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!

dottysxmas2016

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?

 

 

 

 

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American Whiskies: Hard to Keep Up

The explosion of American Whiskies is being written about and discussed at every turn. On a recent trip to Texas I saw at least three highway billboards during the three hour drive between Houston and Austin advertising a local distillery. Yes, hard to keep up. As a whisky enthusiast, the thrill is in the hunt, the tasting and the sharing. So, as I pick up new bottles here and there, conjuring up whisk(e)y tastings for friends starts percolating. Should the American tasting be focused exclusively on bourbons, single malts, ryes, blue corn? The list feels endless. Oh the fun yet to be had!

I had a dentist appointment this week, which means to those who follow me, a whisky tasting after all the drilling and cleaning has been completed. On his own Dr. Paul doesn’t usually stray too far from single malt scotch, in which I find no fault. Yet, he is always open to trying something new from my stash (smart man); and I can’t drink it all. For this week, I selected American Whiskies as the theme….in an attempt to keep up with the trends all the while pretending to be hip. (Do people still say “hip”?)

Dr.Paul
The willing accomplice. Don’t look…plastic cups!

 

The bottles chosen for this “event” are not rare nor priced over $100 each. As it turns out my copy of the summer issue of Whisky Advocate arrived the day before the tasting. There is an interesting article written by Jake Emen called “The Rise of the American Single Malt.” Perfect timing! I immediately switched out one whisky on my list with one mentioned in the article and packed the magazine in my not-so-discrete carrying case.

Dr. Paul brought in two bottles: a Highland Park 18 YO and an Irish Yellow Spot 12 YO. I arranged the now six bottles in the order of tasting and the serious business of imbibing at 12:30 pm on a Tuesday began in earnest. Naturally, somewhat through the tasting Dr. Paul’s wife called knowing he was working only a half day. We have never met but she has long since been resigned to the fact that twice a year there is whisky and women in the office. Well, this time we spoke and I encouraged her to join us sometime and partake in all the foolishness.  She laughed and said, “I don’t drink whisky and I see Paul acting foolish every day.” With that, we got back to business.

My ranking system is simple: 1=don’t buy, don’t drink  2=fair, middle of the road 3=good, very good-buy it 4=OMG, must have at any cost (well almost any cost)

YellowSpot
Yellow Spot a sweet and gentle precursor

 

 

The let’s get warmed up dram was the Irish Yellow Spot. I have a bottle of one of the Green Spot expressions but this was a first taste for me with the Yellow. Yup, it is Irish…light and spicy, easy to please, good to have around during the warmer months as opposed for the dead of New England winter. I rank this a strong 2+, can’t quite give it a 3-, personal preference wins out over objectivity.

RyanWoodsinglemalt
Young yet

 

First up was a local single malt distilled by Ryan & Wood in Gloucester, MA. “The single malt starts off with a hint of sweet and finishes with a touch of grain. It is light and feathery and makes a nice summer dram.” This is what I wrote a few months back after a visit to the distillery and sampling several of their products. After tasting this week I am modifying my opinion a bit…while it might work in a cocktail, on its own it is too mild for me and a bit off putting with a cardboard like finish. Somehow the grain finish didn’t come forth for me this time. I rank it a 2- at best.

McCarthyWestland
I wonder who else ranks these Americans equally high

 

Next up was the well respected Clear Creek Distillery’s McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt. I admit to not being impressed with this whiskey when I first tasted it in 2010. Let’s just say I have grown in understanding more of the nuances of whisky. There is a subtle sense of the peat on the nose, a touch of peach on the palate and a sprinkle of ash in the finish. I would certainly go back for seconds this time around! I rank it a 3-.

Not to be undone by a fellow West Coast whiskey, the McCarthy’s was followed by a Washington state Westland Peated Single Malt. This one is fruitier on the nose, perhaps pear. A tip-toe of peat and sherry on the palate and a smooth and lingering smoky grain on the finish. Hmm, the two West Coast editions are neck and neck here. I am leaning towards the Westland. I rank this a proud 3-.

We stopped at this point, I spoke to the wife, as mentioned above, and we chatted for a while before cracking the Highland 18 YO. I have tasted this bottle before, and I am not a genuine fan but can appreciate its appeal. All my previous notes call it a “middle of the road” whisky. That is not a bad thing. You know what I rank this one.

Brimstone2
Brimstone such a fitting name

 

Finally it was time for the extra kick during the business of tasting in a dentist’s office! I pulled out the Texas Balcones Brimstone.  I wrote about this last month and exclaimed, “it has changed my life.”  No, it is not everyone’s idea of a whisky. For me it is a blast of excitement, unabashed whimsy, popcorn and campfires in an old Western movie that has gone from black and white to full glorious color. Dr. Paul agrees.  I have won another over to the new American Whisky side. And, yes, Balcones spells it “whisky.” I rank it a 4 out of 4 – a rare rank from this fussy old bird.

American whiskies are proving to be carving out a sometimes bumpy and sometimes thrilling new path for those of us on a whisk(e)y journey. My walking shoes are always ready as I try to keep up the pace.

A couple of hours had passed, another whisky tasting adventure wrapped up and an appointment set for the end of 2016. I believe the theme will be independent bottlers. Yum.

I raise a glass to whisky. ‘Nuf said.