To really understand your likes and dislikes, try removing any prejudice from your whisky glass.
London’s former fish market will be filled with the rather more appealing aroma of several hundred different whiskies this weekend, when The Whisky Exchange Whisky Show returns to Old Billingsgate.
If you’re going, you’re probably already fine-tuning your strategy for the event: the must-taste drams, the distillery stands you simply have to look in on, the seminars and tastings that stand out in the schedule.
Sometimes it’s the whiskies you didn’t see coming that make the biggest impression: that spur-of-the-moment pour from a distillery you’ve never heard of; the passing friend who thrusts a glass under your nose and and says: ‘Try this.’
For the most part, because of the nature of the event, you won’t be tasting blind. You’ll know the distillery, the age (if there’s one on the label), and perhaps the cask type. You may also have the marketing spiel ringing in your ears as that nice person behind the stand pours you a measure.
Does any of that matter? Try as we might to be objective, we all have our preconceptions – positive and negative – about the names on the bottles, the professed style of the whisky inside and even the design of the packaging.
Sometimes, if we allow them to, these inner voices can drown out the true sound of the whisky in front of us. ‘I don’t like Sherried whiskies’ … ‘Eight years old is just too young’ … ‘My friends all sneer at this distillery.’
Inner voices: It’s hard to cast aside preconceptions when we know what we’re tasting
Such internal influences can create a negative force, skewing our honest opinion of the liquid we’re looking at, nosing and tasting. The empiricism of blind tasting removes such destructive thoughts.
However, blind tasting also has its limitations, not least because that’s not the way we normally drink whisky. We make a conscious choice in a bar or a shop, or at home, whether the bottle we select is an old friend or a new acquaintance.
That decision is influenced, to a greater or lesser extent, by the story that lies behind the liquid inside the bottle. It may be the whisky’s story, but often it will be our own: recollections of a memorable distillery visit; a night spent with friends or family; a moment of discovery in the frenetic atmosphere of a packed whisky event.
When the whisky tells the story, it should be an engaging one, and one that is rooted in authenticity. Not, however, the empty, dead linguistic template of ‘luxury’ and ‘craft’, where distillery identity is sacrificed in favour of a one-size-fits-all false narrative, and historical fact treated as an inconvenience to be twisted into a new, alternative ‘truth’.
Sometimes, rather than relying on a press release or some back-label scribblings, we can discover the best stories through our own efforts: reading around the subject, listening to what informed people have to say or, if you’re lucky enough to write about whisky for a living, conducting research for an article.
Rich history: Cardhu’s compelling heritage can add an extra layer to tasting its whisky
Now, when I taste Cardhu, lurking at the back of my brain are thoughts of the two remarkable women who did so much to shape that distillery’s early history, Helen and Elizabeth Cumming: Helen, or ‘Granny Cumming’, selling bottles of whisky out of her kitchen window for a shilling a pop; the shrewd business dealings of Elizabeth, which did so much to secure the family fortune (we’ll be featuring the Cummings on Scotchwhisky.com soon).
If I pick up a glass of Bruichladdich Bere Barley (or track down the Arran bere bottling from a few years back), I’ll be thinking of an idiosyncratic barley variety that has survived in some of Scotland’s remotest outposts for up to 6,000 years, nearly became extinct 20 years ago, and is now undergoing a resurgence.
Will Cardhu’s history or bere’s survivor status be any consolation if the whisky I’m tasting is crap? Of course not. The aromas, flavours, texture, balance and complexity will always remain the ultimate arbiters of quality.
But do those anecdotes add an extra dimension to the pleasure when there’s a good drop in your glass? You bet they do. Enjoy the whiskies this weekend – and listen to their stories.
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A sojourn on Islay prompts a further exploration of the topic of barley and its impact on whisky.