E-pistle 2009/13 – Adventures in Taste Perversion

By Mark Gillespie, USA

It was a cool October day, and I had the first flight of six whisky samples in front of me to start judging for the 2008 Malt Maniacs Awards. The first four samples were average, with scores of 75 to 81.  Then, I opened sample number 106. My tasting notes described it as “Sour and lemony with a puckering mouth-feel and a sharp, biting aftertaste.  Hard to sip and harder to swallow! Nasty!”  I scored the sample at 58 points, and went on to complete my ratings of the other 192 samples. As I went on, I noticed more sour citrus-like flavors that didn’t seem to be quite right in about 25% of the samples, and scored them accordingly. Finally, I completed the last sample with less than an hour before the deadline, reviewed my scores, and sent my score sheet off to Johannes in Amsterdam. We talked about an hour later, and (unfortunately) Skype made his words all too clear… “You must have really hated the Highland Park 12!”

Keep in mind now, the Highland Park 12 is one of my favorites. I’ve recommended it to many whisky newcomers as an excellent dram to start with, and I’ve never hidden my feelings about it. So, I replied: “No… I love the Highland Park 12… Why?” Johannes replied: “Well, you scored it at 58 points…”

I opened my spreadsheet with tasting notes and compared the sample number from the final scores that Johannes had just e-mailed me… and there it was… Highland Park 12-year-old with my 58 points next to it.  I remembered the sample well and told Johannes there was no way that could have been Highland Park 12. It was too sour and lemony – the sample must have been tainted…
Ummm – did anyone else notice a problem with it?

No one else did…and we also found that my scores on about 25% of the samples were significantly lower than those of the other judges. Those were the same samples that I’d noticed the citrus flavors in. Johannes agreed to discuss the problem with the rest of the awards committee, and I went to my whisky collection, which I had largely ignored while judging 6 to 12 samples a night for the last several weeks. I pulled out a bottle of Highland Park 12 and poured a small dram.

I won’t repeat the words I used…but the same nasty sour taste was there in my own bottle!
This is how I learned about “taste perversion.” I’ve been accused of perverted taste before, but never “taste perversion.”  The next morning, I was leaving for work and took one of the prescription medications my doctor had prescribed for me a couple of months earlier. I won’t go into the details, but I had been taking this pill each morning and noticed the slightly sour taste… and this morning, I made the connection.

Again…I won’t repeat the words I used… but called my doctor to make an appointment for a couple of days later (he had a boat payment due, so I didn’t have to wait long)…and went to the web to look up the medicine in question. Under “side effects,” there it was; “Some patients reported taste perversion while taking (X) during research studies.”

After a few more unrepeatable words I sent an e-mail to Johannes outlining what I had found out, and we agreed to discard my entire set of scores for the competition. Later that week, I explained the situation to my doctor, and he took me off the prescription. It took about three weeks, but my sense of taste finally returned to normal and the Highland Park 12 that tasted bitter and sour a few weeks earlier now had its classic notes back!

Now, what can you learn from my experience?
It’s important to note that I did not use a “control dram” before sampling the competition entries. If I had, I would have caught the problem at the start and not wasted my time and that of the other Maniacs…as well as the readers and whisky producers that were counting on me for a fair and accurate appraisal. Second, I didn’t look at the documentation that came with the prescription, which noted the “taste perversion” issue as a side effect. It’s something I now do whenever I start taking a new medication, and I recommend you do the same – especially since some medications can have a bad reaction to alcohol. I also can’t emphasize enough how important it is to talk with your physician before stopping a prescription medication, since that can create complications as well if not managed properly.