Friday, 19 October 2012

Being Daft: What is it with whisky reviews?!


In one of my earliest posts I asked the question: why is alcohol so fascinating? I didn’t really have an answer at the time, nor did I look for one. It was more of a rhetorical question that I used in order to ease my way into the new blog. Because alcohol is fascinating, though it is only a drink and there are lots of other types of drinks in the world that aren’t nearly so interesting. What makes alcohol so special, besides its capacity to alter mood, boost confidence and transform one into a witty raconteur?

Since I asked that eternal question, I’ve read a lot of comments and blogs about different drinks and it occurred to me that my palate is remarkably uncultured in comparison to most other people who write about strong liquor. They seem to be able to taste and smell all kinds of different things within a glass of whisky – a whole host of different flavours and scents in one glass, while I just know whether I like it or not – and sometimes it takes me a whole bottle to decide that. I can tell that all the different whiskies smell and taste distinct from one another, but I lack the ability to separate the flavour of any particular whisky into the constituent parts that experienced reviewers can.

That’s always been the main reason that I don’t write straight reviews of drinks – apart from the fact that reviewing something you drink seems pretty pointless to me. It’s like when you see reviews of things like airports on the internet. Airports! Who gives enough of a shit about airports to actually review them? 

I don’t particularly want to start taking careful note of everything I’m experiencing and I’d much rather focus on anecdotal stories and mindless ruminations about booze than provide a list of flavours.

I don’t even know if a list of flavours is useful to anyone, or whether it just satisfies a person’s need to classify things. It just seems to take a lot of the fun out of it for me, as well as seeming to suggest that you can’t really be enjoying what you’re drinking unless you’re able to describe the experience in minute detail, unless you have the right kind of glass, and you follow the correct routine.  I certainly don’t want to sit there deciding what I can taste in every glass I drink, but maybe as time goes on, that’s what will happen… Maybe I won’t have to decide – maybe it will become obvious…

the glass I used to drink whisky from
Incidentally, the best account I’ve found of why the glass you drink your whisky out of is important can be found here. Not so long ago, I replaced the standard whisky tumbler type thing I was using with a smallish wine glass… and I have to say that there was a definite improvement. I have now become quite picky about the glass when I order a whisky away from home. It makes ordering more complicated, but it also makes the drink more enjoyable – and if you’re paying bar prices, you want to make sure it’s worth it.
the glass I now like to use

The flavour of liquor can be very complex - so complex that enthusiasts separate the experience into stages; generally some combination of nose, palate and finish, and these can all be very different. I enjoy the experience and appreciate the differences, and that’s enough for me. Ian Buxton’s book, 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die also classifies the colour – golden amber, mellow gold, molested apricot etc... Obviously whiskies all differ in colour from each other, but how the hell do you describe that colour? Is he working from a Dulux colour chart?  

I think the tendency to intellectualise though, is a natural human trait. Just liking something isn’t enough. You have to know why you like it, describe it, critically evaluate it, and then look down on people who don’t agree with you. You can see that in all spheres of human creativity; music, food, film, it even starts to proliferate further and further down the scale, elevating everything to the status of art. So, theatre devolves to film, film to TV, literature to comics, pictures of ladies in the nude to pictures of sexy ladies in the nude… doing dirty things… art seemingly to the simple act of doing something merely to provoke a reaction. We need to be able to say ‘this is great, but that is rubbish for these reasons’.

And so it went (probably) for alcoholic beverages like whisky. Way back in the beginning, I suppose whisky was made because people took pleasure in drinking it (getting drunk – though apparently it was first consumed as a medicine), but somewhere along the way a need developed to be able to compare and contrast, and then describe – and presumably to make better ones.  So you have people ascribing a list of flavours to whatever they drink. Sometimes they even agree with each other. The tasting has become more important than the getting drunk – which is actually a good thing; I can have a drink for enjoyment now, instead of for the buzz multiple drinks provide.

It does fascinate me though that those flavours that whisky experts are at pains to relate to us aren’t really there. They don’t put vanilla and cloves in whisky, but the flavours are there (apparently). Frankly, I should know. I’ve eaten cloves and cinnamon and a lot of those things that are used to describe the many flavours of whisky – and I don’t mean in food; I’ve eaten them whole, but I still don’t taste cloves in a glass of whisky. I wonder whether whisky reviewers have tasted them, or whether these terms are merely words that they have learned to apply practically. Or maybe my mind just can’t make the connection between a dry spice and an alcoholic beverage.

And how come a lot of these things are flavours that, in their actual state, are things I don’t like? Honey, butterscotch, citric zest…

One of the reviews I read (concerning Gibson’s Finest 12 Year Old Canadian whisky) reported the presence of crème brulee, oak, cedar, spicy pepper, cloves, citric zest, black fruits (?), strawberries and cream, fresh-cut wood, ginger ale, cinnamon, toffee, burnt sugar and molasses, while a review of Jura Superstition claimed to find mint and lightly smoked kippers.

Is this a competition to taste as many things as possible? Now I know for a fact that mint and lightly smoked kippers weren’t used in distilling. Lightly smoked kippers – not a slight taste of smoked kippers, but a taste of lightly smoked kippers! Is that even a good thing to be able to taste in whisky? “I’m a fan of the fishy malts…

These aren’t flavours that you grew up liking, so you have to develop an appreciation. Perhaps, once your subconscious is hooked, and you’ve started to like the flavours, this complexity that some people represent as a combination of so many commonplace (and some not so commonplace) flavours is what is so interesting.

Back when I started this blog I said that people don’t get obsessed with trying all the different colas that are available. Well, perhaps some people do, but I’ve never read a review of a cola that tried to dissect its flavours. Have you? It’s just cola flavour.

Well apparently, it does happen occasionally.

Check the entry for Virgil’s Cola – “With notes of vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg and clove, the cola smelled as good as it tasted”. Why is it always vanilla and cloves?!? If the flavour (and smell) of cloves is so desirable, why don’t we have a fizzy Cloveade drink? Why don’t we just make everything taste of cloves all the time, and we can all sit back and relax, revelling in the fact that everything tastes as good as it’s going to get, because it tastes of cloves? Who’d have thought cooking spices could make such tasty drinks? Forget your fizzy orange, make mine a fizzy cumin.

In order to put this practice of describing flavours and aromas to the test, I came up with a plan to make a list of a selection of the liquors I had available, and seek reviews of them. I made notes of the various flavours and scents they are supposed to impart, and the aim was to try each one with a copy of the notes on hand. As ever, I figured the method might develop as I went along, but my plan was to place a tick next to any taste or smell that I could detect from any of the reviews.

Unsurprisingly, this experiment was short-lived since the first time I sat down with my notebook and pen, I realised that this was the absolute antithesis of everything Drink it How You Like it stands for. It’s supposed to be fun, not meticulous! It’s supposed to be about enjoying alcohol, not classifying it. What am I turning intoooooo?!!

Did I detect any of these flavours? No, not really. Was I able to detect any single discernible flavour from whatever I was drinking? Again, sadly, no – unless you count whisky as one – does that count?  I could definitely taste whisky. Does that mean I am enjoying this whisky less than anyone else? I don’t think so. Maybe I can’t tell you exactly what you’re going to experience when you drink it, but why should you want that? You’re supposed to experience things for yourself, and take from them whatever you get.

Does it mean I’m not doing the tasting properly? Again, no – I’m not just knocking it back. I swirl it round the glass, stick my nose in there (I actually also like to breathe into the glass, through my nose to stir up the vapour before inhaling until my eyes water slightly – that way you get the taste in your nasal passages and your mouth at the same time), have a little think, take a sip, roll it around, enjoy it (I also like to suck a little air through the whisky on the front of my tongue), swallow, and enjoy it some more. Yes, I look like a twat when I drink whisky. It’s difficult to enjoy whisky with friends because you can’t talk when you’re tasting it. Someone asks you a question, and you have to mime, ‘hang on a minute, I just need to finish tasting this mouthful’, by which time whatever your answer is doesn’t seem relevant anymore. In general conversation with a person, have you ever thought of something that it would be possible to say, but you’re not sure whether to say it because a) it might not be funny or b) it might be misconstrued, and by the time you’ve finished deciding whether to say it or not, you realise that the moment in which you could have said it was very small, and has in fact expired already? You might wonder what would happen if you said it anyway, but you think about that too, and realise that for some reason it wouldn’t make any sense at all anymore. You might find this happening more frequently if you become a bit more considered in your whisky tasting.

You might say, ‘other people’s reviews give me an idea of whether I will like a whisky’. I don’t even think that’s the case. If someone says a whisky is good, I’m likely to give it a try, but you cannot deny that people’s tastes vary so much that what amounts to an unpleasant taste to one person is delicious to another – you see this anywhere that you find a number of reviews of one product from different people. And they say there are no right or wrong answers anyway…

So what’s the point? Is it just a vehicle for someone to feel more knowledgeable than someone else? Or is there actually anything useful about it? I can only tell you what I think, and at the moment I’m not bothered how many flavours people can taste in a whisky and what they are. I’m more interested in trying it for myself, and getting the visceral experience of enjoying a whisky immensely, enjoying every drop to its fullest extent. Reviews can act as a reference point to try and determine what your next purchase should be, and they can be interesting, but I tend to think that lists of flavours is overdoing it.

I guess ultimately, it’s not just a case of snobbery, or wanting to seem knowledgeable, or intellectualising something. Imagine if two people meet who both like whisky. Perhaps they want to talk about whisky. Well, if a language and culture develops around whisky, then they can. Conversation isn’t limited to, “I like this whisky, I don’t like this one.” They can actually go on to discuss the topic in depth, and we’ll assume, for the sake of argument, that this is worthwhile. Sharing experiences usually is worthwhile.

Irrespective of that, my point is when you find a new interest, it can seem like there’s a lot to take in, like there’s an exclusive club that no one wants you to be part of. But there isn’t. It just means there’s a lot to learn, and learning is a big part of the fun. Just don’t think you aren’t allowed to have your own opinions or to disagree. And don’t let it put you off.

I am starting to develop a more sensitive palate. I may have detected a scent of nuts in a glass of Highland Park 12 year old, and the other night I thought maybe I could smell pears in a glass of wine, so I guess it’s just practice – but there’s no pears in there! Or nuts! Let’s just hope I stop short of bombarding you with a list of random flavours.

classy bottle
Thanks for reading another rambling and ill-conceived treatise on the delights of strong alcohol. I might return to this theme once in a while just to humorously highlight the odd flavours people are finding in their booze – maybe I’ll even find some of my own.

Here’s a good one from Spirit Journal’s review of a favourite of mine, Bruichladdich Rocks:

Nose: fruitcake, banana nut bread, sweet malt. 7 minutes later, crispy pork rind, sweet oak, vanilla, red grapes and blackberry jam.

I love how specific some of those things are – crispy pork, and seven minutes later.

So moving forward, let’s not attempt to belittle or look down on this. Let’s celebrate it. Tell me what mad flavours you can find in your strong alcoholic drinks. And don’t make them up! I’m serious. Let’s see how creative and sensitive to flavour you are.

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