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.


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.


About Sjoerd de Haan-Kramer

I'm very interested in booze, with a focus on whisky. I like to listen to loads of music and play lots of Magic: the Gathering, and board games too. I'm married to Anneke, have two daughters Ot and Cato, a son Moos and a cat called Kikker (which means Frog, in Dutch). I live in Krommenie, The Netherlands.
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