On tasting whiskies blind

With another edition of the Usquebaugh Society’s Blind Tastig Competition underway I’ve been thinking about the concept of tasting a whisky without knowing what it is.

Some members of our whisky club host regional tastings and the one in Noord-Holland is also always done blind. The most fair way of comparing one whisky to another.

But is it?

The most all-encompassing answer would be ‘yes and no’. Because of course it would be.

Personally, I don’t really like not knowing what I’m drinking. For me, one of the biggest enjoyments of whisky is discussing how a whisky ranks up against comparable whiskies, be it from the same distillery, age, style of whatever. Also, I like to to know things. I’ve not read dozens of books on whisky to just randomly guess things instead of gathering knowledge.

Apart from the fact that I absolutely suck at assessing whisky without anything to guide myself by, I simply don’t like it.

Also, I think it is unfair to most whiskies. When trying the most recent Ben Nevis 10 year old, you come to realize it is a great whisky. Especially for a distillery’s entry level dram and a very affordable € 45-ish. The same goes for Benromach 10, Springbank 10, Oban and Clynelish 14 and so on.

However, if you taste them blind you don’t assess them by ‘how good of an entry level dram is this?’. You assess them by comparing them to a random benchmark or idea of what whisky in general could be. While that sounds like the way it should be done, it’s unfair to most whisky because most whisky isn’t going to hold a candle to 1970s Brora, for example.

If you rank that 1970s Brora you once had at 94 points (just naming a number here), nothing that’s affordable now should be anywhere near 90, unless you have a very strange curve in what numbers mean.

In regards to, for example and as far as I know, how The Malt Maniacs and WhiskyMag do their annual rankings, in which you DO know the category a whisky is in, I think that’s much more fair.

Then at least you’re comparing whisky to whisky that is supposed to be on par with it, or at least in the same ballpark. Something about brining a gun to a knife fight, or the other way around.

knife-fight

Apart from ballparks, gun fights and these shenanigans, when I’m at a tasting I like to talk about the booze. I find that that is much more enjoyable when you have a clue to what you’re drinking.

I realized this last summer at my Blog Birthday Bash (sans barbecue, this time around). We had a theme, ‘America’, but because of it being a blind tasting, after pouring a dram we just sat there staring at each other instead of being able to introduce the whisky, talking about provenance, the distillery, how and where you got it and such.

Because of that I felt like I was missing out on much of the enjoyment of the whisky. Quite a shame for something that is so friggin’ expensive.

 

Full disclosure: I suck at tasting blind. I suck at the Blind Tasting Competition, and as it turns out, I don’t really get around to it. 8 Days in, and I’ve only put in my guess 5 times. And the coming two days are not going to be any different.

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Peat Night 2018, at De Whiskykoning

20181109_202555It’s already been over a month, but a fond memory still. On the 9th of November we went all the way to Den Bosch for the annual Peat Night, or ‘Turfkoekhapavond’. It was an utter disaster to get there, as is tradition by now, since we also had the annual delay of about 100% of the usual time it takes to get there.

Anyway, the night was bound to make up for that, as it does every year. Six peated whiskies for the winter months. The line-up had been announced and on the drive over there we spent some time devising plans to make it hard on the host of the night.

Generally we won’t shut up during the night and he can barely get a word in edgewise. 20181109_204452So, he has decreased his introduction time for each whisky from about three minutes to thirty seconds. Of course, after his thirty seconds we just sat there urging him on and demanding more information. We’re dicks. And we have fun doing it. Also, Rob Stevens knows what to expect.

The whiskies then:

Kilchoman 100% Islay, 8th edition, 50%

Lots of peat, some vanilla and sweetness. Earthy, with quite a lot of oak.

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Port Charlotte 10 years old, 50%

Dry with heather and peat. Slightly salty, slightly spicy. Some bandaids and brine.

Talisker 8yo CS, 59.4%

Lots of fruit, some mint, the obvious Talisker pepper. Some fudge and toffee and oak. It’s sharp and somehow reminds me of sherry instead of the bourbon casks it’s drawn from. Some soup or stock flavors, but in a very good way.

Caol Ila Feis Ile 2018, 58.2%

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Peat smoke and olive oil. Slightly engine smoke like. Hay, marram grass, salt and ash.

Lagavulin 12, 2018, 57.8%

Lemony and salty, with ash and a very typical coastal note. Very warming.

Octomore 09.1, American Oak, 59.1%

It’s rather crisp with lots of smoke (duh). It’s too simple and too much of what it does. Very dry, which is a bit of a redeeming factor. But still, boring, especially after the awesomeness that came before.

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Afterwards we were generously poured a glass of the 2017 Lagavulin Distillery Only. An awesome whisky. I didn’t write any notes because I still have a bit of it at home and I want to do a more in depth review.

All in all, the obvious winner of the night was the Talisker 8 years old. The Lagavulin 12 is great, as it is every year. Just a bit predictable, of course. The Kilchoman and Port Charlotte were nice enough, but couldn’t hold a candle to the others. The Octomore is as I’ve come to expect from them. Predictable, not very good but a nice gimmick.

I’m already looking forward to next year’s edition!

Posted in Bruichladdich, Caol Ila, Kilchoman, Lagavulin, Octomore, Port Charlotte, Talisker | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

1959 times two

This time around, Tom found another two ancient samples in his cupboard. That means we’re going back to ‘proper’ whisky, after the Loch Ewe shenanigans from last time!


 

The year 1959 has gotten so far out of sight, it may sound like history beyond our grasp. War hero Dwight Eisenhower was president of the USA, preceding John F. Kennedy, Britain was under the rule of Harold Macmillan (and Churchill still alive) en we, the Dutch, called Jan de Quay our Prime-Minister. Yeah… ancient days. The sweet thing about whisky is that one can often look at it as bottled history. I like to do so anyway. And it is not often that I have bottled history in my sample drawer, but fate had it that an interesting bottled turned up in a bottleshare club I’m in. A nice occasion to pair it with a sample that had been waiting for a good moment for a longer time. So, here it is, two times 1959 in the glass.

MacPhail’s 1959 & 1960 GM, 40%

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Image from Whiskybase

Specially vatted to commemorate the marriage of Prince Andrew to Miss Sarah Ferguson. Didn’t they get divorced? Anyway, who cares? When I first tasted this (blind) I thought it was a grain whisky and even made a connection to the North British 1959 I’m having later. Tasting it again I came to a new conclusion, powered by the suggestion of others, granted. This is wonderful stuff, so delicate.

Sniff:
The overly familiar red tones due to sherry casks that are not in existence anymore. Candy smells that are so present in these holiday times. Also sweetened tobacco.

Sip:
Spicy, hints of clove. The darker tones of the excellent mulled wine I had after a walk on the beach just a few days ago. Just a little fragile.

Swallow:
A delight, soft, a little too one dimensional, but a fragment of history nonetheless. The emotional element eclipses the quality.

87/100

Alright, now, a single cask from Signatory. A grain, no less, but let’s give it fair judgment. At this respected age of 51 years old, it should be a cracker.


North British 1959, Refill Butt #67876, 55,6%, Signatory Vintage

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Image from Whiskybase

Smell:
Obvious glue, nail polish, it reminds me of Japanese whiskies I’ve tried (Coffey still). Sweet & sour sauce from McDonald’s. Bring on the chicken nuggets. Sounds strange but to find this in the glass is exceptional, you could easily nose this an entire evening.

Sip:
Suprisingly austere. High quality chewing gum. Cinnamon. The alcohol makes it a little secretive. With water it is more enjoyable but nothing spectacular. With grain whisky the distillate is never gonna be as interesting as a malt, so all money is on the cask. And the cask wasn’t that talkative either. 1959 means nothing in this constellation.

Swallow:
Not much going on. Not even with the added water that opened up other sides of this whisky. Never would have guessed this is 51 years old!

83/100

Not bad at all, but it never really takes off, except on the nose. I had bigger expectations for this one. Can’t win  ’em all.


 

About Tom van Engelen

tomI’m a writer in a variety of fields and have a soft spot for whisky, mainly malt, mainly from Scotland. In other times I enjoyed a stint as editor-in-chief of one of the first whisky magazines in the world. When not sipping a good glass I like to write some more, read, watch 007 movies or listen Bowie music. I’m engaged to Dasha, I have a sweet daughter and I live somewhere between the big rivers in the middle of The Netherlands.

Posted in - Blended Malt, - Grain Whisky, - News and Announcements, MacPhail's, North British | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Three Year Old Deluxe, 49.2% – Compass Box

Compass Box have been quietly carrying on releasing whiskies of which I have bought none. At least, not after this three year old came out. I’m not entirely sure why that is because I generally love their releases, and I am quite in their corner regarding the age statement campaign they were doing some years ago.

Their ‘Scotch Whisky Transparency’ campaign started after they got flack for disclosing which whiskies went into their blend. Whether or not you prefer age statements or not, I think we can all agree it’s utterly ridiculous that you cannot disclose with what ingredients you’re making your booze.

Their response to the allegations of confusing marketing or whatever was, as always, to create a whisky that drives the point home. Much like their ‘Last Vatted Malt’ and the Spice Tree changes which they were not quiet about. In this case it’s a 3 year old whisky that contains less than one percent three year old whisky. If I’m not mistaken the rest is 19 year old Talisker (9%) and 24 year old Clynelish (90%).

So, a three year old whisky that went for over € 200, if I recall correctly. Currently available in Whiskybase’s Marketplace for € 280. Any good?

20181206_231837Sniff:
Apples and pears, a whiff of smoke and a minuscule resiny note. Pine trees, old barley and oak planks. A dusty attic, with some old bits of paper knocking about.

Sip:
Very smooth on the palate. A bit of a black pepper like edge, but mostly fudge, honey and dry oak. Some dry autumn leaves and a bit of slate. The tiniest whiff of peat smoke, and it gets drier after you let it swim for a bit. It gets a bit more honey sweetness too, after a while.

Swallow:
The finish has a bit more of the resin and fruit, compared to the palate. But that only adds to the complexity of the dram. I guess that on top of the apples and pears there’s a bit of crumble pastry and blackberries.

Well, the short answer to “Any good?” is yes. This is a great whisky! Maybe that’s because I absolutely love Talisker and Clynelish, and this sits somewhere between those, without it being an unbalanced, indecisive whisky.

There’s quite some complexity, which is only helped by the varying ages in this blended malt. The fruits, the more classical barley and oak, with a touch of smoke, spice and austerity really work for me. Kudos to Jon Glaser.

Maybe I should pay more attention (and therefore money) to Compass Box’s releases…

89/100

Three Year Old Deluxe, 49.2%, Compass Box

Posted in Clynelish, Compass Box, Talisker | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Tullibardine 1993-2015, 22yo, 47.3% – Cadenhead

Tullibardine is not a distillery who’s whisky I love. I’ve only tried a handful of them, and I only ever bought one bottle by the SMWS which, when it was half empty, I took to Maltstock for other people to finish.

In short: With some others, it’s one of my least favorite distilleries.

In 2016 a 12,000 pound bottle was stolen from the distillery, and my first reaction was: “Is there a 12,000 pound bottle of Tullibardine?” This one is not that expensive, obviously, it clocked in at about 1% of that amount. Still, a 22 year old whisky generall is not something to scoff at, and even though I have no clue how I got this, I thought to give the sample a go.

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Image from Whiskybase

Sniff:
Weird from the get-go. Cream and cheese, melted brie or something like that. An enormous amount of malt, some oak and some vanilla. Cloyingly sweet, a bit of the dreaded baby vomit.

Sip:
A bit sharper than expected, but also a bit more thin. The sickly flavor is here too, but slightly less so than on the nose. Vanilla and oak. Quite some dry oak and dry spices.

Swallow:
The finish is rather bad. Sickly sweet, also acidic, with some dry spices.

Not good on the nose and palate, but simply awful on the finish. Unfortunately this only confirms my opinion of Tullibardine. Honestly, it’s a lot worse than I expected it to be with this being, what I consider, a bad whisky. No redeeming factors, and a very weird selection from Cadenhead, if you ask me (which, if you’re reading this, you more or less did…)

Funnily, I did finish the 10cl I had of it. After the first glass I didn’t touch it for weeks, and at some point I started wondering if it was truly as bad as I remembered it. It is.

50/100

Tullibardine 1993-2015, 22yo, 2 Bourbon Hogsheads, 47.3%, Cadenhead Small Batch

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Port Ellen 1979-2017, 37yo, 44.8% – Goren’s Whisky for Whisky Live Tel Aviv

It’s not often that I hold a bottle of Port Ellen in my hands. It’s far less often, even, that the bottle is mine. Now you have to take that literally, since it’s mostly the bottle itself that’s mine, and only 10cl of the contents, since I did a bottle share with this baby.

Last year for Whisky Live Tel Aviv, the organiser released a single cask Port Ellen under his own label ‘Goren’s Whisky’. What peaked my, and a lot of other’s, interest was that this went for ‘only’ € 600!

Some context: Port Ellen closed in 1983 and, with some exceptions, the Port Ellens from the early eighties are considered to be the less interesting ones, especially when compared to the seventies releases of legend. An official bottling from Port Ellen crossed the € 1000 euro mark long before you reach the actual price point. Most other independent bottlers are quite a bit higher than 600 Euros too.

I had a sip of this around my birthday last month, since I turned 37 as well, and yesterday I decided to finish my sample. And write notes, of course!

20181202_191732.jpgSniff:
The shammy leather is real! But this one was stored wet. A bit funky and moldy. Some dry tangerine, one that’s been kept too long. Gentle peat, some band aid, salt.

Sip:
Gentle but not without an edge. Lots of oak, some hay and straw. A bit of dusty barley. The same leathery funkiness as on the nose, but more subdued. Smoke, but also subdued. Dry, some sweet citrus. Tangerine, pink grapefruit.

Swallow:
The finish is better than the palate, more balanced. The shammy leather is back, but this time it is right. Some smoke, but a bit more warming, more deep, more peaty.

How to review this? In all honesty, I expected more, but I’m not sure more of what. The point is mostly that when I decided to buy a sample of whisky for the price of a very decent bottle, I want my mind to be blown, or very close to that. It didn’t happen.

Apparently this is from a sherry hogshead, but I didn’t really get any of the cask influence beyond ‘oak’, so it must’ve been a rather tired cask. Maybe a somewhat fresher bourbon cask would’ve pushed this up to 90 points?

Most flavors were rather predictable, which I consider a good thing. You want a Port Ellen to be like Port Ellen, or else you could’ve just bought a Caol Ila from the same age at 30/40% of this one’s price. However, it just wasn’t incredibly good. It’s very good, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not THAT good.

88/100

Port Ellen 1979-2017, 37yo, Sherry Hogshead, 44.8% – Goren’s Whisky for Whisky Live Tel Aviv. Available in the secondary market, starting at € 1600

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Suntory Royal Special Reserve, 43%

Sometimes you get your hands on a very strange and sort of unique sample. In this case it’s a very old Suntory from the 1960. From back in the days when Japanese whisky was anything but popular, not even in Japan.

Nowadays things are different and, generally speaking, affordable Japanese whiskies are pretty shit at the moment. Except Nikka from the Barrel. But most of the others under € 80 or so are mostly those newish blends from pretty obscure producers. I’ve tried a few, but I’ve not found them to be to my liking.

Also, when a Karuizawa or so pops up on auction sites or in shops (when bought from a collection) it’s in the thousands of Euros. These are good though…

Now then, the Suntory Royal Special Reserve from the 1960s. To celebrate the distillery’s 60th anniversary they released this whisky in the 1960s. It’s a blended whisky, which isn’t a simple story in Japan. It might mean they blended it from different Suntory whiskies, or from different distilleries. Generally they produce a variety of styles per distillery in the land of the rising sun.

suntory-royal-special-reserve-1960s-whiskySniff:
A whiff of OBE, with some charcoal, soot and barley. Lots of bitter oak. Very atypical with (probably) a lot of Mizunara. Some plum stones. Thick dried fruits, dates, plums.

Sip:
Very dry and oaky. Even a bit harsh for what it is. It gets a bit more fruity with prunes, dates and some raisin-twig-bitterness. A very typical woodiness.

Swallow:
The finish is much more gentle. Lots of oak, a hint of barley. The fruitiness is largely gone, and is replaced by a hint of sulphury vegetables.

While this is a very interesting whisky that’s not insanely good, it’s not very bad either. So, good stuff that’s good for a try. I doubt I’d finish a bottle quickly, if I had it, though.

82/100

Suntory Royal Special Reserve 1960s, 75cl, 43%

Posted in - Blended Whisky, - Japanese Whisky, Suntory | Tagged , , | Leave a comment