And then I thought John MacDonald was going to hit me. My tasting note of ‘guinea pig hutch’ had not gone down well.
When nosing and tasting whisky, our brain has a habit of surprising us with a suggestive vista of just what sensory memories we have folded away in the darkest recesses. The conversion by our imaginations of these hints and fragments which those few molecules of distilled, oak-matured malt spirit disturbed when they pottered past our hypothalamus into an image or reel of footage can, however, appear so far removed from anything you might wish to detect in a fine single malt, bourbon or blend once we concretize them in writing.
The exercise of producing tasting notes works on association, putting into a system of signs for mass-consumption and comprehension what is only a deeply private impression. Tasting notes, therefore, work best only for the taster who can unlock the subtext and allusions to the words on the page. This is not quite on the same topic as Keith Wood and I discussed at the beginning of last year whereby particular scenes and whole memories are triggered by a mysterious aroma or flavour but instead aims to broach the subject of the unexpected – but appreciated – when encountering whisky. As I have said before, it is powerfully rewarding when the surface level of our awareness is broken by a whisky, and we can go beyond ‘malty’, ‘honey’, ‘vanilla’, ‘smoky’ in our evaluations to something that challenges how we perceive and contemplate sensory information. When sharing that whisky with others – as should always occur - it can be fun and illuminating to compare our most outlandish impressions, to explain how as individuals in the same sensory world we could possibly have ‘come up with’ that particular tasting note.
To return to that ‘guinea pig hutch’ descriptor above. It referred to the cask strength sample of the new Balblair 2001 and, as I tried to placate the distillery manager, I did not mean it as a criticism. Simply, in that moment my mind had stamped a sign on what I am by now used to finding in younger Balblairs – a sweet cereal character with light wood and a grassy/spicy aroma. For whatever reason, these had combined and reformed into an image of a rodent residence.
Mortlach is another that can generate some fairly unusual descriptors: rotting logs, lamb stock – what are these doing coming out of a whisky? What is important is the atmosphere these objects suggest to me, of late winter forest walks in Northumberland or left-overs from the Sunday roast.
Drams from Islay have more than a little drama to their personalities, with endless interpretations of just what quality of smoke there is in evidence possible. Bowmore Legend pushes out damp cigarettes while Kilchoman blends smoke with peat, which in turn evokes muddy farmyards and cowsheds. Pleasant? Absolutely. The classic case-in-point is ‘TCP’ for the likes of Laphroaig and Ardbeg. Some shrink away in fear of a pungent and oft-abused medicine cupboard, while others revel in the aromatic challenge.
All I would say is, put down what feels right to you. Why play it safe with what you worry you ‘ought’ to notice? You will come to understand the whiskies you come across far more intimately and meaningfully if those deeper and more esoteric responses are not repressed but are instead celebrated. After all, they acknowledge how diverse each of our experiences with food, drink and anything else that might have caught our noses or tastebuds over a lifetime are and with any luck might bring them into the discussion, too.