Group Tastings…Insightful?

For anyone who has taken the time to read my blogs during the past few years it is obvious that I prefer group tastings over my own drinking alone of one sample of whisky at a time. Besides the fact that I lead a number of tastings during the year, over time I have come to learn more about whisky nuances in group settings where four (sometimes more) whiskies are sampled and compared.

So, you say, what are the benefits here? Well, my palate has dulled with age, sad to admit. My whisky vocabulary does not flourish like a bouquet of wild flowers – a skill that many of the bloggers and whisky tasters that I follow excel at. I know what I like when I taste it and what flavor profiles tend to bore me. The benefits of group tastings, broaden my world, and are many:

  1. Discussion about whisky with a group of tasters is stimulating, social, and informative
  2. Comments on the nose, palate, and finish expands and gets each taster thinking and evaluating his/her impressions
  3. No two tasters have exact descriptions
  4. Individual preferences are fascinating to learn about
  5. Comparing a few whiskies side-by-side highlights strengths and weaknesses of each whisky
  6. When a group does not know the price of a whisky and simply compares several, I find, the impressions more honest.
  7. As someone who enjoys writing about whisky, the information culled at group tastings gives me more to write about. Some of the best fun is hearing the stories a few glasses of whisky brings out in tasters.

During the months of December and January I led six tastings – three formal and three more casual with family and friends. Here is an example of one that falls in between the formal and the casual. The setting was a holiday dinner get together. There were five of us and we all planned to stay over at the host’s home to alleviate driving late at night. No driving takes the pressure off the tasting. Really.

The whiskies chosen were all open bottles that I had in the scotch cabinet and were slated to be on the heel slayer list. Obviously, because I owned them, they were whiskies that I enjoyed at one point or another during the year. Several may have popped up at other tastings,  but what would tasting them side-by-side reveal!


The order of the four whiskies: McCarthy’s Whiskey (USA), Single Cask Nation Westland 2 YO, 1st fill Oloroso Barrel (USA), Benromach 15 YO (Speyside), Aberlour A’bunadh Batch 28 (Highland). No one knew the price of the whiskies and except for me, hadn’t tasted any of them before.

The two West Coast American whiskies were up first. My thinking was that they would be lighter than the two Scotch single malts. The notes are a combination of each taster’s comments.

  • McCarthy’s Nose: roasted, earthy, butterscotch
  • Palate: earthy, leather, charcoal, not too much peat
  • Finish: lingers but with alcohol, dryness, works well with the lemon pound cake dessert
  • Westland’s Nose: floral, buttery, vanilla, shouts out butterscotch, cinnamon, maple syrupy
  • Palate: spice and burn, black pepper, more cinnamon, more complex, softer with a drop of water –  less harsh and brings out some vanilla
  • Finish: buttery, better with the water
  • Benromach’s Nose: sweet, cinnamon
  • Palate:  alcohol up front, dirt in the butterscotch, kiss it up to God, hint of soap, nutmeg, smooth, give it the three second rule
  • Finish: all agreed “doesn’t linger”
  • A’bunadh’s Nose: cherries, black licorice, fruity,, rich and smooth, decadent
  • Palate: cinnamon with sherry, a bite to it!, rum raisin and figs
  • Finish: spice cake, sweet sherry, lasts and lasts

The results – preferences from favorite to least favorite:

  • Taster#1               Taster #2             Taster #3            Taster #4           Taster #5
  • McCarthy             Westland             A’bunadh           Benromach       A’bunadh
  • Westland              A’bunadh            Benromach        A’bunadh          Westland
  • A’bunadh             McCarthy             McCarthy           McCarthy           McCarthy
  • Benromach          Benromach         Westland            Westland           Benromach

Reviews the results of tasting scores always intrigues me. If I was to go shopping based strictly on the results, I would purchase the A’bunadh and not the Benromach. Perhaps tasting this combination together diminished some of the individual high notes, maybe not. Maybe I don’t enjoy such and such as much now. How can indivudal preferences be all over the place? Makes me wonder….and that is the tickle to group tasting for me!

By the way can you guess which taster I am?

I raise a glass to tasting new whiskies as well as tasting open bottles and comparing each with a group of friends!

Did someone say March is less than two months away? How did that happen?






Scotch vs the World Tasting

Scotch vs the World Tasting

“Tasting whisky is not “drinking” at all, in the usual sense of the word, but rather an exercise of refined and exclusive pleasure.” Single Malt Whisky an Italian Passion, Umberto Angeloni

May 2011 vsworld

The following is an abbreviated version of Chapter 11 of my book Whisky Tales: Tastings and Temptations. I wrote the book because I have had an enormous amount of fun offering tastings both for friends and for charities and for the occasional paying client.  Along the way I have learned more than I ever new possible about every aspect of whisky.  My goal was to tell  my whisky stories and share what I have learned. The fabulous thing is, I am still learning and, of course, still having a blast! Call me an enthusiast who is no where near being an expert. Simply, I enjoy drinking , sharing and learning about whisky.

Believe it or not, there is a large segment of the population that is not aware of the vast amount of whisky that is produced not only in Scotland but around the world. With that in mind, I thought a tasting that highlighted some of the best from within and outside of Scotland would be unusually interesting and potentially informative for some of my women friends. In addition to friends who drank whisky, I invited a few women who had never attended one of my tastings and had limited experience with whisky but a strong desire to learn more about it.

My collection held plenty of potential whiskies to make this “Scotch vs the World” tasting completely off the charts. I took whiskies out of the scotch cabinet, put some back, sampled a few, dug into the back closet, reviewed what I had offered at other tastings, and who would be attending. With giddy excitement, I finalized the contenders.

When the night arrived, the dining room table was adorned with the chosen whisky and enough glassware for each pour for everyone. Guests were given a scoring sheet which described the industry-recognized nose, palate, and finish of the scotch and the challenger.  Guests were asked to rank the whisky from a low of “1” to a high of “4”. The pairs were also matched with a specialty cheese and crusty bread.

Hawes Wensleydale      Gorwydd Caerphilly      Berkswell

I set the mood as an unrivaled quest, a journey to compare not just four whiskies but six.  We were going to move slowly from whisky to whisky, country to country, linger on the nuances of each scotch and its challenger, and let the whiskies whisper and shout on their own. At the end of the tasting, we would not simply declare our favorite but spend time sifting through the scores that everyone wrote down during the tasting and see what arose above the rest. Of course, we would double check our rankings by sampling another pour of our individual top choices. Then we would eat a decadent chocolate cake with a lovingly treasured Lagavulin 2010, 12 Y.O. Distillers Edition. A rich yet sublime ending befitting the elaborate occasion.

The excitement was electric; six whiskies, unusual pairings, purposeful quest for finding differences, similarities and an ultimate victor.  The cheeses added a delectable dimension to each pairing.  The proclamations of the two women who had never drank top shelf whisky before added laughter and a flair for some dramatics to the festivities. No one took themselves too seriously, but we did take our whisky rankings seriously. Some of the whisky comparisons surprised and delighted me. The pours were a learning experience for me, which is almost as much fun as simply drinking. Almost.

 Redbreast Duff

The first dram of the night was a Gordon & MacPhail, Miltonduff 10 Y.O. Speyside with 43% alcohol.  Gordon & MacPhail is an independent bottling company that has more than 300 different expressions from distilleries across Scotland.  They are known to produce excellent expressions and with the Miltonduff we were going to ease into the night with a balanced, warm fruit and light spice whisky.  Its challenger was one of my particular picks for an everyday Irish, the Redbreast 12 Y.O. at 40%. The cheese for this round was a Hawes Wensleydale, made in England with cow’s milk. The conversation went back and forth, one person ranked the Miltonduff the highest score of “4” and one ranked it a “1”. The Redbreast received no highest score but did amble up close to the Scotch.  Final vote: Miltonduff slightly edged out the Irish challenger.

 Yamazaki Abunadh

Round two pitted Aberlour A’bunadh, Batch 28,a Speyside at 59.7% and no age statement (NAS) against the well-known Japanese Suntory produced Yamazaki 12 Y.O. at 43%.  Both received a few nods to a high score and only one person gave the Yamazaki a low end score. “Intense” was noted for these two competitors, with the Yamazaki leaning towards fruity while the A’bunadh slanted towards spicy.  The cheese served was a Gorwydd Caerphilly, Welsh in origin, made from cow’s milk. Yum. The cheese won raves for pairing compatibility.  Final whisky vote: Scotland Rules! Big difference in the scoring.

 Amrut Springbank

Round three brought two exceptional whiskies both with finishing time in a sweet cask of either Madeira or Sherry. Campbeltown’s Springbank Madeira 11 Y.O. at 55%, my special bottle from the private tasting at the Springbank Distillery was paired with a newcomer in the field, India’s Amrut Intermediate Sherry.  This Amrut began its maturing journey in ex-bourbon casks, then moved on to the ex-oloroso sherry casks, only to finish their time again in ex-bourbon casks. Most unusual and most efficacious. Both the Springbank and the Amrut revealed complexity, a burst of sweetness and a lingering moonlit night finish. It was imperative that we sample another teeny dram of these two wow-makers just to insure all the shades on the palate were being detected. Perfect. Now, we tried each with a crumble of cheese. Berkswell this time, another English cheese. This one made with sheep’s milk, the richest of the three. There was definitely a prolonged sipping and comparing during this third and last round. When the vote was finally taken, the Amrut scored all “4s” with only one “3”.  The Springbank had “4s” and “3s” with one lowly “2”.  The declared winner: Amrut Intermediate Sherry. Sublime.


The top three whiskies for the evening were:

  1. Amrut – top all-around by a wide margin
  2. Aberlour A’bunadh, a bit surprising because of its big burst of alcohol
  3. Springbank Madeira, no one admitted to giving this sweet baby a lowly “2” score during the rounds

Clearly all were delicious, and it was noted that sometimes a great whisky should not be paired but enjoyed during a quiet moment on its own – a chilly night, a wool sweater, a warm fireplace, an intimate moment with a close friend.  Each whisky brings different aspects to the individual drinker, therefore, drink what you enjoy. Don’t be compelled to follow the crowd or latest trend. For example, one of the first-time tasters went out the next day and purchased a bottle of the Yamazaki 12 Y.O. although it was not one of the “winners”. She found her bottle!

The Cheese pairing and some of the tasting notes offered by the participants:

Round One

  • The Cheese: Hawes Wensleydale; cow, mild, nutty, firm yet creamy
  • Scotland: Gordon & MacPhail Miltonduff 10 YO, 43%
    • Notes: Balanced beginning to an evening of tasting; not overpowering with a hint of spice
  • Ireland: Redbreast 12 YO, 40%
    • Notes: Clean and fresh with subtle spice. Perfect for autumn.

Round Two

The Cheese: Gorwydd Caerphilly; cow, mild, salty, buttery; moist, little crumbly

  • Scotland: Aberlour, A’bunadh, Batch 28, NAS, 59.7%
    • Notes: Intense but not overpowering. Some fruit and spicy lingering finish.
  • Japan: Suntory, Yamazaki, 12 YO, 43%
    • Notes: Not as intense and on the sweet side like a cognac. Clean

Round Three

The Cheese: Berkswell; sheep, rich, nutty, dense.

  •  Scotland: Springbank Madeira, 11 YO, 55%
    • Notes: Begins with taste of Madeira but gets deeper, more complex with each sip
  • India: Amrut Intermediate Sherry, NAS, 57%
    • Notes: First blast is strong alcohol but then the sherry comes forward with a hint of pepper and a long sensual finish.

I raise a glass to all who are open to trying new whiskies!