On Scotch Tasting

WritingMay 2012

Note: this was originally written as a post on r/Scotch. I like it well enough to publish it here as its own work.

Shared experience

The human sense of taste is very subjective. That's part of what makes tasting and reviewing Scotch such a fun hobby. The art of a good review involves being able to discern individual flavors in a whiskey and give a name to that flavor so that your reader can imagine what the taste is like. Note: I use taste here, but this all applies equally well for smell.

We rely on shared experience to convey information. If I say a Scotch tastes like green apple, you will think of times in the past where you ate a green apple. As you gain experience you may also recall times when you drank a Scotch yourself and thought it tasted like green apple. Even more, if we each try the same Scotch and I say it tasted like green apple, you now know what I think a "green apple whiskey" tastes like.

Note how in all of the cases above, both the reviewer and the reader are referencing something they've actually experienced, and the words "green apple" are really just a convenient way to label that experience.


This, of course, has been a challenge for me as a beginning Scotch enthusiast. Many reviews reference things I have never tasted before: heather, sherry, peat. Yes peat! I have never seen, smelled, or tasted peat. Where I grew up we had something called "peat moss" which is actually nothing like peat. I sort of know what peat tastes like because I've had peaty Scotches and I can compare their similarities. But my experience of what "peat" is is likely very different from someone who has walked through a peat bog.

I see a similar pattern here when newcomers say something along the lines of "I know I like Scotch, but I don't want to write a review because I can't discern flavors yet." Partly, this is improved by simply tasting more Scotch. Over time your palate will adjust to the stronger flavors and you will be able to separate out the various aspects of taste that make up a good dram.

Developing the palate

But that's only the first step. You need to be able to attach a meaningful label to the tastes you notice. Here is where developing your palate becomes so useful.

Suppose you had only ever had an apple once in your life. You could certainly notice apple flavors in a Scotch and your review could say "had some apple notes in the finish". But if you grew up where I did (surrounded by orchards) you would know the difference between Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Macintosh, Granny Smith, Gala, Honeycrisp, and more. Your review could say "had hints of green apple in the finish". You and your experienced reader would know that the flavor was a bit more tart like a Granny Smith as opposed to the sweetness of a Red Delicious.

Partly you develop your palate by drinking more Scotch. Then you can say things like "it tasted a lot like an older Dalmore". But the other part is tasting more things that aren't Scotch. This can be as simple as thinking more about the flavors of foods you eat normally. Or, it might actually involve going out and buying specific foods for the sole purpose of learning their tastes.

Here is an example of a wine enthusiast doing that very thing.

Note: The gentleman in the above video, Gary Vaynerchuk, is a lot more energetic than Ralfy, but don't be deterred if his delivery is not your style. He has a lot of good things to say about developing your palate specifically for the purposes of tasting. Also, he's done a lot to make wine accessible for people who previously thought of it only as an haute beverage.

Not too specific

Developing your palate will give you an arsenal of unique and sometimes very specific flavors. It can be fun to discover a new non-Scotch flavor that matches very closely to what you find in a dram of whiskey. This happened to me recently in my Highland Park 12 review where I determined that HP 12 smells exactly like an overly sweet margarita. I recently confirmed this by actually making an overly-sweet margarita and nosing it side-by-side with the HP. I stand by my determination.

That note generated a lot of interesting discussion which was a lot of fun to read. But keep in mind the goal is to transfer information, not to pick the most esoteric thing you can think of. It might be completely accurate to note "hints of under-ripe Dwarf Redblush Grapefruit" but that sort of detail is probably only useful to someone who has actually eaten an underripe Dwarf Redblush Grapefruit.

A good reviewer knows her audience and can select items that speak to her reader's experience. This is why so many Scotch flavors are so common in reviews: smoke, peat, citrus, floral, oak, phenol.

What next?

So for me, I plan to get a bottle of sherry so that when I taste sherry-cask Scotches I have a better idea of what's going on there. I'm also trying to figure out the best way to recreate peat (maybe some kind of compost)?

Is all of this really necessary? No, not at all. Scotch is delicious and fun all by itself. But if you're into it, developing your palate intentionally can be a cool way to enrich your hobby.

Author: Jay Roberts