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Issue 40 - Mixing it

Whisky Magazine Issue 40
June 2004


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Mixing it

We have invited four of the best drinks writers to take it in turn to write for us. First up, award-winning journalist Andrew Jefford argues that whisky is a matter of tastes

It's never comfortable to be a heretic. Agreed, I'm not going to be burned at the stake, disembowelled or thrown into Laphroaig's lauter tun for my apostasy, but even self-exclusion is a lonely business. To ease the burden, I'm going to tell all. For the best Socratic reasons: if we don't ask questions about what we are doing, then we will fail to understand what we are doing.

What (my question runs) is the point of tasting notes? More specifically, what is the point of the modern whisky tasting note? The most exhaustive book ever written on Scotch whisky, Alfred Barnard's 1887 guide to The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, more or less does without them altogether. Occasionally a malt is ‘rich and highly flavoured' (Balmenach), ‘clean and mellow' (Inchgower) or ‘thick and pungent' (Laphroaig), but many are merely ‘pure', including those sold at that time as single malts (which Barnard called ‘self whiskies'). Tasting was the reader's business, Barnard implied; the author was there to provide history, detail and colour.

Detailed tasting notes began to appear in whisky books as recently as the mid-1980s with Wallace Milroy's Malt Whisky Almanac and Michael Jackson's World Guide to Whisky. The notes in those guides now seem cursory, even terse. A torrent of baroque detail, each dram weighed down with dozens of specific descriptors of sometimes alarming disparity, has become the norm.

I half-suspect these billowing descriptions were launched semi-humorously...

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