Being one of the best

Being one of the best

David Stirk, one of Whisky Magazine's tasting panel representatives in Edinburgh, explains what it was like to be part of this definitive tasting and how he and his fellow panelists managed to surivive!

Awards & Events | 16 Jun 2001 | Issue 16 | By David Stirk

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The names of the panellists read like a Who’s Who of the Scotch whisky industry. It was a bold attempt to bring competitors from almost every whisky company into a situation where they were openly grading not only the competitors whiskies but also their own. We were cordially seated by Marcin Miller, Publisher of Whisky Magazine, at six tables consisting of six tasters before he addressed the assembled masses and discussed the task in front of us.We were to taste 47 whiskies split up into eight flights, awarding them an individual score out of ten based upon our thoughts on its nose, palate and finish. Each table could confer and talk about each whisky but we were told in no uncertain terms that we were to score each dram on its overall merit from an individual perspective. This was no team effort.My table consisted of an almost perfect selection from within the industry to conduct a tasting with. David Robertson, Master Distiller for The Macallan; Dr Bill Lumsden, Head of Distilleries and Maturation for Glenmorangie; Richard Joynson, proprietor of Loch Fyne Whiskies; Jamie Walker, Managing Director of Adelphi and Ewan Gunn, Director of Cadenhead’s. Our table was the youngest and it was appropriate then that it was also the most vocal. Our opinions were shared and were often humorous, especially those of the inimitable Richard Joynson whose tasting notes read like a dictionary of modern taste descriptors – “Diesel and boiled potatoes” was a particular favourite. As I savoured my moment amongst the world of whisky’s great and good, I noticed how seriously the tasters were taking this event – you could feel the atmospheric air of reverence amongst all involved.As each whisky was nosed and tasted (and then nosed again) it was evident that the cutting of the whisky with water was left to our own discretion. This would have been aided had we known the alcoholic content of the drink set before us. Lots of spitting went on and probably split the room in two: those who spat and those who drank litres of water.Very little guessing went on as we all tried to mark each whisky on its merits. It quickly became clear that some members of our panel were more easily impressed than others. Lunch came like a cool gust of wind on a hot day. We all needed sustenance to encourage our abused bodies to go that extra mile. Interestingly, most of the talk was centred on the tasting during this brief recess – as if the hours of nosing and tasting hadn’t been enough time to truely appreciate our subject! Everyone was in agreement that it was a case of so far so good and despite a few weary sighs when everybody was rounded up for the second session, spirits were high (pardon the pun).Scoring gradually increased in the second session with the Highlands and Speysiders scoring very highly. We were never certain which whisky was which and were a little surprised at the end of the tasting when the flights were read out and we looked back over our notes. Noticeably the Japanese and Speysiders had scored very well. Some of the most famous whiskies in the world did not get scores that they normally would achieve. The table favourite turned out to be the Rare Malts Port Ellen surprising those that favoured the less peaty malts.The entire tasting went without a hitch: well, one broken glass and one spilt drink were the only embarrassments (other than the tasters who were unable to identify their own distillery’s whisky). The able staff of the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre made the entire task seem easy and the seriousness of our task was not spoilt in any way by a lack of efficiency and skill of the servers. It was a most enlightening experience and incredibly good fun.
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