...where distraction is the main attraction.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Whisky Tasting Process. Part 1, The Setting

Two months back, Jordan at Chemistry of the Cocktail posted a great piece on his spirits tasting methods.  It got me thinking about my own whisky tasting system.  I am a man of rituals, but most of them become involuntary once I discover how well they suit me.  So I wanted to step back and document how I experience my whiskies.

This isn't meant to be a How-To, but rather How-I-Do.  If anyone has thoughts about his or her processes, please feel free to share.  We may do things differently in the macro sense, yet have similarities in amongst the minutiae OR we may end up doing the same thing while taking different routes to get there.

In Part 1, I'll walk through the various drinking environs that I've experienced.  The milieus, if we're feeling nerdy.  (Also, please pardon the constant pronoun switcheroos.)

(Whiskyfest, Peetin' Meetin', Whisky Live, etc.)

Sounds great right?  It is.  At a price.

A festival provides the opportunity to try a dozen (or dozens!) of whiskies you haven't yet experienced.   There's food and water (both important), 100+ people, social time, brand ambassadors, distributor reps, and free swag.

The financial requirement begins with the tickets.  Often there are two types, regular and VIP (which gives you fancier booze and more time with industry folks).  The prices can range from $75 to $500.  You also must factor in travel and transport expenses.  If it's out of town, then you'll need a place to stay.  If it's in town, you'll need to get there and back, safely.

This can get expensive.  BUT there's so much whisky!  So you need to figure out the personal value of the experience (and the fab liquor) and see if the financial requirement is appropriate.

Because I'm on a limited budget, I tend to eye the well-regarded lower cost festivals.  I also take into account that at a certain point I'm probably not going to appreciate the multitude of whiskies by Hour Three or Hour Four.  Will I really be able to discern if the fifteenth sample was better than the sixteenth?  No.

Thus, I try to develop a plan beforehand.  If the event lists the whiskies present, that's even better.  I don't always go after the most expensive bottlings, instead I sometimes prioritize the whiskies that I've always wanted to try or always wanted to buy.  I have strong irrational bouts of window-shopping-whisky-lust, but I almost never buy blind.  So a festival gives me a chance to bring my crazy whisky dreams to reality and suss out if they're worth the lust.  Often, they're not.  And I save money as well as valuable Whisky Cabinet space.

I never do Single Malt Reports from festival tastings.  I quickly jot down some notes on my phone's notepad app, but that's it.  The events provide too much sensory distraction to really dig into the drink.  There's noise and smells and food and people -- usually all good things, so I enjoy them and leave the liquor analysis for another setting.

(Raise the Macallan, JW Striding Man Society, etc.)

The atmosphere for these can vary.  I went to a Johnnie Walker Black event that was structured like a corporate event at a hotel.  Then there was a Raise the Macallan in a nightclub with thumping dance music and bright lights.

The brands are there to sell their products to you, but it's free and the booze is carefully limited.  I recommend these mostly for the free drinks and to get a kick out of what they're willing to do to deliver the hard sell.

I don't do Single Malt Reports from these events either.  Aside from all of the distractions, the brands tend to push through their products very quickly.  While it's nice to compare items within a product line, a whisky needs time in the glass.  Especially older whiskies.  Thus I prefer to talk to folks and enjoy the free whisky without thinking too much about it.

(Bowmore on a Boat, etc.)

These are similar to the previous setting, but are not free.  The brand ambassador will walk the attendees through the product line in a smaller, sometimes swankier event space.  I actually like some of these events more than the free ones because the attendance is smaller and those that do attend actually enjoy whisky.  The attendees have plenty more opportunities to talk to the brand ambassador.  Most of these guys/gals really know their stuff and are great to chat up.  Plus the pours flow more liberally.

Because I have a little more control over the spacing between the drinks (and the amount!), I try to do a Report or two from the event.  This is another case of me typing wildly on my phone or scribbling on a small notepad.  But if the notes distract from experience, then I put them aside.

(LA Scotch Club, OC Scotch Club, etc.)

As you may notice, the setting audience gets smaller as we go.

Whisky clubs are a great way to meet fellow anoraks and to puzzle over drinks.  A good event will take place in a relatively quiet public place, like a bar or restaurant, and have a series of related whiskies for comparison.  This can cost anywhere from $10 to $50, depending on the bottle prices.

To me, this is still a difficult atmosphere to do a Report well.  I want to be social and meet folks, and I am of the opinion that continually looking down and typing on my phone during a conversation is rude.  I know that opinion isn't as common as it used to be, but I'm sticking to it.


Unless you know something I don't, this is a paid experience.

You buy your whisky, you sit with it, spend as much time as you'd like with it.  There's still a social scene here, but (unless you're a hottie) it's one that you can control.  There's always the challenge of a multitude of other scents: bathrooms, buffalo chicken wings, garlic mashed potatoes.  Garlic mashed potatoes.  Garlic mashed potatoes.

Garlic mashed potatoes.

Sorry, got lost there for a moment.  Another prevalent obstruction is inconvenient glassware.  Tumblers are amongst the worst vessels to appreciate liquor.  So often one has to snoop around the available glasses and request the most bud-shaped glass available.  (I'll talk more about glassware in Part 2.)

If I can get a decent glass, then I'll do a full Report.  It's a fun (sorta exhibitionist-ly) public act of nerdry.  I even bust out the official Whisky Journal and a tiny pen.


An expert sits down with you (and friends/family if you so choose) and walks you through a selection of similar whiskies.  These could be grouped by distillery, region, palate, nose, bottler, or price range.

These can also get a bit pricey, but if you have the time and cash, it's a great way to explore the whisky universe with someone who knows a lot more than you.  Sort of a whisky consultancy.

I've been to only one of these and it was AWESOME.  I recommend writing everything down, because after some hours and some cask strength experiences, things become difficult to sort out.

(inspired by this blog post)

You sit at home with a glass of whisky and give it time and full attention.  You make sure no one's cooking with onions or garlic or curry.  Maybe you throw on some mellow tunes.  You don't necessarily need to shut the door or close out your loved ones, but a lack of serious conversation is important.  Halt the rush of information.

In general, how often do you give yourself that moment of calm?  Not all sensory response is instant.  There's always more to be seen and heard and smelled and tasted and felt with time, with lucidity.

You can choose to go without the music.  Sink into something more quiet.  Allow yourself zen.

In stillness comes clarity.

This isn't whisky yoga, it's more of an appreciation of one's being and the existence of the amazing bit of alchemy held in the glass.

To me, this is the best way to unlock a whisky.  I may refer to my Taste Offs as exciting events, but they happen in quiet and with a considerable amount of time.  I actually have to schedule them ahead of time to make sure that everything is set.

Now I don't often get those moments right, but when I do I find elements within a whisky that I've previously missed.

I'll expand upon the technical steps in my individual tasting process in Part 2, The Experience.