Whisky tasting notes, 18 Feb 2008

I started thinking seriously about single malt whisky during Christmas, 2006. Rosemary and I went for a brief break up on Loch Lomond in Scotland for a couple nights. The first night I had a stinker of a cold, to the point of having no sense of smell (or taste, in the practical sense) at all. It was doubly frustrating, as the first night, I had a gourmet meal that was just a bunch of mush in my mouth.

The second night clearly brought a recovery, because I at least remember the digestif I ordered. “I’d like to try a whisky, but I don’t know what I like. How about something smoky?” The Laphroaig the bartender sent was spot on: the perfect introduction to single malts. Since then, I had tried other whiskies on an ad hoc basis, and I had a real aversion to some of them, enough that I didn’t want to lay some money on a wrong bottle.

So, when I spotted a flyer for a whisky tasting at the local Sun Hotel & Bar, I got excited to try it. Six whiskies, six regions, £20. To my surprise, a majority of my officemates eagerly latched onto the idea and came along. (This was a big deal: we had never really done much social as a group, and this is real money on a night out for North Lancashire.) So, as a result we had a contingent of five computer geeks analysing whiskies as relative neophytes.

(Personal aside: it was nice to be reminded that I can still nose out an interesting evening from out of the blue. It’s something I did a lot while living in Belgium. It also reminded me of being in Brussels in the parallels with the local drink there: beer in all its varieties. I got to be quite a beer nerd in my time there. That likely accounts for some of the appeal here.)

The Whisky Lounge set up the evening. The room was quite crowded, but that made for a nice, participatory atmosphere. We got started with a brief PowerPoint presentation, and were fairly closely led through a semi-blind tasting. The whiskies and regions were revealed as we went along, allowing us to keep score and guess the final regions if we wanted to ‘cheat’ that way, but also enabling us to keep closer notes, and create better associative memories with the tastes and smells fresh in mind.

(I should note that the consensus scores were far from impartial or scientifically collected, but what can you really accomplish with over 20 people in the back room of a pub?)

Rosebank 12 Year, 43% ABV (Lowland)
Floral , citrus, leathery, licorice was mentioned at the table, some sweetness. It was gentle going down, with a darker finish. I didn’t find it very nice for its medicinal notes.
personal: 6/10; consensus: 6.8/10
Balblair 1997, 43% (Highland)
Light scent – a bit caramel-y – and smooth; salty, with a spreading, spicy taste; dry aftertaste, with a longer, chocolatey finish. I noted, “quite nice – could do again.”
personal: 7/10; conensus: 6.5/10
Arran 100 proof, 57% (Isle of Arran)
Vanilla & sherry on the nose. spicy, leathery, spreading: a deep flavor that I keep describing as ‘mediciney’ but might be called ‘iodine’ by others, making it ultimately not for me. If I recall correctly, it had a very vocal proponent who was pro-Irish Whiskey and anti-peat.
personal: 6/10; consensus: 7.8/10
Bruichladdich Infinity 2nd Edition, 52.5% (Islay)
As soon as I learned the name, I commented that it sounded like a Microsoft product, not a whisky. It started mellow (surprising for the strength), picking up notes of vanilla, apple, and then letting the smoky peatiness in later on. I noted on its complexity in every sip, a bit overwhelmed by all that it could offer, but loved it. It was my favorite of the night, and I ordered a bottle to be delivered.
personal: 8/10; consensus: 8/10
BenRiach 10 Year Curiositas, 40% (Speyside)
Fruity, with notes of orange, and notes of smoke on the nose. Generally mellow, becoming intensely peaty. Coffee finish, but not nearly as complex as the Bruichladdich. This was the “surprise” whisky: peaty like an Islay malt, but actually from Speyside.
personal: 8/10; consensus: 8/10
Longrow 10 Year, 46% (Campbeltown)
Fruity nose, with sweetness and a little peat in the flavor. Subtle with some real signs of complexity, and a ‘dark’ finish. I was clearly pretty tapped out with regards to my note taking at this point in the evening.
personal: 7/10; consensus: 7.3/10

I have a long way to go with regards to the sophistication of my palate and in my language to describe the flavors, but I’m clearly starting to learn what I like. I’ve found some whisky blogs out there, and have a couple in my RSS reader, but they’re mostly in a different world. I was wondering if anyone else out there wanted to share their experiences.

Incidentally, I also have used twitter for some (very brief) tasting notes, having collected some five tasters last Fathers’ Day:

  • Bruichladdich: Islay single malt, 10 years. Mellow quite drinkable—I’d have it again …and naturally, more than a little in common with my current gold standard of Laphroaig, also from Islay.
  • Tomintoul: 10 year-old Speyside Glenlivet. A round-sweet undertone, mellow as it claims, and so in the neighbourhood of the Islays as well.
  • I’m tasting Macallan now. Balanced, and finally some distance from the others. I’d drink it again.
  • Auchentoshan 10 year, Lowland: back-of-throat spiciness, oakiness vanilla mellows into smooth, sweet, sherry-like finish. straightforward.
  • Glen Scotia 12 year, Campbeltown: spicy, caramel/chocolate tones. Complex but smooth.