E-pistle 2007/020 – Serge’s Simple Tasting Tips

By Serge Valentin, France

Or: An approach & assessment process for whiskies: 19 simple tips

Whisky is a wonderful, multidimensional drink. As soon as you’re having your first sip of any malt, you may hear distant bagpipes, remember the friendly manager who showed you around last time you visited the distillery, think about all your friends who like this particular ‘brand’ or make your very own mental movie, involving stags, verdant glens, raging seas or wild kilted Highlanders, whether male or female.

Yet, just like any quality food or drinks, whisky’s mostly about aromas and flavours and assessing a new expression from your favourite distillery can also be done in a more analytical – some will say ‘serious’ – way. That’s what the world calls “a tasting session”, and usually, its main goal is purely organoleptic. There are several sorts of tasting sessions, depending on your goals: selecting whisky to vat or blend it, selecting whisky before you buy some, either as an individual or as a retailer, judging a whisky for a competition, or simply getting to know a new expression the best you can. That’s the most common aim among private whisky enthusiasts but even then, you can either aim at taking notes for your own, private use or for publishing on the web or elsewhere. In that case, if other people will read your notes, you’d better do it “very seriously”!

But now’s the trickiest part: how can we taste whisky “seriously” and not get bored? Having fun is a key component of my own assessment for whiskies, actually, but after quite a few years of whisky tasting I found out that you just cannot only have fun and evaluate your drams properly. That’s why I’m not always switched on tasting mode when I drink whisky. I want to have lots of fun as well.

So, here’s my first tip, maybe the most important: Whenever you’re in front of a new whisky, first decide whether you’ll drink it just for fun and for your enjoyment, or to evaluate it seriously and maybe come up with a score (more on scores later). In the first case, you may well do just what you want, but when my aim is to screen and score one or several whiskies, I always try to do it in a proper manner – a manner that suits me, that is. I’m not saying everybody should do the same.

Tip #1: I taste my whiskies alone.
Of course I absolutely love common tasting sessions, with lots of friends to share my enthusiasm with, but I often checked that the results can be very inconsistent.  I can’t help being influenced by other tasters’ comments, I never manage to concentrate properly on my dram and it’s always very hard not to let the discussions shift toward non-whisky related topics. Yet, I must admit some circles are very disciplined and in that case, it works. But then I think all tasters should evaluate their whiskies in silence and start to swap impressions only when they’re done with their notes. “Friendship and musings” can – and should – happen indeed, but after the tasting session in itself. When the environment isn’t quiet and studious, I usually just nose the whiskies and then pour my glasses into small sample bottles for later scoring. That also allows me to drive safely back to my home or to the hotel!

Tip #2: choosing the best moments.
I’m bad at evaluating my whiskies when I’m tired and for me, the best moment to taste whisky is between 10am and 4pm.
That means that I almost always taste my whiskies during the weekends because mind you, I usually have to work during the week.
I happen to drink whisky in the evening of course, often with friends. In that case, I switch to “fun mode” and don’t bother with taking notes or giving scores.

Tip #3: checking nose and palate.
My nose and/or my palates aren’t always in good shape, even between 10am and 4pm during the weekends. So, I’ll usually have two or three benchmark malts on my shelves, that is to say malts that I know very well (Ardbeg 10yo, Macallan 12yo, Highland Park 18yo…) Whenever I’m planning a tasting session, I’m having quick sniffs and sips of one or two of them first and when their noses and/or palates aren’t exactly what they should, I just cancel my session or switch to “fun mode”.

Tip #4: nose and palate conditions.
I always try not to eat strong food before any session, and wait for one hour or so after a meal before I start my sessions in any case. I sometimes use palate calibrators that work well with me, like coffee or bitter chocolate. Sometimes I brush my teeth but only with water, no toothpaste (not even whisky-flavoured toothpaste).

Tip #5: glassware.
Several kinds of glasses work pretty well but what’s most important I think is to use always the same glasses.
My favourites are the small blender’s glasses distributed by Andrews Parke, that look like the Glencairns but are smaller.
They work very well even with a very small quantity of whisky and you can carry them everywhere in your pocket. Glasses should be cleaned up properly, again there are several methods but the key point is to check your glasses by nosing them before you fill them with your rare whisky. The glasses should be odourless. (Lawrence and Craig will publish their glassware tests in MM#103.)

Tip #6: environment.
I like to taste my whiskies always at the same place, in front of the computer on which I type down my notes. I try to avoid odours (flowers, food, perfume, strong tobacco) and anything that could distract me. I like to listen to music but only music that’s not too “involving”. I like for instance classical or jazz music but only if I know the pieces very well. A sudden fabulous sax solo can be a killer for my concentration.

Tip #7: building flights.
Deciding on what you’ll taste is another key issue. Very varied flights are entertaining but they don’t let the finer differences between two malts come out. I prefer to pair at least two whiskies that are – or should be – very similar because that’ll stress most nuances. Usually, I choose from two to four whiskies from the same distillery, if possible with roughly the same ages or coming from the same kinds of casks. I always put the lowest strength at first place and the highest at last. Being able to pick such similar malts is only possible if you manage to build a huge sample and/or bottle library. That’s long and pricey but it’s really worth it I think.

Tip #8: length of the sessions.
I like to taste from six to ten whiskies in a row, divided into three to five flights.
Less doesn’t work very well because I always need a little time to warm up and train both my nose and palate, or I’ll use several benchmark malts to do that but that can be boring. Even if I’m doing all that seriously, I need to have fun! Tasting more than, let’s say ten malts, on the other hand, is difficult as well because your nose and palate get tired and not that efficient anymore. You can taste a slightly larger number of whiskies actually but then it should be only low-strength versions (40 to 46%).

Tip #9: going back and forth.
Your nose and palate will change within your session, because they’ll get used to alcohol and aromas and will just adjust their sensibilities with time. Often, a malt that was very powerful when you tasted it as your first dram will seem to be much lighter if you taste it after six or seven other whiskies.  That’s why I always pour all my whiskies within one flight into several glasses and nose and taste them several times, back and forth. For example, I’ll nose #1, then #2, then #3. Then I’ll taste #1, #2, #3, then I’ll nose #3 again, then #2, then #1… And so on, as long as I seem to uncover new aromas and flavours.

Tip #10: giving time.
Many whiskies are long to develop. I once had a Springbank that kept going on for twelve hours!
That means that you should give each whisky at least half an hour, except if it’s very simple.
The finer ones will usually need one full hour to tell you everything they have to say.

Tip #11: adding water.
Adding water works well with some malts – we call them the swimmers – and not at all with others.
I always try my whiskies neat but then I’ll try them again with a few drops of water (I usually reduce them to roughly 45%, using a pipette), but only when I feel the whisky was too silent considering its pedigree, or when its ABV was above 55%. The best water I think is water that isn’t too soft nor too hard. Chlorinated tap water should be avoided.

Tip #12: the colour.
The colour of a malt isn’t usually related to its taste but will influence you a lot.
There’s little you can do against that, except if you’re using blue or black tasting glasses. I tend to think that the colour of a whisky is part of its characteristics and so it doesn’t bother me to be influenced by it, just like the nose will influence your palate.

Tip #13: the nose.
The nose is a key component that beginners will usually overlook. I prefer to give short sniffs and will only nose deeply if a malt’s rather inexpressive. Usually, I first try to get the different layers that will appear one after the other and note them down. It can be quite simple, like fruits, then resins, then oak. Then I’ll try to be more precise and find which kinds of fruits and if they’re dried, candied, fresh, overripe etc. It ‘s very important not to nose a high-strength malt too deeply because that will just annihilate your nostrils and then your session’s over. Your nostrils may need several days to get back to their normal shape after such damages.

Tip #14: the palate.
I prefer to concentrate on the body and the mouth feel first, before I start to track down flavours. I’ll take a very small sip and then take a little more of it when I feel it’s not enough to express its whole dimension. Flavours usually come in layers just like aromas. I’ll swallow very little of each whisky usually and spit out the rest, except if it’s a whisky I like a lot. Yet, I’ll usually need three to fours sips to come up with proper notes. The palate can take a long time to develop, just like the nose and it’s usually not a good idea to take fifteen minutes to nose a whisky and then just thirty seconds in your mouth before you swallow it. Another interesting option if you don’t want to drink too much whisky and just can’t spit it out (can be ugly or distasteful in certain circumstances): micro-dramming. You take a small drop of it between your lips and sort of vaporize it into you mouth by sucking air. That’s usually a bit noisy but it works well, except that you can’t take notes about the mouth feel.

Tip #15: the finish.
That’s what happens on your palate once you’ve swallowed your whisky. The longer the better, and usually only the key flavours will remain. Sometimes, new flavours will appear and I’d call that the malt’s signature. It can happen that after the finish, some whiskies will leave an aftertaste that’ll be rather different from the finish. That isn’t good news usually, most aftertastes being bitter and/or soapy in that case. A good whisky should have a long and enjoyable finish but no remarkable aftertaste. Sometimes you’ll also experience retro-olfaction, which is kind of a second nosing that’ll come up from your throat to your nose after you swallowed your whisky.

Tip #16: scoring your whisky.
This is rather controversial matter… Some aficionados hate scores, some others will score even orange juice.
I do use scores myself, mostly because it’s the best way to remember to which extend I once liked a whisky without having to read my notes. But a score is not a judgement, it’s just a summing up of various feelings and likings.

Tip #17: using a proper scale.
Some will use a 5-star scale, some others will give points from 0 to 20, I like the traditional 100-scale best.
It’s very handy to note differences between two malts that very similar, which a short scale can’t do. Of course, a rating doesn’t mean anything to another person when the latter doesn’t know the scorer and his tastes.  I usually rate malts between 50 and 99. Less than 50 is for other ‘liquids’, usually undrinkable ones. Between 51 and 74 means I don’t like the malt too much. Between 75 and 85 it’s enjoyable. 86 to 89 means very recommendable and 90+ means extremely good for my tastes. From 93 on it’s stuff of legends, actually.
I usually favor complexity and typicality or its opposite, extravagance. I don’t decompose my ratings into 3 or 4 ‘clusters’ like some do (like 25 points for nose, palate, finish and general impression) because I like to be able to give extra-points when the nose or the palate is properly stunning, even if another aspect is more ‘middle of the road’.

Tip #18: computerizing your notes.
The earlier you start to do it the better. I’d advise you to use a spreadsheet or database software so that you can sort your notes by ages, distilleries, ratings, styles, whatever.  A PDA can be very useful if you happen to visit liquor shops quite often, especially if you already happened to taste hundreds of different whiskies.

Tip #19 and last: don’t take all my tips too seriously.
They work for me but they may well not work for you. No fun? Too painful? Too complicated? No problems, drop the tips you don’t feel like following and create your own guidelines and then stick with them.

Bonus tip: respect your family and friends.
Whisky can be a very time and energy consuming hobby.
Never forget that your wife or husband or friends may well not be as mad as you!
I want to have lots of fun as well.