Tasting Notes, or The Wondrously Silly Things We Say About Whiskey

I put a lot of work into the inaugural American Whiskey List for Number Ten.  For instance, I had to research availability, which, as the robustly active Bourbon and Rye market continues, and once legendary bottles become mythic and other bottles that are admired become mired in both popularity and a vicious secondary market (i.e., hoarders and private re-sellers), the task of getting one’s hands on certain whiskeys has grown more time-consuming and difficult for the average bar manager and liquor store owner. Nowadays, if you want to order some bottles, you need to let your retailer or distributor know to put you on an availability list, so that when a product release date comes due, you’ll be in line to get some, or at least the chance to get some, all other things being equal.  Availability is also affecting price in some sort of adherence to supply and demand, so one’s intended price target for the list stock may run afoul of sudden price spikes.  There were about a dozen-and-a-half whiskeys that I had intended to include in our first list, but problems of availability or big price hikes kept them off the list.

Fortunately, there are plenty of wonderful whiskeys still around, and even more wonderful is that they taste really good.

There was a lot of work in describing the variations in taste from one whiskey to another. Part of that work was judging a fair bit of variation in how a particular whiskey ‘s taste is described across multiple reviews.  Anyone with more than just a passing interest in wine has come across tasting notes that seem peculiar, with “hints” of saddle-soap, bubble-gum, tar, or licorice (red or black), Smarties ™, or burnt toast.  Wine has nothing on whiskey when it comes to imaginative descriptions, rest assured.

In putting together the 75-bottle whiskey list, I included some tasting notes for each entry, but even as I did so, I worried about the utility of my doing it.  Two problems came up: taste is subjective and I couldn’t write up notes for each entry, both because I hadn’t personally had the pleasure of tasting each and every selection and because doing so is a time- and attention-intensive effort.  What I did in those instances where I hadn’t tasted, was to compare tasting notes for a particular whiskey from some of the dozen or so of whiskey review sites in which I had confidence, the confidence coming from a site’s methodology of reviewing and the accrued intelligence and attention the writing about the whiskeys presented, including some personal calibration by means of seeing what these sites had to say about whiskeys that I had tasted.  In addition, the tasting notes I’d read in one review would be “triangulated” with the notes common in at least two the reviews, in a sort of jury-rigged crowd-sourcing.

Fourteen pages of information about Number Ten’s American Whiskey shelf, including producer, grain mash, age statement, and tasting notes.

Tasting notes typically are comprised of four elements, as follows: appearance, nose, palate, and finish.   Appearance struck me as the least important to include, in part because it is the most obvious characteristic to discern and because talk about a whiskey’s “legs” made me want to walk away from the whole enterprise.  It isn’t that legs—basically, how the whiskey drains off the sides of the glass that can indicate, among other things, the proof—has no relevance.  It is that legs don’t have enough relevance to justify the ink needed to describe them.

“Nose” is also what it sounds like, which is the whiskey’s aroma, which is a nice part of the experience of enjoying whiskey. The nose often anticipates the palate or taste, and both may share such common attributes as “sweet,” “oak,” “spice,” “caramel,” and “fruit.”  Another aspect of the palate note is mouth feel and the transition in taste from front of mouth to the swallow, where the complexity of the whiskey is mainly experienced; for example, a whiskey may start sweet with a strong hit of, say, caramel, but moves into spiciness, with subtle fruit notes drawn toward the finish. And then there is “finish,” which is the experience of the whiskey post-swallow: think aftertaste (and to some extent, depending on the whiskey, afterburn) and you’ll have a pretty good sense of what finish means. Whiskeys are strong flavored and the lingering notes of flavor, and how they shift, fade, and change can be important elements of the enjoyment of the whiskey.

But, please.

Many of the tasting notes have such exotic or confusing references that often these tasting notes can get in the way of a whiskey’s enjoyment, potentially distracting one’s attention because the focus is on trying to taste the marshmallow and mint hints that are supposed to precede a touch on unripe stone fruit, and never mind that no one mentions whether they are talking about peaches, plums, or bing cherries from a certain county in upper state Washington.

In the end, my guiding principle to compiling tasting notes for our 75 American Whiskeys was “less is more.”  Here’s one I particularly like (and can personally attest):

Basil Hayden 8 Year Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon
Producer: Beam Suntory, a subsidiary of Suntory Holdings
Mash Bill: Corn 63%; Rye 27%; Wheat 0%; Barley 10%
Age Statement: 8 Year
Proof: 80
Tasting Notes: This high-rye bourbon presents a nose of spice, tea, and a hint of mint, with light-bodied but somewhat spicy taste, and a dry short finish.

I’ll confess that sometimes a bit too much gets put in, such as in the following:

Breckenridge Bourbon
Producer: Breckenridge Distillery
Mash Bill: 56% Corn; 38% Rye; 0% Wheat; 6% Barley
Age Statement: ~3 Year
Proof: 86
Tasting Notes: Nose offers sweetness of caramel, toffee apples, and raisins, with light pepper spice and a hint of coffee and char; palate has honey at first, crème caramel, stewed fruit, and vanilla, with oatmeal, rye spice, hints of char, oak, and spiced cider; finish is warm, moderate-to-long, with sweet oak and vanilla.

If you read the tasting notes for the second entry above, you could be forgiven for any confusion you might experience about whether you are ordering a whiskey, a breakfast, or some dessert.

All joking aside, it is of key importance that one keeps a sense of humor about tasting notes, not only because different people will have different tastes and flavor associations, but also because even the very same person may suffer different moods, or taste at different times of day, or had just eaten a jalapeno pepper-and-peanut butter sandwich.  Many factors  can influence the taste of the same whiskey from one moment to another.

Subtle taste notes are just that, and the subtler, the more likely to be the more subjective, which is why the only tasting notes that should be important to you are your very own.  One idea we’re kicking around at Number Ten is to offer an American Whiskey Club, where each member would have his or her own copy of our list, with space provided for personal tasting notes.

That’s not to say there are not plenty of whiskey characteristics upon which many will agree: smoothness (typically a function of age), mouth feel (a complex set of distillation factors factor in), oak (or “wood” or “char,” typically reflecting the level of burn of the insides of the virgin American Oak barrels used to age the whiskey; some whiskeys use more heavily charred barrels that will result in darker appearance and more oak char flavor), and warmth (also known as “burn”—the other burn—and largely the consequence of level of proof).  Sweet, spice, caramel, vanilla, and oak, all to various degrees, are the obvious points of reference in the taste of American Whiskey.

Any and all of the rest of descriptors are icing on the cake.  Which, of course, is another palate description that shows up once in a while in a tasting note.

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