Dave Broom’s approach to tasting whisky is methodical, but this is how to ‘not taste’ it.
There’s a dark, graffitied stair leading into the bowels of the building. Heavy German techno is playing. In the smoke- and incense-filled chamber there’s a ballerina on stage, dwarfed by an image of her – mid-leap, graceful, perfect, doing the sort of thing that 99.99% of us wouldn’t even attempt; but ballet dancers are super-human.
Then the next slide comes up. It points out all the mistakes she was making in the move; wrist wrong, foot not turned out, hips not squared off, knee should be hyper-extended (which I always thought was something to be avoided, and which reduces footballers to squealing messes but, as I said, ballerinas are hardcore).
Our image of the perfect was a mass of (self)-criticism. The ballerina, Shelby Williams, speaks of the striving for perfection, and the despair which overcame her when she analysed how imperfect she felt compared to her standards and, more personally, her classmates’ abilities.
‘I felt inferior,’ she says. ‘I saw in my reflection in the studio mirror how perfect they were and how imperfect I was… and I cried.’
It is not what you might expect when turning up to what is ostensibly a drinks event, but then again the annual P(our) symposium is all about widening our understanding of what the ‘drinks’ or ‘bar’ industry is about.
Established by Monica Berg, Alex Kratena, Simone Caporale and other industry luminaries, P(our) is devoted to widening the thinking of what bartending is and can be.
The symposium is one manifestation of this, an interdisciplinary platform where distiller and sake-maker, crop scientist, architect, gastrophysicist, writer, chef and ballerina can offer up their thoughts.
Super-human: But Shelby Williams’ flaws made her despair (Photo: Shelby Williams)
This year’s theme was perfection and, interestingly, all of the speakers (full disclosure, I was one) chose to speak instead about the various manifestations of imperfection – and why we should embrace it.
We are surrounded by images of what is deemed to be ‘perfect’. There is an ideal which we should always strive for, be that in ballet or drinks. And yet, surely, perfection is impossible.
It suggests something which is fixed, yet the world is in a constant state of flux. Because things are impermanent, nothing can be said to be perfect.
A falling leaf, a piece of tarnished metal, a battered suitcase or raggedy pointe shoes have beauty because, in their imperfection, they speak of time and the process of change.
When Williams realised that she was being ‘almost smothered by my own ambition’, she created an alter-ego on Instagram showing the world everything she did wrong in a self-deprecating way.
She discovered that in accepting that perfection wasn’t possible, ‘you fall in love with the process and the striving, and not the result’. There’s echoes here in whisky-making.
Are they trying to make the perfect whisky? Or even the perfect example of a single distillery? If there was perfection, then what would be the point of releasing different age statement, or finishes, or blends?
That little touch of sulphur might add lift, that hint of silage might add a quirky extra layer of intrigue; and, while the filthiness of funk or over-intense esters might be considered flaws, elements which get in the way of purity, they are often what make a whisky exciting… and, weirdly, perfect for the moment – and it’s the moment which is important for us as drinkers.
Self-criticism: Williams learned to accept the perfection is impossible (Photo: Shelby Williams)
The drink which you have in front of you is changing. Its vapours are rising and changing, some flying off, others emerging late. You may have added water or ice. The whisky changes from one sip to another. The light in the room, the comment of a fellow drinker, a smell from the kitchen, the level of the liquid in the glass (or bottle) all impact on the moment.
All you can do is be focused and enjoy it because it is your drink. The distiller may have made it, but they would be wrong to say that their whisky is complete or perfect, because the whisky is only complete when you taste it. You are the final piece in its life.
The same applies to tasting notes. I hope that the ones I write are as honest and fair as I can make them, but ultimately they are my notes, the images in my mind are my images, my response is personal, just as yours is – and I am not perfect.
It is arrogant to believe otherwise, and that you can possibly set yourself up as an arbiter of taste, a writer of scripture who should never be challenged. As Williams says in her conclusion: ‘You can’t latch onto other people’s ideas of perfection. I am an imperfect person in a world of perfection… and it doesn’t bother me.’
Imperfection makes you human.
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From the editors 13 June 2018
In whisky as in football, says Richard Woodard, it’s best to keep our expectations low.
From the editors 25 April 2018
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From the editors 05 July 2017
Dave Broom discusses changes to the way we score the whiskies we taste – and why words matter more.
The whisky virgin 11 May 2017
To really understand your likes and dislikes, try removing any prejudice from your whisky glass.