A tasteful way to understand whisky

A tasteful way to understand whisky

Pip Hills explains how his Scotch Whisky Directory can help you improve your tasting skills

Tastings | 30 Nov 2005 | Issue 52 | By Pip Hills

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There can be no doubt that science is a big improvement on astrology, necromancy and reading tealeaves as a way of predicting the future. It has its limitations, though, and is a victim of its own success when it comes to the big picture.A century ago Jules Verne and H G Wells could predict flying ships, but there is no way they could have imagined anything like the internet or satellite television gardening makeover programmes.These limitations are felt in the commercial applications of science, one of which is marketing. They are especially severe in the matter of marketing whisky.The folk who sell whisky can generally give an informed opinion as to how the market will go over the next few months, but longer term predictions are notoriously fallible. This is a serious problem in an industry which can’t legally sell its produce until three years after it is made and may have to sit on some of it for a generation.Thirty years ago, few people in the Scotch whisky business would have predicted that the flavours of whiskies would become a matter of popular interest, let alone that comparative tasting would turn into a minor leisure industry.Yet nowadays whisky tastings are common and lots of people regard the systematic inspection of a few malts as a recipe for a good night out.It is the intrinsic interest of the flavour composition of a good whisky which makes its tasting such a pleasure – that and the subtlety of the flavours. You would be hardput to do the same with vodka or schnapps - and it’s stretching things a bit to extend it to bourbons which, by and large, are not subtle.After recreational tasting had been invented by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, it took the marketing departments of whisky companies a decade or more to wake up to the possibilities of tutored whisky tastings as a way of promoting brand values.When they did emerge from their slumber, though, they typically went for it in a big way -with the happy result that it is now possible for consumers inexpensively to taste a number of whiskies on the back of somebody’s marketing budget.This is gratifying for buyers and sellers alike, and suggests that the divine plan for the universe isn’t all bad.Tasting is uniquely effective as a way of persuading the consumer of the virtues of a product. In a tutored tasting it’s a lot easier to convince a prospective customer of the excellence of a whisky than it is, say, to sell someone a car by taking him or her for a drive.This is because taste information is processed in the brain in a way rather different from how we absorb the sensations of test-driving a Lamborghini.For reasons probably far back in the evolutionary chain, taste is closely connected with emotion and belief, so that tasters at a tutored tasting are easily persuaded to reproduce in their subjective sensations the flavours described by the tutor. In other words, if you are told a whisky smells of roses, roses you will probably smell.There is a downside to this, for a promoter can easily convince tasters of the existence of flavours which are too faint to discern or which simply are not present. (It’s easy: I have done it intentionally, as an experiment, and on no occasion have I ever been questioned. If the tutor is imbued with sufficient authority, most tasters will smell whatever they are told to smell.) In suggesting that this sometimes happens in commercially-driven tutored tastings, I do not wish to imply that the tutors are unscrupulous or mendacious: they may simply be deluded. If you are an ambitious employee of a big corporation and making your way in the marketing department, you are unlikely to question the values which your superiors attribute to the brand.The downside for the consumer comes after the tasting. We all know how a wine or a whisky which we thought was wonderful at a tasting is nothing like as good when we drink it at home.I can recall several cases of wine bought in the flush of enthusiasm which turned out to be dogs. But it’s hard to see how this can be prevented. We can’t stop folk promoting their whiskies by talking them up and a perfectly rigorous, scientifically objective approach to tasting doesn’t sound like a lot of fun.Happily, there is a middle way.As some readers will know, I have been engaged for the last few years in compiling the Scotch Whisky Directory, which was published in the spring.The Directory, on the basis of tastings done by four of the whisky industry’s leading noses, shows flavour profiles of all of the leading whisky brands,.These profiles are as close to an objective evaluation of the flavour of whisky as it is possible to get. At the request of a consumer magazine, I have recently developed a format for whisky tastings based on the Directory profiles which is both rigorous and fun. It works as follows, assuming a tasting of six whiskies.Each taster (or tasting group) is presented with the whiskies in six numbered glasses, preferably covered. All of the whiskies are brands which are represented in the Directory, so we have an reliable measure of their flavour. For preference, the whiskies selected should have pronounced high levels of flavours and be of widely-differing profiles.Given that the Directory covers over 250 whiskies, this is not difficult to achieve.To illustrate, here are the flavour profiles of Royal Lochnagar 12 and Bowmore 15 The tasters are given a flavour profile sheet to go with each whisky. The sheets for the first three whiskies are complete but those for the last three are blank. The tutor explains the 15 flavour categories used in the Directory.(These are a more varied – and realistic – bunch than most tutors would employ, and they are the categories used by the leading scientific experts in the industry.) The tutor then invites the tasters to taste the first three whiskies. He leads them through these, commenting on the presence and concentration of each class of flavours. Not only does this give the tasters an idea of what they should be looking for, it allows them to calibrate their responses.This done, the tasters are invited to taste the last three whiskies and to complete the flavour profile sheets, marking the presence and level of each flavour. They can do this either as individuals or (to be recommended) as groups.Finally, the tutor hands out the flavour profiles from the Directory, so that tasters can see how well they have done. It’s probably a good idea to leave it to the tasters whether they wish to make their results public.As a format for a whisky tasting, it’s rather more demanding than having one guy talk about the aromas of the whisky while others stick their noses in glasses and sniff. But it is a lot more interesting for the tasters – and it does give them the assurance that what they are trying to discover really is there.It is also likely to ensure that they don’t suffer from post-purchase disappointment, so it’s in the long-term interest of sellers as well as buyers.
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