It turns out that my rant about whisky scores last Monday was quite well received. Thanks to all who read it and for all the kind comments!
Considering this, I thought I would follow that article with something that seems to dissuade many a new whisky drinker from writing a blog or speaking up at a whisky tasting.
Today, I’m going to be chatting about tasting notes.
I love almost all aspects of whisky, those aspects I don’t care for are mainly confined to the marketing and sales region. But, when talking about the whisky itself, the history, the production, the maturation, tasting, I love them all. When writing about a whisky deep diving into its history is fascinating, but it’s tasting notes that are a source of immense enjoyment.
Tasting notes are personal – and often deeply so. One of the reasons for this is Olfactory Memory. Buckle up, we’re gonna talk science. The doors have been locked.
What is Olfactory Memory?
When you smell something, that scent travels up your nose and into your olfactory bulbs which adapts that into what is readable by the brain. From there, brain cells carry the information to the amygdala (where all emotions are processed) and spreads to the hippocampus which is responsible for long term memory. So, when you nose something, the amygdala and hippocampus file that information, both the smell and the surrounding memory, and that memory is withdrawn when you next encounter that scent – kind of like a sensory filing cabinet.
What does this mean?
It means that our sense of smell is incredibly closely tied to the associated memories of that smell (on a side note studies have shown that these olfactory memories are highly resistant to forgetting and stay with us for most of our lives). As each person grows up under different circumstances and as we all have different experiences, the scents and flavours we know and the memories associated with them are deeply different and personal to each person.
So, why the hell am I talking about this in an article about tasting notes?
Because this is what we need to remember when reading and writing tasting notes. Generally, if you read something that is short form and limited to half a dozen notes, we can agree on these notes. The longer the notes get, the more personal they become and the further removed they are from someone else’s specific circumstances, olfactory memory and understanding.
It’s why you tend to see short form notes looking very similar across multiple platforms, we can all agree this smells like a citrus fruits – bring on the next whisky. No one is plagiarising, it’s just on the surface level that smell is generally the same for everyone whether the fruit be an orange, a lemon or a grapefruit. They’re all citrus fruits.
Here’s golden rule number one:
THERE IS NO RIGHT OR WRONG IN TASTING NOTES*
*Unless you find yourself being a sexual deviant. That’s just not on.
As they are subjective to each person, a tasting note can never be right or wrong. The tasting notes that companies give on their websites regarding their whisky are simply what they themselves have encountered through their lives, so while it is right to them, it is not right to others. If whisky could talk, what would it say about its flavours?
So, how to write those tasting notes?
Some people will struggle to write tasting notes, especially when first entering the industry. They may be quiet at tastings and feel down trodden when someone gives a lengthy series of notes as they find themselves unable to express these, but that’s just a case of learning to sort through the memories and figure out what is what. Fortunately, we have something that can help people along the way. We have a flavour wheel.
When I say ‘we’, I mean that SWRI has a flavour wheel that we are going to use to explain things. Looking at the wheel, we work our way from the centre out.
Grab yourself a whisky. Any whisky, honestly, it doesn’t matter. I’m drinking a Cardona First Batch because I’m fancy. Pour yourself some, sit down, and read with me.
In the centre there we have categories such as Cereal, Floral, Sweet and Sulfury, these can be known as the base categories. When you nose your whisky take some time and try to separate one from another, then write down what base categories you find. Is it an Estery whisky? Oily? Peaty? After you’ve found your base categories write them down and move onto the next level, is that Oily base nutty oil? Fatty? Buttery? From there, you can move down one more and say oh yes, this whisky has some creamy walnut and marzipan and meat fats. Separate each category and make your notes, at the end maybe you’ve got something like this.
|Malt, Cereals||Leafy||Natural||Vanilla, Caramel||Bourbon Cask||Nutty|
|Biscuity, malted barley||Lawn Cuttings||Fresh Flowers||Treacle, chocolate||Coconut||Almond|
We’ve gone from simply nosing our whisky to making a list of notes from the nose. Bear in mind that you can do any of these levels, from the base to the outer rim, depending on how far you want to dive into the whisky. And, as we spoke about Olfactory memory before, it’s time to open that filing cabinet.
Nose again with those flavours in mind. Let your mind wander and discover that coconut. Maybe it reminds you of coconut cream. It could hold memories of chocolate and coconut bars.
Maybe it reminds you of your time working on a island off the north of Australia, nervously shaving fresh coconut to cook with some fresh fish after you mowed the lawn and got scared by a frilled neck lizard that had climbed a palm tree to head height and you only noticed when it screamed at you and you screamed back. Or maybe it reminds you of something else, but bring those memories in. Make it fun, make it exciting, make the whisky tell a story.
That brings us on to golden rule number two:
WHISKY IS FUN, HAVE WITH IT!
Many bottles will have company tasting notes on the back, and you’re not writing a product sheet people. You’re writing your own notes. Have fun with it, get creative, get involved, have a laugh. Instead of writing that it tastes like lemon, sugar and vanilla, write about the monstrous cake that formed in the glass and enveloped your senses, that left you wheezing for air after it dragged your taste buds for a marathon.
And of course, tasting notes don’t need to stop with simple flavours. Your memory could bring in different aspects of your personality. Are you musically inclined? Do you have a literature predisposed position? Bring that into the mix.
Write what song this reminds you of, or the grand play or sweeping epic it brings to mind. If the whisky makes you think of Nina Simone, Queen, David Bowie, The Great Gatsby, T.S Eliot or Dylan Thomas then write that down. It makes the review more than a product information sheet, it makes it a fun story that we can read and enjoy.
Writing long form notes can take time, time that not everyone has. Some people are able to spend hours writing whisky reviews, others are pressed for time, others likely want to just sit down and sip some whisky and enjoy the memories it brings them. Some may not want to write tasting notes, others may not want to share them.
All of these are perfectly valid options, but, if you do want to write tasting notes, an olfactory memories and a flavour wheel are great places to start. This brings me onto golden rule number three:
MAKE WHISKY PERSONAL!
Bring those memories into whisky, share them and have a laugh. As for flavour wheels, this one is a simple suggestion. Build your own and share that too, it’s great to see homemade wheels.
As for olfactory memory it serves to make a review or a tasting more memorable. The most astounding memory related tasting note I have ever heard was when I conducted a tasting for a group of twenty middle aged people. When nosing the final dram, an independently bottled Bowmore, one woman laughed and informed us that it smelt like the sheets of a busy Newcastle girl.
When pressed for comment, she told me that she was once a busy Newcastle girl. She laughed. The room laughed. Her husband gave me the evil eye before he cracked up laughing too. To this day I am unsure whether I should have laughed or remained in the stunned silence I went for, but if I ever get to write official tasting notes for a Bowmore, I’m gonna contact her and get her to write them.
Enjoy your whisky all!