Friday, 8 February 2013

Mad things people taste in liquor - it's like a clips show, but written down

Inspired by recently attending the first meeting of the new Manchester Whisky Club (which you can read about on other blogs here and here), I’d like to revisit a theme from my Whatis it with whisky reviews? feature. The club is basically an [admittedly excellent] excuse to mix with other people that have an interest in drinking whisky, and taste some different drams. I think that’s the first time I’ve ever used the word ‘dram’, not really feeling qualified to do so generally. There were five to try at this first meeting – one from each of the whisky producing regions of Scotland – and they were all of excellent quality, being selected as they were by club founder, Andy.

Andy allocated us five glasses each, and poured a generous quantity into each one. Each whisky and region was then introduced, and we commenced with the nosing and tasting, pausing to share our impressions.

Now, I don’t want to get into too much detail about the club itself (that’s for another time), but what is important is that none of the impressions any of us had of the various scents and flavours in those five glasses were particularly outlandish, but as you’ll see in the rest of this article, sometimes they really can be. I’m more of a wide-eyed enthusiast than an expert, so it’s not for me to say whether any of these flavours are actually in the drams in question, and there are no right or wrong answers anyway, apparently. So no judging, please. Just have a look at some of these examples, and marvel at the ingenuity and realms of possibility within human experience.

Some of these excerpts are from what we’ll call ‘expert’ reviews, and are therefore examples perhaps of someone letting their imagination run away with them a little. Conversely, some are ‘customer’ reviews, and therefore borne out of boredom and na├»ve fascination, so some of them may be explained by error, lack of experience or even facetiousness (much like this blog) – you know what people on the internet are like. I think they’re all worth looking at and even celebrating to some extent.


A common practice I’ve noticed is that of mentioning what I’m going to call combination flavours. By that, I mean where someone doesn’t just mention a flavour, but that flavour in a particular state, so for example, instead of vanilla, they will say vanilla ice cream, instead of grass, they’ll say wet grass etc. Grass? No, wet grass. You get the point. You can see real examples in these next few entries:

Gibson’s 12 year old – “on the nose; canned fruits.”

Here’s a good one: canned fruits. So generic fruit in a can? Does that seriously sound like a good thing, notwithstanding that the smell of the canned fruit should differ, depending on what fruit is actually in the can? I don’t think canned fruits was supplied as a value judgement in this instance, more an observation. It is an interesting one though. To me it begs the question: if you’re going to analyse flavours, how specific do you need to be? Is ‘canned fruits’ good enough? Is it in juice or syrup?

The Glenlivet 12 year old – ‘dark toast’ from The Whisky Exchange

Dark toast. Again, I’m just not sure whether some things people get an impression of are supposed to be good or not – does it matter? Let’s imagine you’re considering purchasing the whisky in question; are you supposed to ask yourself, do I like dark toast? If you don’t, I don’t think that necessarily means you can’t enjoy a whisky that someone has tasted dark toast in, so it’s not particularly useful, but it is a real impression someone had, so there.

Perhaps you should ask, whether or not I like dark toast, would I like it in whisky?

The book I’m currently reading (but skipping through most of), Peat Smoke and Spirit by Andrew Jefford also mentioned dark toast in a description of a whisky recently, and in that instance it was a bad thing, so that at least clears that up. To some extent.

Poetic Licence

Then of course, you’ve got the people who take the whole thing a little too far. Like this guy:

Jura Superstition – “I immediately noticed rich scents and aromas climbing out of the glass to greet my nose. If I closed my eyes and held the glencairn under my nose I could imagine I was in an evergreen forest with damp moss covering the ground. A boggy meadow must be nearby as I smell the damp peat under the meadow grass, with lush ferns and willow bushes clinging to its edges. Saw grass and timothy are growing in the meadow with summer flowers just beginning to bloom. Sweet malted barley smells have wafted in from beyond the forest and light scents of marmalade, vanilla and baking spices have drifted in. I find the overall effect to be marvellous.”
From therumhowlerblog

Now I don’t want to ridicule that one (too much), but if I hold a glass under my nose, I can imagine literally anything. The mind is a powerful thing – sometimes I don’t even need to hold a glass under my nose. I can imagine for example, that an otter is playing the trombone. Get that into a glass of whisky.

I might try that at the next club meeting; [sniff…] I’m getting a sense of… an otter… playing a trombone…

But seriously; that’s got to be some fricking good whisky, in order to transport you to the Land of Narnia, just by sniffing it. Alas, no; it’s just Jura Superstition, which didn’t impress me much at all when I had a bottle of it. Maybe if I’d been putting the washing away in the wardrobe, as Mrs Cake reminded me this morning that I never do, things might have been different.

Maybe that’s a good excuse, I just thought to myself before common sense intervened and reminded me that fear of Narnia is never a good excuse for getting out of anything.

The Whisky Magazine’s review of Glenrothes Select Reserve also indulges in this flowery opulence:

TasteTasting Notes:

Nose: Lots of zesty rich fruit on the nose. Thick Seville marmalade, bubbling on a hot stove with notes of toasted cereals. 

Palate: Silky smooth and utterly supple. Gentle barley whispers sweet nothings to the/its honey. A little vanilla and malt with toasted cereal and sumptuous oak.

Finish: Long with mocchaccino and barley sweetness. 
(Tasting Notes by Whisky Magazine.)

Looks like someone’s missed their calling as a poet. A few things stand out about that one. First you’ve got a combination flavour – Seville marmalade, rather than just marmalade. You don’t want to give the wrong impression, do you? I don’t know what Seville marmalade tastes like, and how it differs from regular marmalade, but it’s nice to be given something so specific. That’s better than canned fruits, isn’t it?

Then you’ve got that it is supple on the palate. How a liquid can be anything but supple is beyond me. Let’s just look that word up…

sup·ple  (s
adj. sup·plersup·plest
1. Readily bent; pliant.
2. Moving and bending with agility; limber.
3. Yielding or changing readily; compliant or adaptable.

Hmm… looking at that, you could argue that a liquid can’t be supple. Moving on…

Finally you’ve got the bit where gentle barley is whispering sweet nothings to the/its honey. That is so annoying, how he’s chosen to suggest the barley speaks to the honey flavour, and then suggests that perhaps the barley is speaking to its lover [… bleurgh!] with the use of a forward slash to shoehorn both those points into one phrase. I’ll tell you what though; I can imagine a stalk of barley leaning over to some honey and whispering to it. What would it be whispering, I wonder? I’m going to destroy you!


That’s the honey giggling, though there’s nothing about it doing that in the review.


If that wasn’t mad enough, then you have the nutcases. When this next one says ‘pork’, I’m going to give the benefit of the doubt, and assume he means port, though I can’t really see the relevance here – unless he’s describing a meal. Maybe he had pork for dinner, with a glass of wine, then decided to finish off with a whisky. Whatever; he goes on to mention meerkats, and seems to think whisky is made by baking, so whatever he says has already been undermined. I know sometimes sarcasm can be lost in the written word, but I don’t think this one is a joke. I think it’s safe to say; this guy isn’t a pro.

 “After trying Wine and then Pork I thought I would try whisky. The colour is almost like a Meerkat when it is 2 year old. The taste was good to start but not really baked enough. Not recommended by me!” from

The colour of a meerkat? Is he a zookeeper? Perhaps I was misguided when I started comparing the colour of my whiskies to a Dulux colour chart; I should have been comparing them to animals – orangey-yellow animals like lions, hyenas and foxes.

Communicating enthusiasm

Finally you have the reviews to which I give the greatest credence; ones that actually give some semblance of what it is like to experience a whisky, rather than attempt to impress you with a series of flavours. The way so many reviews rely on lists of flavours reminds me of reading a menu in a vegetarian restaurant – that’s not a dish, it’s just a list of vegetables!

Perhaps it helps that this next one is a review of a personal favourite, but nevertheless, I can identify with this one, and I find it amusing.

Caol Ila Cask Strength – “Very strong stuff!The oils seep out of the whiskey when you add a drop of water to your glass.Its Medicinal, carbolic, salty fume fills the room and scares my wife into the next room. It’s beyond comprehension that this whiskey was crafted by man.” From the whisky exchange

I suppose it takes a particularly interesting whisky to inspire that kind of description, and perhaps that’s the problem; most whiskies aren’t that interesting (to me, at least… yet). They are enjoyable and mildly interesting, but they don’t jump out of the glass and demand attention, so you’re left sticking your nose in there going, “toffee? Caramel? Banana milkshake? Vanilla?...”

I’d like to leave you then, with one more excerpt that I was made aware of by Andy of the Manchester Whisky Club. He said he found this in a review on Twitter:

'I'm back in the playground with bleeding knees after a conker match - I'm getting childhood fruits'

Regardless of what childhood fruits are, that one is just bizarre! How do you get bleeding knees from a conker match? Do I have an impression of what it was like to be at school all those years ago? Yes. Would I ever expect that impression to be reflected in the flavour or aroma of whisky? Again no, but that would be interesting, wouldn’t it?

I’m afraid I don’t know what whisky was being described there, so I may never come across it. I hope I do, just as I would like to understand this one day, and perhaps experience such a vivid impression of my own. I’m going the right away about it - in that I’m trying plenty of whisky – but sadly, I can’t say I’ve come anywhere near yet. Drinking whisky tends to just remind me of another time I was drinking whisky, though they do all smell and taste distinct from each other.

I’m still slightly mystified over what the point is, but since I understand that some whiskies are better than others, and that you can get mad impressions from them, I suppose you should at least share them. Otherwise, what’s the point in experiencing anything? That there are no right or wrong answers almost renders the practice redundant, but I think you should accept that as encouragement to throw your own mad descriptions out there, rather than dwell on what you can’t taste.

Well, all that doesn’t matter. I’d be delighted of course to hear what you think about all this. The important thing I think, is that whisky can be so complex, evocative and enjoyable that it transcends simply being an alcoholic drink. You can get lost in it, and when you get lost in it, getting drunk on it isn’t the main motivation behind drinking it – and that’s got to be a good thing for those of us who are approaching middle age and the onset of all manner of maladies and deterioration. All this evolved because it’s fascinating and enthusiasts want to communicate and share their experiences. So it’s all good.

That was quite fun, then. I think I’ll return to this theme at some time in the future when I’ve come across some more mad reviews, so keep an eye out for it. We can open this up to audience participation if you like. If you see a particularly weird booze review, let me know.

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