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Just a hint of pheasant blood…

In the latest (Winter 2011) edition of The Whisky Advocate, Dave Broom (one of the world’s finest whiskey writers) wrote an entertaining article describing a tasting experience with a woman that really knew her whisky. She noted that mature sherry aged whisky has a touch of the same aroma that an indigenous ant (in her area) gives off when crushed. Dave, who has been known to have some wild descriptors, was initially perplexed by hers.

Soon after the discussion, Dave found himself in the woods observing the very ant the woman described. For the good of whiskey geeks everywhere, Dave expedited the ants journey to its maker. He gave the ant a crush and noted the same aroma the woman had mentioned, and clarity was achieved…at least for him.

Dave used this story to illustrate what a big wide world it is, and how important it is to get out there and take it all in. “We all have ants to crush”, he wrote.

Taken figuratively, he’s absolutely right. All whiskey lovers (or aspiring ones) owe it to themselves to get out there and educate their noses and palates. Open up your spice cabinet. Put a flame to a sugar coated banana and find out what it smells and tastes like (you’ll find this type of aroma and flavor in MANY bourbons). Crush sweet southern spearmint and cloves in your hand and see what the combination brings. No doubt this will educate your senses. But crushing ants in the hopes that you can log it away in your sensory rolodex? Is that just a bit too far?

Here’s my ultimate point – if a crushed ant has a slight sweet-sharp acidity to it much like vinegar (which it does according to Dave), why not describe it as such in tasting notes? Would that not be a clearer and much less remote (“out there”) descriptor for the reader? And if so – think of all the ants that would be saved!

Dave argues his approach by stating his reviews would be all too similar in descriptive language if he didn’t push things a bit. He used another example of describing something as “fruity” vs. describing the actual fruit the whiskey smells or tastes like. I agree there also. A red apple and a green apple have very different aromas and flavor profiles – no doubt, but fruits and ants are vastly different in terms of how likely a reader can relate to them. And who is the review for?

For clarification, I believe Dave Broom is as good as it gets in whiskey writing. He is someone I respect a great deal, but as a whiskey reviewer myself I found this article tough to agree with. A point he did make late in the article is using Twitter to write short reviews that worry less about tasting notes and more about the attitude and mood of the whiskey. That I can get behind as it helps the reader get a picture for how the whiskey delivers flavor across your palate.

In closing I pose this to you folks, are whiskey reviewers taking things a bit too far with some of this stuff? What is your take?

29 Comments

  1. Ryan says:

    Jason, great article. Personally I think whisky writers need to distinguish between tasting notes and reviews. Tasting notes are for someone who has already purchased that whisky – then they can sit down and have help picking out the flavors and aromas. Reviews are for people shopping for whisky, in which case they want the whisky described to them, not just to read a list of flavors. To be honest, I don’t get much out of reading tasting notes. I just want to know what the dominant flavors are.

  2. sam k says:

    Jason, you and I have discussed this very topic, so with the benefit of familiarity, I’ll repeat that I’m not very good at pulling out particular flavors, and I find myself relating to whiskey much more by mood. You have a much keener sense of flavor than me, and if you tell me that you taste dark pit fruits and pie spices, I’m likely to note those the next time I give that whiskey a try, but many times I can’t pick them out on my own.

    I like Dave a great deal, too, but telling me that a whiskey smells like a crushed Metabele ant (if I recall correctly) does me no service whatever. It’s just too obtuse.

  3. Wood Is Good says:

    I too read that article, and I came away with three main thoughts:

    1. I have to remind myself again to keep my nose open to various scents. I used to keep a chapbook of notes I’d make from nosing foods, spices, fruits, and whiskeys. I’ve gotten lazy with that for sure.

    2. Dave’s writing can be infuriating, entertaining, informative, and insufferably pretentious–often all in the same article! (And that’s not necessarily a criticism.)

    3. That specific article was, to me, one of those pieces meant to help well-heeled snooty whiskey aficionados feel above the average bourbon swillin’ joe.

  4. I’m honestly a fan of notes from guys like Broom – I would rather a reference that makes me scratch my head a bit and want to chase down a flavor. They definitely can go too far (his ant example is a case in point), but it’s something that always makes me want to try something new. Then again, I’m a huge advocate of trying pretty much anything and after getting into whiskey, that’s only gotten more intense as a way of building a taste memory.

    Conversely a guy like Roskrow can get a little too personal or vague in his notes. Sometimes he’s more on where I’d like to see, but he can get stuck in these weird bonhomies where you read a paragraph about this rainy day where he slipped coming out of the tube, tore his favorite sweater but at the end, waiting, was a pour of a £14,000 Dalmore and there’s a perfunctory run through the most vague descriptors ever. Those do nothing for me.

    I don’t necessarily look at notes as literal truth – our palates are all different as are our experiences – but they help me understand the critic better. Those, actually, in contrast to Ryan’s point, tell me more about if I’m interested or not. I’m always on the lookout for certain combinations (and some can be red flags) which tickle my “interesting” fancy. Ratings are near worthless to me as a reader. That, of course, is an entirely different discussion.

    Back to the topic at hand though: I try to dig past my first words – fruity is one – to find what they actually mean. There are others (a wet clay note I get off of some high-proof bourbons) that I’d have to spend five paragraphs trying to grab the exact scent and I just accept that people will interpret it as they want. My goal is generally to keep it relatable. I think that’s the general idea, no? We’re all the sum of our experiences and tastes, and not everyone will have had the same access or palate. However, we should be able to look at what we’re saying and realize not everyone will know what the scent of the Bolivian masked ferret during mating season is, and perhaps “sweaty” is an OK descriptor.

  5. Ryan says:

    To Regular Chumpington:
    I think the reason that you like the tasting notes format is because you are already a very experienced whisky drinker. You have tried a lot of whisky and taken the time to pay attention to them. And, I think, others who are experienced also enjoy it because they can look for combinations of flavors that tickle the fancy. However, for people like me who really aren’t that experienced, it doesn’t do any good to look for flavor combinations because you haven’t had enough experience tasting enough whiskies to be able to relate to tasting notes. My other problem is that I seldom see distinctions between dominant, secondary, and even tertiary flavors. Some obscure hidden flavor is often listed right alongside vanilla. So, I guess my problem is that all the experts seem to write in a way that does not relate to a whisky novice. I guess you can’t please everyone though. Most whisky novices probably aren’t bothering to read Whisky and Malt Advocate magazines!

  6. BMc says:

    To Ryan – I think that’s a fantastic idea, to separate a review – or, like you put it, an explanation for people who haven’t tried it – from tasting notes. I like to get a general sense of a whiskey from brief notes, and if the basic description sounds good, I’ll go from there and seek out more detailed notes, and probably buy a bottle. A basic framework, even if the life of the whiskey is in the details, can be very helpful.

    I also agree with M. Chumpington that details are awesome! Travel columns and restaurant reviews can be intoxicating reading experiences if you let all of the exotic descriptions wash over you and tickle your intellect and imagination. They can be swirls of descriptions, some that you understand, some you’ve wanted to know more about, and some that seem totally alien but fascinating. I feel enriched after tracking down some of the references, or even just imagining what in the world they’re describing, because, let’s face it, a lot of sensations do not translate well to the written word. I’m glad these guys get a long leash to pour their poetry out, but that can’t be IT. A little tidied-up summary in addition to that also is needed.

  7. @Ryan I see your point. I think my approach was to ignore ratings, grab what I want and compare it to notes online when developing my palate and experience. Ratings to me just seem like a second degree of abstraction from the experience and feel even more subjective, at least in terms of basing a purchase decision on. Again I’ll cite Roskrow, but in this case in a good way: The ’71 & ’72 Glendronachs get near universal acclaim. However, Roskrow called out some tired and aged notes in a recent review I read. That note alone tempered my interest in dropping a serious chunk of change on a bottle, given that a few of the recent old/deluxe bottles that I’ve had felt a bit flabby and past their prime.

    Your point is taken though. And I agree that some reviews don’t give you a sense of what’s big and what’s not which can be disappointing.

  8. AaronWF says:

    Great topic Jason, and great conversation starters all around. There are a lot of aspects to this issue. It brings to my mind how the commonalities of sensation within geographic locations are so integral in celebrating a locally made product like whiskey. I also enjoy, as Reg Chump puts it, digging past my initial impressions to discover what they mean to me more specifically.

    In no way, however, do I feel obligated to inhale the world in order to be able to pinpoint a reference for every flavor I experience in my whiskey. It’s a fair enough intellectual exercise for a professional whiskey writer to undertake, but it’s far more meaningful to me to find sense memories stored throughout my life reflected in a sip of bourbon. In other words, I’m much more interested in what the whiskey brings out in me than what I can find out in the world to bring to the whiskey.

    You have to trust the taste of a reviewer in order to be moved to action (or inaction) by their review. There are a lot of entertaining descriptions in Whisky Advocate, but at this point in my drinking career, a simple thumbs up or thumbs down determination by someone whose tastes I’m familiar with (like you) is enough to decide whether the whiskey in question is worth a try. I know enough of what to expect from American whiskey brands. It’s the less relatable British descriptions of scotch and the higher price of admission that keeps me mostly exploring the whiskeys on this side of the pond.

  9. sku says:

    I think Dave is absolutely right here. I personally have embarked on a program of nosing dead animals in order to use them in my reviews. It started innocently enough with dead bugs or maybe some roadkill and a trip to a slaughterhouse or too. You would honestly be surprised at how many dead animal notes are present in whiskey (especially Beam stuff). Moreover, dead animal itself is really not a precise enough description since, much like whiskey, aromas of decaying flesh change with exposure to oxygen.

    My interest was piqued. Unfortunately, there are only so many animals you can find dead in the city. After several zoos and animal testing facilities turned down my quite reasonable requests to do some nosing, I have taken matters into my own hands with local strays and the occasional exotic house pet belonging to an annoying neighbor. I felt a bit bad about it at first but then again, it was all in the name of bettering the nose. Then a friend and I got to talking about which whiskeys might carry notes of dead human and…well, I should probably stop writing there.

    Bwahahahaha!

  10. @sku so then what DID die in that Bruichladdich from December?

  11. Max says:

    Sku, I will have to send you a link to my rotting flesh tasting wheel

  12. EricH says:

    Dave Broom certainly has a unique style. When John Hansell had him do a few guest reviews on the formerly known as What Does John Know, a few visitors thought there was something wrong with John since the words used in the review were, well, different from his usual style. Then came the possibly literal eye rolling when the people making comments realized the review was written by Dave Broom.

  13. Dave says:

    I’ve never applied any unique scents to whiskey,Mexico and my many travels through it…Baja….yes. My wife can describe in vivid detail the “unique” smells of Juarez and Nuevo Laredo….but she applies these to Tequilla and Mezcal…not whiskey!! Thats a different story!!

    Hmmmm, I wonder what farm scents I can apply…from fresh cut alfalfa hay to …who knows what.

    Really cool topic!!

    Dave in Oklahoma
    Go Sooners!!

  14. DBMaster says:

    You may be missing the point. Nosing a whiskey creates a PROFILE in your mind that you can then compare to the profile of other whiskies. It’s not so important to identify individual aromas, primarily due to the uniqueness of each person’s sense of smell. After all, “fruit,” “dried fruit,” “barrel char,” ” wood tannins, ” etc. are going to be a different experience for each taster. If you establish a profile, you can then say, “This whiskey has a similar taste and smell profile to X.” That is something that is more easily understood. I am still quite a novice so perhaps I am oversimplifying, but I am frequently asked for recommendations and I have had positive feedback from friends when I recommend a whiskey with a similar profile to one they already like. Example: I have a friend who is a big Maker’s Mark fan. I recommended that he try W.L. Weller 12YO as I found it to have a similar profile.

  15. Dave says:

    Hey guys, I was being facetious in my post!!

    Facetious:
    adjective
    1.
    not meant to be taken seriously or literally: a facetious remark.

    2.
    amusing; humorous.

    3.
    lacking serious intent; concerned with something nonessential, amusing, or frivolous: a facetious person.

    Or…as we say in Oklahoma: “Boy, are you joshin’ me”??

    Jason…keep up the great work!! I’m serious on that statement!!

    Dave in Oklahoma
    Go Sooners

  16. Dave, I took it as such as well. Cheers.

    Sku – thanks for the humor.

    Reg (Tim) – good perspective. You know I actually enjoy Dominic’s reviews more so than Dave’s, but that’s just me. That “wet clay” thing you are talking about is a good descriptor. I think we are talking about the same thing that I call flinty or crushed rock. Understanding what I mean by my description helps a reader immensely. That’s something that is likely built over time. I write/vid a review and tasting notes, someone tastes the bottle and then says, “aha – that’s what he means.”

    Ryan – You touched on something that I think is very valid as well. A lot of times I read (and write) reviews that don’t differentiate primary vs. secondary notes. It’s probably worth consideration on my part. After all, while the primary note may be the most dominant, for me it’s usually the secondaries that differentiate the avg. whiskeys from the better ones.

  17. Eric S. says:

    I have been drinking whisk(e)y of all sorts, for many years. Count me as one of those people that really isn’t good at deciphering minute details of nose and flavor. Sure… I can pick out caramel, vanilla, toffee, spice and fruit notes in nose and flavor, but beyond that…. forget it.

    I guess I really don’t care that much about the minutia of whisk(e)y drinking. I don’t bother with keeping tasting notes, as I just don’t have the time or inclination to do so.

    My thing with whisk(e)y drinking is the pure enjoyment I get from sitting down with a nice glass of Bourbon, Scotch or Irish and spending some time with it while unwinding from my day.

    I’m a mood drinker. Sometimes I want sweet, other times I want spicey, or smokey, or malty, or…… I honestly don’t care if I can pick out seaweed baking on a rock in the hot sun…. I just know I like it…lol.

    I would hazzard a guess that are quite a few whisk(e)y lovers out there that are just like me.

  18. DBMaster says:

    I think Eric and I agree, just not in the same words. So, yes Eric, I am one of those whiskey lovers like you!

  19. Eric S. says:

    I just read a review of Brora 30 year old.

  20. Eric S. says:

    sorry…. I hit a button and it post before I was finished…lol.

    Anyway…. one of the descriptors used was “polished wood”. Now, what the hell does polished wood taste like!?

    I get the feeling that many whiskey reviewers like to see if they can come up with stuff that has never been used before.

  21. sam k says:

    Agreed, Eric. Polished wood is a credible descriptor for the nose, but not for the taste. Nobody’s ever tasted polished wood. Same goes for polished leather, or boat docks, or beach pebbles.

    Again, we’re seeing some descriptors that are not necessarily credible a lot of the time. That’s why I’m partial to reviews that describe the nose, palate, and finish in sequence. Jason, you do us a great service by precisely splitting your reviews into these appropriate segments.

  22. SteveBM says:

    Good topic, Jason. In fact, I was just thinking about this very topic the other day after I read your review of Town Branch and you noted “overly ripe banana” on the nose of it. My first reaction when I read that was, “Ok, I can understand ‘banana’ but ‘overly ripe banana’? Who can distinguish the two?” I had all but forgotten about reading that a few days later when I finally got around to trying Town Branch and lo and behold there was that banana on the nose. I couldn’t tell you the ripeness of that banana scent but it was definitely present.

    I think that, in some cases, the minutia that goes into relating tasting notes is a bit much. The crushed ant being a great example of that. However, I think it’s important to realize the role that taste and smell play into memory. Each individual has different experiences with tastes and smells that influence their ability to recall similarities elsewhere based on the memory that they create in that individual’s mind. Believe it or not, there are actually people that get paid to create signature scents for hotels, shops, etc, so that people think about that property as soon as they get a whiff of a similar scent. I guess if I crushed a lot of ants as a kid playing in the woods and there was some sort of odor to it, I’d recognize that smell if it appeared later on in life. Or if I ate bananas frequently and noticed a change in scent when they were overly ripe, I’d have understood your tasting note more.

    Bottom line is that taste is entirely subjective. Kinda makes you wonder about a person’s past experiences when they claim, “Oh, that tastes like crap!” :)

  23. Steve, great example of descriptor “minutia”. That’s in quotes because if you are up to it I think you should sacrifice a few bananas this week. An under ripe banana has a green, almost vegetal aroma that at minimum equals the scent I believe many associate with a perfectly ripe banana. An overly ripe banana has a more intensely sweet aroma to it. Much sweeter and flabby (fat, sticky, sweet). The descriptor was used to indicate the later.

    Thanks for the perspective though. Much appreciated.

  24. Sam and Eric – I may be wrong as I’m not the person describing it, but I think some use the *polished wood* descriptor not to describe the taste, but rather the texture on the tongue and in the mouth. If you’ve ever put furniture wax on wood, the waxy coating actually has a ‘grippy’ feel to it. I use the term “resinous” in some cases to describe this textural experience. A lot of times we’re really describing the effect of the wood tannin. The polished leather is a similar reference – it’s that grip, and texture that I *believe* the reviewer is trying to get across. Think “squeaky clean”. Resinous, in my mind most accurately describes the experience, so that is what I use.

    Boat docks – well, I think that’s a case where the reviewer is more trying to conjure an image (sea, salt, wood, old). Most likely something from Islay, but I agree, it’s a little too composed and not broken down enough to drive home the individual flavors/aromas. Beach Pebbles is one where I do “get”. They are probably trying to describe the minerality of the spirit (flinty, crushed rock, a number of things).

    Thanks as always for the comments Sam! This has sure generated some outstanding comments from everyone. As someone that posts review, it’s great to hear what is helpful, what is not, and what is just completely confusing.

  25. sam k says:

    No argument, Jason, but boat docks and beach pebbles are definitely aroma descriptors, not flavor descriptors. No one”s ever tasted a boat dock, polished leather, or beach pebbles, but all of us have smelled them…

  26. SteveBM says:

    Good point, Jason. Challenge accepted!

  27. DBMaster says:

    I know exactly what Jason means by overripe banana. I posted a comment about Buffalo Trace that mentioned that nosing note. It was a “single barrel” expression that I bought from my local Goody-Goody Liquor store. Overripe banana is a scent that, in bananas, is a result of the fermentation of the sugars. So, it makes sense that you might find it in other fermented products. I have tried several wheat beers that had a ripe banana note. For me, at least, it’s not a good nosing note in American whiskey. It works so-so in Kilbeggan blended Irish, but not in Bourbon.

  28. SteveBM says:

    Got my first whiff of an overripe banana today. I see what you mean now. It’s a much thicker scent, sweeter sort of like cake batter, some sharp alcohol-like notes too. Knowledge gained. Health gained too from the couple of smoothies I made from the other bananas while I waited for this one to get overripe.

  29. SteveBM – ha! Glad you tried it.