The Whisky SCAM – How We Lie To Ourselves About Whisky

Biases and errors exist everywhere within whisky. The information we receive alongside a dram forms expectations in our minds and we often decide on things before we’ve even tried the whisky.

If I were to give you, say, this glass of whisky,

You might look at it and take in the only piece of information you have available, the colour. Due to its light lemony brown, you may assume it to be ex-bourbon and young in age, likely tasting of vanilla, coconut, butterscotch and caramel for starters.

If I were to give you this glass of whisky, however…

Based on the colour, you might assume it to be matured in some type of sherry, port or wine cask. These casks tend to attribute more to stoned fruit, leather and spices, and your mind is telling you to expect those flavours before you’ve smelt or tasted the whisky.

Prior to even tasting the whisky, the main piece of information you had available – the colour – informed you of what to expect. Based off the information given to you, thoughts and opinions were formed while ignoring the fact that you really knew nothing about the whisky except what your eyes and memories told you to expect.

For the record, that was the same whisky just with some light colouring added.

Every piece of added information, whether that is distillery or brand, presentation, age, colour, cask type and country, is a small piece of information that we take in and process until we make an opinion – and all before we even get a sip of a whisky. Every piece of information you receive when tasting a whisky will alter your perception of it. These are the whisky biases, or to put it more simply… we lie to ourselves about whisky.

These are known as psychological and cognitive errors and biases, an area that plagues whisky more than you might think. Understanding the errors is key to properly correcting them. Let’s dive into them with a fun little acronym, SCAM.

Stimulus error

Seeing is believing and stimulus error revolves around the presentation and perception of a product. Would you prefer a whisky that comes with a cork or a whisky with a screw cap? A cardboard tube, a wooden box or perhaps no box or tube at all?

These stimuli mean nothing for the taste of the whisky itself. After all, how would a whisky in a glass bottle in a wooden case taste better than one without? Yet, the stimuli that our minds receive have a heavy effect.

Look at the glorious, regal presentation of the Macallan Lalique 72 Year Old. A decanter, a polished wooden case bereft of any imperfections, both of these features must surely be reflected in the liquid which must be amazing. If something comes in a wooden case it must be good, right? Why would someone bother putting a whisky that tastes foul into such fantastic packaging?

And the more regal it gets, the better the whisky must taste. A quick look at TWE shows the most expensive whiskies as coming with incredible presentation.

Looking at the presentation of the Macallan 1950 vs that of the Ardbeg 1974 the Ardbeg looks much more regal with its huge leather case as opposed to the Macallan’s presentation box, despite the fact that the Macallan is almost £30,000 more expensive than the Ardbeg. Are either of the whiskies good? I’ve no idea, I’ve never tried them, but based on the presentation they have to be. If someone wants to send me some I’d be glad to try them and give a definitive answer.

It’s the stimulus error of the brain that informs us that the more regal the packaging and the bottle is, the better the whisky must be.

If the above example was a bit too rich for you at £100,000, consider beer. The difference between cans and bottles makes no impact on the taste itself – in fact, if it were to, it would mean that cans are better. They are more airtight, they don’t let on any light, and in terms of environment they are far better, being easier to recycle and weighing less to reduce emissions.

Having said that, people prefer glass bottles for the look. The stimulus error convinces us that the packaging must have a correlation to the taste without considering the whisky itself.

Confirmation Bias

This is the big thing that catches people out. It’s when we receive the whisky along with information and that information triggers preconceived notions in our brains such as what flavour to expect within a whisky. Based on the knowledge we have, we instinctively search for answers to justify what we assume will be there.

The more information you receive on a whisky, the more preconceived notions you have. The colour leads you down a path where you have previously tasted whiskies of that colour and found them to taste a certain way. Knowing that whisky was an ex-bourbon cask suggests its taste will be along typically ex-bourbon cask flavours. If you know the brand, in this case a Glen Moray, you may think along other Glen Morays you have tried to imagine how they tasted. It’s also twelve years old, giving more credence to your preconceived notions.

We can label all these into the area of academic information. Things such as brand, age, cask style and colour are all, shall we say, concrete information. No matter the appearance of a whisky or the packaging it is the age it is, or from the distillery it is from. Labelling, packaging, marketing cannot change these things, they are fixed. Knowing these pieces of information we form opinions.

This means that, when we taste the whisky, we look instinctively for what we expect. Let’s say that, from the information we have received, our brains imagine lemon, caramel, marshmallow and tulips. As we are seeking them out actively, we tend to find them more often and can fall into the trap of bringing in associated flavours. Citrus fruit of any kind becomes lemon. Toffee or chocolate becomes caramel. Sugar becomes marshmallow, and floral scents become tulips.

This can also present itself in what we would call logical error, the assumption that, based on a whisky’s age or colour, it must be better than a younger or lighter whisky. This is completely untrue as each cask and whisky is separate in itself and the artificial colouring E150 exists. Even knowing this, people are unwilling to look outside the boundaries of the whisky that their minds have set themselves on.

Adaptation Bias

Lightning doesn’t strike twice. Adaptation bias is when your sensitivity to a certain smell or flavour (e.g. coconut) changes based on your exposure to that particular smell or flavour. This occurs during long tasting sessions and can lead to some interesting results. Typically, your perception of that flavour will decrease and, if given the same style of whisky with the same character at a tasting, they may seem to diminish in flavour over time. It’s not that they are less flavourful, it’s more that your nose has adapted to the flavour and it is having a reduced effect with the whiskies that follow tasting less.

This is particularly interesting in the field of tasting panels or judging. Whilst, ideally, the whiskies would be separated in such a way to avoid adaptation bias, if they are not then a sample that is ready for bottling might slip through the cracks, or a whisky that is well deserving of a medal might not receive it due to our perception.

Typically, panels and judges are aware of this and have ways to ‘reset’ their noses: plain biscuits, a sip of water, smelling your arm pit (it is apparently a thing though very disturbing to see the first few times). But someone who is attending one of their first tastings may be unaware of these tricks. As someone tastes a similar line up of whiskies, they may rate them as consecutively worse as their perception of the flavours becomes diminished.

Mutual Suggestion

‘Classic conformity and social influence’

Mutual suggestion affects people more when more people are there. Let’s say we were to conduct a tasting. When the first person speaks, the crowd tends to follow. Should you glance deeply into the whisky in wonder or cough loudly and wretch, others are likely to follow with your actions influencing the people around you.

The authority you might have heavily influences people as well. Should you be at a tasting with some mates, you might look towards whoever know the most about whisky. If you’re reading this blog, chances are you could be the most interested in whisky and people may well look to you.

Similarly, if you were at a tasting and someone such as Charles Maclean, Dave Broom or Dominic Russel were there, their actions would heavily dictate how people perceive the whisky. The consciousness of those around you and your want for social acceptance will lead you to be less honest and blindly agree with those who are ‘authorities’ on the matter.

Companies, brand ambassadors and tasters are aware of this and will use it, not insidiously, but to bring everyone to an even ground and to also make sure people enjoy the whisky. How many people have been told during a tasting that a whisky will taste a certain way, and then find those flavours? Once the carrot has been dangled we want to find it, and the company has an incentive to ensure people associate the whisky will pleasant flavours and tastes.

In a more insidious way however, you may find some people parroting words they have read in a book or a blog. This too is mutual suggestion as something read online can be transferred to another person who miraculously now holds the same view. As everyone’s taste and olfactory memories are different, this is the result of a mutual suggestion. And often, a sign of someone not having their own thoughts about the whisky.

So what do we do?

We can recognise these biases and errors as mistakes and problems within ourselves but, when it comes to seeing changes within our actions, we need to take a step up.

So, how can we ensure that we don’t fall into these traps?

Firstly, let’s never judge a whisky by its cover. For some this is easier than for others, but do recall that all that matters about the whisky is the taste. The phrase ‘polishing a turd’ can be used here. It doesn’t matter how nice a bottle or box looks if the whisky doesn’t live up to its presentation. For some, it wont matter as we’ll never be able to afford those bottles, so rest assured that those who spend an ungodly amount on those bottles aren’t in it for the whisky, its for the status.

Additionally, never let your expectations rule your opinions. When it comes to writing a review, I find the best way is to go in blind and this doesn’t mean spending money on a fancy tasting glass. Recently, I’ve taken to placing all the whiskies I will review behind a curtain in a random order. When I go to pour a dram, I pick blindly and move that bottle to the far left corner with all other bottles to the far right. The only thing I then have to colour my expectations is, well, the colour. That can be solved by closing my eyes for the first few sniff and sips and recording my voice. It’s a surreal experience but it helps.

Thirdly, vary what you’re drinking. If you have a hundred and one samples to get through, then try and vary them and also give me an email, I’ll help out. Varying your whisky will allow all manner of flavours to come through – and don’t forget to reset your nose. Have something plain there to chew on in between drams and, if you’re simply trying six, then spread them out and give yourself time.

Lastly, question everything. It sounds a bit tin foil hat but do it. There are experts in this field when it comes to production, marketing and history but the idea of someone being an expert on flavours is almost laughable. Everyone’s flavours are different, everyone has something to contribute. Don’t second guess yourself if you smell guava and someone says mango, those are two incredibly different fruits and who are they to say that you’re wrong?

Conformity is not something we should aspire to and, in the realm of tasting notes and flavours, no one is ever truly correct – unless they’re a robot and, if you’re tasting against a robot, then maybe stop reading this article and focus.

In the end, it always comes back to one thing: the enjoyment of the whisky. As no one can tell you what to taste, no one can tell you what or how to enjoy your whisky. For the fun of it though, next time you sit down for a dram, if you can, have someone join you and taste it as blind as you can and just swap stories about the whisky. To me, that’s where true enjoyment is.


2 thoughts on “The Whisky SCAM – How We Lie To Ourselves About Whisky

  1. With you all the way on this one!
    I particularly enjoy blind tasting.
    It throws up all sorts of things that may mean you have to readjust your perception on certain brands, bottles or styles.
    Can be uncomfortable on the reveal – but certainly fun!


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