...where distraction is the main attraction.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Whisky Fail: The Blind Taste Test

The task was simple yet complex, as many simple tasks can be to a person that thinks too bloody much about every simple task.

Florin sent me two 2oz. samples. One was Balvenie 15 year old Single Barrel, the other was an unknown "Mystery Officially Bottled Single Malt".  My test was twofold.  First, I had to tell him which sample bottle held the Balvenie 15.  Then, I needed to determine the mystery malt held in the other bottle.

The samples arrived in early March.  I didn't engage the test until late July.  Why so long?  Maybe a little intimidation, maybe a little extra Balvenie training, maybe also a little Vizzini-style battle of wits over which bottle contained the Balvenie.

...the most famous is never get involved in a land war in Asia, but only
slightly less well known is...
Of course the battle of wits was with myself, per usual, so there would be no answer, per usual.

After my extra Balvenie training, I was reminded how much I enjoyed the Single Barrel the previous times I'd sampled it.  Tried it thrice, liked it thrice.  Then I figured I was ready, so I proceeded.

Here were my notes:

Sample #1
Color - Light gold / amber
Nose - Roses, American oak, light phenolics?, big cereal grains, caramel, Purple Stuff, oats, dried grass, and butterscotch
Palate - Solid sweet malt, vanilla, a little spice, a little caramel, and shortbread cookies
Finish - Gets much sweeter and saltier, lots of grains again

Sample #2
Color - Rosy gold
Nose - Putty, plaster, band-aids, cherry cough syrup, floral perfume, paper, strong caramel, and smoky Werthers candies
Palate - Mix of refill sherry and American oak?, it's got some alcohol heat, baked fruit bread
Finish - Slams on the brakes here, though it gets sweeter. There's some orange zest in there too.

Sample 1 was full of bold malty/graininess and presented a welcoming easy palate; meanwhile Sample 2, while good, had some odd industrial thing going on, plus there was that feeling of mixed casks I was getting.

The following response is taken directly from my email to Florin:
I would bet 95% of my foolishness that Sample #1 is Balvenie 15yr SB. 
The 5% of doubt is that sample #1 has a very strong cereal note on the nose that I don't remember being in the previous 15yr SBs I'd tried.  But that's the charm of the separate single barrel releases. If I'm right on this one, then I'm going to run out and get a bottle from a local shop that still has the 15yrs at their old price.
Also in the "5% of doubt" was that curious phenolic note, but again there's that charm of single barrel releases.

For Sample 2, my thought process was Bowmore 12 meets Springbank 10, yet neither.  So something between them, with negligible phenols.  I went with Bunnahabhain 12.

Okay, maybe too much confidence, Vizzini.
Florin's reply was that the non-Balvenie sample was an OB from Speyside, and not Glenfarclas nor one of the more exotic distilleries.

And I was thinking, "Uh oh, I've spent so much whisky time far from Speyside, so I'm in uncharted territories now."  I tried Sample 2 again.  With some air the industrial notes vanished, replaced by lots of fruit.  There was still a lot of oak going on, though.  For my guess I went with Glenlivet 18, with Glenfiddich 15 as my backup.

Nope, on either account.

Crap, I had no idea what Sample 2 was.  When Florin asked how I'd rate them, I said 3.5 to 4 stars for sample #1 and 3 stars for sample #2, whatever it was.

Florin then responded with the results.

Sample 1 was not Balvenie Single Barrel.

Oh, The Fail did not end there.

Sample 1, the "3.5 to 4 star" malt was Speyburn 10 year old (old label).  Yes, the very whisky I had rated 1.5 stars last October.  Sample 2, the shifting less-desirable mystery malt was Balvenie 15 year old Single Barrel.

So, not only had I pooped on a surprisingly decent whisky in a previous report, BUT I had also made plans to run out and buy a bottle of the Balvenie since I was so charmed by Sample 1.  I guess I was going to save some money.

From Florin's response:
First, I was quite disappointed in the Balvenie 15yo SB when I opened it - I didn't recognize any of the amazing notes of pure clear floral honey that I knew from another such bottle.  I found it quite muddled, hot, and frankly boring.  Those were $60 not well spent! 
Second, when shortly thereafter I opened the bottle of Speyburn 10yo, I was surprised at how good it was, and at how it reminded me of the Balvenie 15yo SB that I knew from the past.  It out-Balvenie 15yo Single Barreled the Balvenie 15yo SB!  Was that me, or would you agree?  I had to know!  It sounds like you agree (95% confidence is all we ask for in Statistics)!
I did (and do) agree.

Another lesson here: I feel like I need to provide a disclaimer when I review a whisky via a mini bottle.  Though there's a definite risk in all purchased samples, most minis have very poor seals.  And frankly we don't know how they are stored, especially if they are of the $0.99 sort.  Again, even well-sealed purchased samples have the potential for problems (see my Hakushu issue here and here).  Yet, I'm finding a higher percentage of issues with minis, from the Bastard's Share lost on a Glenfarclas 105 to the weird stuff floating in a Bruichladdich.  As fun as it is to collect minis, some doubt is arising about their test quality.

But let me not shift all the focus to minis.  I flubbed this test.  I did potentially discover a great cheap malt and was reminded about the "charms" of single barrel releases.  When trying whiskies without the benefit of labels, names, or ages we are left to our senses and pure objective judgement.

Or is it so pure?  Could I have rated Sample 1 higher because I thought it was Balvenie Single Barrel, a whisky I already thought I enjoyed?  Is Speyburn 10 really that much better than the stuff I had in the mini last year?  Luckily, a follow-up wouldn't be too expensive.

Stay tuned for reports on Balvenie 15 year old Single Barrel and Speyburn 10 year old (old label), as I try them with the blindfold off.


  1. I would suggest that your failure is less severe than you make it out to be. The Balvenie SB 15 was uncharacteristic and you couldn't be expected to identify it. And on that basis you were convinced that the other was the Balvenie and being predisposed to like it you over-rated it. Try that Speyburn 10 five more times truly blind (i.e without there being a 50/50 chance that it is something you expect to like) and I doubt you'd give it 3.5-4 stars again.

    1. Thank you. Yeah, I'm leaning towards some of those conclusions now. The truth about Speyburn 10 lies somewhere in between my first appraisal (1.5) and the blind one (3.5-4). But I have burned through a half bottle of it without complaint. No weird oak tinkering, not much apparent caramel color, lots of malt, 43% ABV, all for $18. Can't say most of those things about some much more expensive whiskies.

    2. Agreed. It's an unobjectionable malt (especially at its price). 1.5 stars seems too low and 3.5-4 seems too high. But for just $10 more you can get at least two superior Glen Morays and the Tomatin 12.

    3. Yeah, Tomatin 12 deserves more respect than it gets. You all in MN are getting your Glen Morays for $10-$15 less than we do in CA. Must be a distributor issue.

    4. Hey Mao, I thought you didn't like Glen Moray! I actually do and indeed I used to rank them above Speyburn 10yo. But this last encounter made me revise my opinion on the Speyburn. What I really like about it is the clean profile, all malt and lemon merengue, no sherry, no gimmicks. I would wager that they add some caramel (which is a bummer), but not too much. It gets 3 stars in my book - so yeah, between 1.5 and 3.5-4. The last bottle was finished in less than a month, in a very competitive field.

      Then I remembered that a couple years back David Broom gave it a "best buy" in the Whisky Advocate.

      I'm curious about the Glen Moray, I used to like the NAS back in 2006 or so even more than the 12yo. In your opinion, did they keep their offerings consistent, or did they go down?

  2. I'm currently working my way through a very good 16 year old Balvenie Single Barrel. That's not a typo, I did the math on the dates on the label and it's a 16 year old. Apparently some people have found a rare 18 and 20 year old (which would make this a great value if you find a bottle). According to what I've read Balvenie lets some of their barrels age longer if the contents don't match the flavor profile (which to me is a honey and vanilla explosion).

    1. Nice! Any bets on if they're still letting their barrels age longer now that everyone's claiming aged malt shortages?

    2. My recent hunt showed that the latest batch is all 15 years old. I'll continue to keep an eye out but It might be possible Balvenie will be sticking to 15 years from now on.

    3. Yeah, my guess is they probably will too. Though ever since they started with the 12yo Single Barrel, I've been wondering if they're preparing to end the 15s.

  3. Michael, of course you didn't really fail, but I really like the dramatic effects! The comparison with The Princess Bride is so adept - both glasses were poisoned! Good thing this wasn't to the death!

    And your intellect is truly dazzling.

    1. All I have to do is divine from what I know of you: Are you the sort of man who would put Loch Dhu into his own goblet or his enemy's?