Approach to Tasting, many more have slipped through the net and continue to fester. Part of this can be attributed to the immense difference in the state of the wine world’s tasting notes when compared to that of whisky (more on this later), but the primary reason is that my current stance on the state of the tasting note is relatively recent – certainly born in 2016. Prior to that I didn’t give them much thought – as may be the case for you, dear reader. Rather obviously that has now changed – with the upshot that my tasting notes are gradually shifting too. In fact my partner in tasting crime Will and I are currently tinkering with an all-new style of user-friendly tasting note, aimed at circumnavigating the various problems I’m about to describe. (We’re such fun, well-adjusted people.)

So without further ado, the problems with tasting notes, and why they’re actually a problem. Number one, and to my mind the most ludicrous, if not the most damaging, is the sheer number of aromas and flavours that you can find in a single note on a single whisk(e)y. I’m not in the business of calling out individuals (I’m far too cowardly for that), but whilst idly surfing the whiskynet the other day I came across a tasting note for a Scottish Single Malt in which the writer alleged to have detected no fewer than fifty-nine aromas, fifty-two flavours, and another thirteen flavours on the finish. As maths whizzes will already have ascertained, that’s a staggering one hundred and twenty four individual notes apparently emanating from a single whisky. What a dram! And what a nose and palate to pin down such a cornucopia!

Except obviously that’s the biggest pile of utter tripe you’ll find outside of an avant garde restaurant. One hundred and twenty four different flavours isn’t a tasting note – it’s a supermarket’s inventory. And whilst that might be the most extreme example I’ve come across, ninety per cent of the notes you read are no better whatsoever. ‘I’ve detected 8 different honeys and sugars with some degree of certainty,’ ‘here’s a list of citrus fruits as long as your arm,’ ‘here are all the synonyms you’ll find for ‘smoke’ on google.’ It’s utter, utter fallacy – and the worst thing is that most people seem to be taken in. I know I used to be.

‘Oh, what sour, semi-raisined, French, Cabernet Sauvignon grapes,’ I hear the writers of these notes cry. ‘His nose isn’t as fine-tuned as ours, so he’s just claiming it’s all tommy-rot.’ Well, sure. I’ve never detected 124 flavours, or even 8 different sorts of honey in a whisky. But is this from lack of nasal sensitivity, or is this from understanding what is, and isn’t physiologically possible? Let me strengthen my case a little. In 1989, scientist David Laing demonstrated that humans can almost never correctly identify more than four aromas in a liquid. Seven years later he went one better, pitting ‘expert noses’ against ‘amateurs,’ and conclusively proving that although experts were more likely to nail two or three of the notes, they were no better whatsoever when it came to correctly picking out four. (These experiments are all online if you’re after further reading.) 

You want a third opinion, perhaps? Well, whilst many of us might pride ourselves on our noses and palates, I think we can state with some certainty that none of us are in the same league as Jancis Robinson MW. A colossus of the drinks world, who often tastes upwards of 100 wines a day, who has been at the pinnacle of wine learning, of wine academia and of sensory evaluation for well over thirty years. In a recent article, she writes: ‘I’m very sceptical of any tasting note that has more than four flavours in it.’ More than four. A thousand times Amen – but I’m struggling to think of a single tasting note writer who is even nearly that abstemious. And before anyone comes out with ‘oh but wine’s different to whisky’: if you believe that it has any fewer nuances when it comes to aromas and flavours I strongly suggest you educate yourself.

The question is, in creating these shopping-list length roll-calls of supposedly detected notes, are the writers attempting to kid themselves, or to kid you and me? I’d like to hope it’s the former. If they’re kidding themselves, that’s more or less fine, albeit slightly sad. We’re all a bit delusional, and speaking as a Liverpool supporter, thank goodness for that. Where things get a little more sinister is when the suspicion arises that extra ‘detected nuances’ are being popped into the note, in the writer’s knowledge that s/he hasn’t actually picked them up whatsoever.

I’ve mentioned before that, prior to putting anything into a public domain, one ought to ask oneself ‘cui bono?’ ‘Who benefits?’ In Scorsese’s incomparable masterpiece The Departed, Matt Damon’s character Colin Sullivan replies, on being asked this question, ‘cui gives a shit? It’s got a friggin’ bow on it.’ In other words, ‘works for us – so who cares?’ At the age of twenty five I’m already a rotten old cynic, and I can’t help wondering whether this isn’t the attitude behind many of the tasting notes thrown out into the world as honeypots for the innocent and unwary consumer.

Look, I know that the whisky blogging and writing community is a crowded old market. There are literally hundreds of us clamouring for attention, many seeking a dream ticket of being offered money for our whisky scribbling. (No one, incidentally, is showing any inclination to flip pennies my way. Apparently the country’s fiscal recklessness isn’t entirely without limits...) The point is that I understand the need to stand out. And we’re dealing with consumables here. There’s a certain inevitability that our 'expertise', and consequently our right to be read, will be judged on the merits of our palates. But how to prove ourselves through the medium of text alone? I worry that for many people the answer is to give their notes some plumping. Honestly believe you can detect some tropical fruit? Simply embellish with as many different examples as you can think of. Reckon there might be some vanilla? (There genuinely often is) – well don’t leave it at that, when ‘Madagascan vanilla’ reads so much more impressively. The breadth of flavours detectable in a single whisk(e)y is thus limited only by your imagination, the length of your flights of fancy and, dare I say it, the strength of your integrity.

I don’t imagine that any members of the whisk(e)y blogging community, which truly is as warm and as friendly as any you'll find online, are sitting at home, stroking a white cat and hatching Machiavellian schemes. And those who do overwrite tasting notes are likely doing so as subconsciously as they are detecting the flavours they may genuinely believe to be there. However it is nonetheless misleading, and it is an unquestionably prevalent problem, in paid and unpaid writing alike.

But why is it a problem? Simple. Get a group of people new to whisky together, stick a few Glencairns into their hot little hands, and ask them to start naming flavours. For those who haven’t done so before, this will initially be like getting blood out of a stone. No one wants to shoot first. The standoff eventually ends when someone tentatively says: ‘vanilla?’ (It’s always ‘vanilla’ that they say, and they always say it as if asking a question.) It’s voiced as if they’re about to be ridiculed, even remonstrated with for venturing their thrupenny-bit reckoning – almost never with much confidence, almost never with much conviction. We’ve all been there at some point – that’s been every one of us - trembling, worried, expecting the sneers or the laughter. Now imagine being that person, and being met with a list of 124 supposedly detected flavours. Hell, even with 15-20, as is more ‘normal’ for tasting notes. Where would your confidence be then? How could you believe you’d ever possibly be able to get that much out of a whisky for yourself? What would you think, and how would you feel, if you weren’t able to discern even a fifth of what was cited?

Furthermore, these lists of flavours are utterly meaningless. They’re like describing your impressions of a complex meal simply by listing the ingredients you guess might be in it. They’re like the descriptions three year olds give when they have to write about their friends and family at school: ‘my mother has brown hair. She has blue eyes. She wears a green jumper and yellow trousers and red shoes.’ (Eclectic fashion tastes, these mothers.) Again I turn to the inestimable Mrs Robinson, who makes the valid point: ‘who really gets up in the morning and tells themselves that they simply must find a wine that tastes of fennel seed, grilled watermelon and gardenia?’ Similarly, I can’t imagine whisky retailers being inundated with likely lads striding over their threshold hollering ‘Madagascan vanilla, sultana and coumarin for me today, shopkeep, and if that sultana turns out to be raisin then, by cracky, it will be the worse for you.’ Not going to happen. And, if it did, the first thought of the bemused store manager would not be ‘wow, this chap’s a real whisky authority.’

No, lists of flavours, wieldy or otherwise, don’t cut the mustard (grain, French, leaning towards Dijon...) when it comes to actually describing a whisk(e)y. And here’s where I genuinely believe that
our spirit, or rather those of us that attempt to write about it, can learn from the scribbling proponents of the fruit o’ the vine. Any wine writer worth their salt knows that structure is as important as flavour to the consumer's enjoyment. Often more so, whether or not the drinker is aware of it, consciously or otherwise. Not enough acidity? The wine might feel overripe and ‘flabby.’ Too much tannin? A recipe for lemon-level mouth-puckering. Is it full bodied? Is it light bodied? Is it sweet? Dry? Off-dry? Is it a true reflection of the place it has been made? Does the alcohol overwhelm? Is it balanced? This is something you almost never see fully explored in whisk(e)y, but common sense suggests it is every bit as important.

When you speak to someone, particularly someone relatively new to the drink, about their thoughts regarding a particular expression, you don’t exclusively get negative feedback based on the whisk(e)y’s flavour. Sure, peat, for example, isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but more commonly you hear something like ‘the alcohol burns too much,’ or ‘I like how sweet this Bourbon is.’ The importance of the structure – the stuffing – of a whisk(e)y, was underlined to me when my father and I lined up a single cask ex-sherry Highland Park and a single cask ex-sherry Kilkerran, both of a similar age and both cask strength. The Highland Park’s ABV was actually rather higher than that of the Kilkerran, but such was its size of body and intensity of flavour that the booze was kept comfortably in check. The Kilkerran meanwhile, being lighter in both body and flavour, struggled to deal with its high alcoholic content, with the upshot that it wasn’t as pleasant a drinking experience. Nothing to do with the individual flavours – entirely to do with its characteristics.

Writers of tasting notes, be they for blogs, books, or the back labels of bottles, have a duty to their readers. If you are going to put a description, particularly in praise of a whisk(e)y, into the public domain, you must be prepared to accept the responsibility of someone committing their money towards a bottle or a glass based on your recommendation. This means that if you have written a long list of flavours, they will expect to find many, if not all of them. If you have neglected to mention that its ABV is particularly intense, relative to its body and flavour, or that it is a certain degree of sweet or peat-influenced, it is your fault as much as their own if the whisk(e)y is not subsequently enjoyed.

The best tasting notes I have read for a whisk(e)y came from Dave Broom. Not his descriptions, or his work, but his suggestions in his Whisky Atlas of what to try next should you have particularly enjoyed a certain expression. To me, this is how to point people towards something new. It is what I’d have done when people came into the shop in my retail days. ‘What would you recommend?’ ‘Well, what sort of thing do you like?’ Clear consideration for the consumer, no self-indulgence. A simple-to-read, user-friendly aid that can obviously be trusted. A tasting note style to aspire to.

Because don’t get me wrong – tasting notes are important. Vitally so. After all, I make them myself. I have a little blue book that sits perennially in the same pocket as my mobile, and every whisk(e)y gets a scribble. For me, personally, it’s a handy way of remembering my impressions of every whisk(e)y I try. Should I ever put them online, as I do with the distillery flagships and with the 40 under £40, I hope that they help my friends to find whiskies they will genuinely enjoy in every respect. As I say, mine are far from perfect, and particularly now I’ve written this article I’ll need to be scrupulous in taking my own advice. But I do think there’s a way of writing a tasting note from which the majority will benefit. It just requires a little creativity, a little thoughtfulness and a little humility.

As I said at the start, there's a log in our eye. So many of us, myself included, take to the keyboards to beg for more transparency where our whisk(e)y is concerned. Perhaps it behoves us then to first make our own comments a little less opaque.

And perhaps when we do I’ll stop being such a bloody bore about it all. But no promises...



  1. Absolutely brilliant, very brave of you to say what we are all thinking! If the notes have more than 4 different aromas or tastes I think the author is just making it up!

  2. Thanks Fred. It is a thorny subject, and there's no question that notes serve a valuable purpose. But I'm often not sure that people realise what that is...