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Review Intimidation

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@Spitfire
Spitfire started a discussion

OK, here goes. I enjoy this site, I enjoy reading the reviews. But to be honest, a lot of the "tasting notes" read like gibberish to me. I mean, yeah, I can taste the difference between whiskies made from malt, corn, or wheat, but some of the flavours people ascribe to whisky--raisins? marzipan? green apples? bananas? Sorry folks, but to me it tastes like whisky. Yeah, some is better than others, and I can certainly taste peat in some, and the sherry influence in others, and oak, but beyond that, perhaps my palate is not as developed as everyone else's.

So far, I have not reviewed any whiskies here. I admit, I find the gobbledigook--uh, excuse me, "descriptive language"--a bit intimidating. I'm not going to say something tastes like leather and tobacco unless I can actually identify those flavours (and as I loathe tobacco, from me that would be a bad thing). However, I've tasted whiskies in which reviewers have reported exactly those tastes--and noticed neither. Not fond of green apples either, but again, I've enjoyed many whiskies reported to have green apples in the flavour profile; thankfully, I do not notice them. Marzipan?--you could feed me a bar of the stuff, I wouldn't know what it is.

So I guess, I'd have to ask--am I alone? Does anyone else read the reviews, look into their glass, and think, "I don't taste all that stuff in there?" And on the other side--how does one write a review of whisky which tastes like, well, whisky? No tropical fruits or chair coverings, just good distilled spirit aged in woooden casks?

8 years ago

21 replies

@Nozinan
Nozinan replied

@Spitfire

I think you bring up some very interesting points.

There was a time when I would not have been able to tell the difference between Canadian Club and Macallan 25. Really. 5 years of study (not just tasting, but reading) has changed a lot. I know what I like, what I don't like, and I can make informed choices to suit my mood. I think I've come a long way.

Yet there are times I read reviews (or a better example, watch Ralfy's reviews in the high double digits to the early triple digits) and I wonder, how can there be so many different flavours in so many different whiskies? I feel lucky if I can tease out three or four distinct smells and 3-4 distinct flavours.

Sometimes I smell or taste something familiar but can't find the word for it.

I also struggle with trying something and being unable to discern the complexities I am reading about. One specific example is tasting "malt" flavour. I'm never sure if what I'm tasting is the same flavour being described that way.

I scanned a few of my reviews and I see some big variation in detail. I also see that in other reviews. A lot depends on how you approach it. A book reviewer doesn't give every detail of the story. The whisky review doesn't either.

Connosr even provides 2 ways to score a review. You can do smell, taste, finish and balance or just an overall score.

Some people are interested in the story behind the whisky. Some want details on the taste. Some want to know if it's good. Any review you do will appeal to some people.

Sometimes I use reviews to decide whether to buy, in which case I want details. but if I'm reading for enjoyment I just want something interesting. Soetimes I skip the "nose" and "taste" parts and jump to the conclusions.

In summary, don't be intimidated. Only write reviews if you want to, and if you do, only write what YOU want to write.

L'Chaim!!!

8 years ago 4Who liked this?

@AndyC
AndyC replied

'brineyness', maltiness, peatiness, smokiness and oakiness are the only real characteristics of the whisky itself that I pick up, then the additional influences from previous spirits/wines that have been in the barrels - port, sherry, rum etc. I also find striking comparisons to other drinks like Mezcal or Tequila that have not been present in barrels in some cases.

But this is pretty much where it ends, to be honest, and I don't get any of the apple, banana, white pepper, rose petals etc that people talk about. I often think that this is just unhelpful description that is not grounded in any sort of reflection of reality whatsoever, and can lead to disappointment in not finding more different flavours in different whiskies (although it would also, for me, be weird and probably unpleasant to find many of these flavours in a whisky!)

8 years ago 0

maltmate302 replied

@Spitfire very well said sir. Some people, Ralfy included, list literally dozens of tastes and smells and I just don't get it.I generally struggle to pull out 2 or 3 flavours or smells from any whisky..Sometimes I think my palate lacks sophistication and other times I think some people are prone to exaggeration but none of this diminishes my enjoyment of the world's greatest beverage!

8 years ago 1Who liked this?

@SquidgyAsh
SquidgyAsh replied

I started where we all do, years ago, being so thrilled when I was able to pull out any specific note on any whisky that was more complex then peat/smoke on an Islay....however these days I can pick up probably anywhere from 6 to 12 aromas and flavors on any decently complex whisky.

Some whiskies are incredibly complex and take 20, 30, 40, 50 minutes to fully open up and some whiskies shoot their wad in the first 5 minutes.

First thing to remember is each person interprets aromas and flavors differently. I always tell my friends that no specific tasting notes are accurate, what I pick up will be different from what my wife will pick up, and that's fine, as long as you know what you like and dislike, that's the important thing.

What I found helped me develop the palate on tasting whisk(e)y if you will, was to gradually take time, get to the point where I would read a review, look at the tasting notes and find something basic, such as vanilla, off a bourbon and see if I could find it. Pretty easy to find vanilla off bourbon, and then I would try and take that to other whiskies which most folks said had vanilla coming off of them.

I did this until I could identify vanilla consistently, throughout different whiskies, and then I'd go back to that first whiskey and hunt for another common flavor, rinse and repeat.

You won't ever get everything that someone else gets, and developing a palate is like anything, it takes practice, but it is possible. Connosr helped me out so much with that.

All that being said, I've definitely read many reviews where when they list a tasting note where I've gone "you're full of shit"

But that is the fun of whisk(e)y, we all take something different from the experience, we all interpret it differently, and no one is right or wrong!

8 years ago 2Who liked this?

@Nelom
Nelom replied

@Spitfire, I'm sort of in the same boat in that I'm not able to identify the same range of flavours that many others can, and I also haven't written any proper reviews.

Perhaps it's because of this that I don't think there's anything wrong with more simplistic reviews that, in broad terms, describe how you experience the whisky. I for one appreciate such reviews. Something short and sweet like "smooth, fruity, creamy, and rich with a long and lingering aftertaste" is, to me, quite plenty when it comes to the description of the flavour. So I don't think you, or anyone, should be discouraged from writing reviews. Just write what you do notice and how you feel about the whisky. Perhaps also compare it to other whiskies from the same distiller or other whiskies that you find similar in some way. Such comparisons could be very useful indeed in helping people understand what the whisky is like.

Also, odds are there are longer and more complex reviews out there of whatever product you're looking to review, so those who prefer such reviews aren't being deprived of that just because you publish something a little more accessible.

8 years ago 0

@Ol_Jas
Ol_Jas replied

Less is more, for me. I read whisky stuff online all the time, but I'm mostly interested in the chat and the overall takes on things. I almost always just skim—if not skip altogether—the list of flavors that reviewers cite in their descriptions. And those flavor lists certainly don't stick with me.

I can think of just one memorable exception: John Hansell reviewed Connemara Turf Mor when it came out years ago and said it had a strong DUNG quality. I don't know what else he mighta said, but he said that and it stuck with me. Less is more.

But yeah, do whatever you want for reviews. This reader will be much more interested in your overall experience with the whisky than your flavor lists.

8 years ago 0

@Ol_Jas
Ol_Jas replied

Also, I'm not a person who thinks "detecting 20 distinct flavors in my glass" is the height of whisky enjoyment. Maybe it'd be different if all those flavors actually stood out to me, but really I much prefer to just drink & appreciate & enjoy, without dissecting.

Possibly applicable: "He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom."

8 years ago 0

@Nozinan
Nozinan replied

@OlJas

Some wise words. I think there are different ways to enjoy whisky. Sometimes you have a complex whisky that you want to pick apart and see what makes it so good. Sometimes it's a matter of acknowledging the complexity but enjoying the entirety.

When I write a review I am usually alone. I often do other things while I wait for the whisk to develop or after adding water. Most times I have a dram though, it's either with people, or when reading, or watching something online (or doing my taxes...) and I'm focused on something else except when I raise the glass to sniff or sip.

8 years ago 0

@AndyC
AndyC replied

@SquidgyAsh - I agree with most of what you say here, but I'm not sure it is consistent to think that some people are full of shot, but there is no right and wrong here. There may be a degree of subjectivity, but it's not ALL subjective: some people just do list a load of made up gibberish as a 'real' experience. Others may be just using artistic language and make expressive judgments. But I think it is wrongheaded to say that people's subjective opinions are always reasonable and 'valid'.

8 years ago 0

@Spitfire
Spitfire replied

Thanks for the responses, folks.

Don't get me wrong--as I said, I enjoy this site, and the reviews on it. I also quite enjoy my whisky. But when I write my reviews--and I will--they will be of the simple, straightforward variety. :-)

8 years ago 1Who liked this?

@Pandemonium
Pandemonium replied

Let's put it like this, 30% of it is scientific: a lot of flavours that you can detect in a whisky have the same chemical composition of existing variaties of fruit, wood, spice.

50% is our brain detecting different flavours and screening your memory archive for something that comes close to what your experiencing. The human brain is a wonderful instrument designed to search for patterns and associations. However you can't just switch it off. I'd like to compare it with looking at a tree and seeing faces in the bark, of course they aren't there and even if they look like them, it was never the intention of the tree. But our brain doesn't care cause its design to recognise patterns. You can easily debunk it scientifically, but isn't it sometimes fun just to run with it ? It's completely harmless and a show of your brains creativeness.

20% is gibberish, I sense that a lot of reviewers feel the pressure to come up with a few new flavours to give their review an appropriate length and display their palate's abilities.

Some things you'll learn to taste after a while asyour palate needs a bit of training before it can fully appreciate a whisky. But so what if you can't get that note of black berries? Does it really matter if you don't get all the elements out of someone else's review?

8 years ago 1Who liked this?

@Frost
Frost replied

@Spitfire I appreciate your point of view and am listening. I am responsible for putting descriptors like 'green apples', 'bananas' et al. I will continue to do so if that is what I detect on the nose and/or palate.

Describing whisk(e)y in words, is like performing interpretive dance for a film review. We are using a different form of communication to express something about another media. I don't fluff about and invent things I taste/smelt, I describe what I have detected through analysis with the appropriate sense. My goal is to enjoy whisky, nail down what I enjoy and share that with like minded people who enjoy the same spirit.

It took me years to develop my senses to be comfortable picking apart whisky taste and smell profiles. I've read reviewers describe flavours like Frosted Flakes. I've never tasted Frosty Flakes in a whisky, but then again I've not tried every Frosted Flake on the planet to get the authour's smell/taste note. The green apples where you are from will taste different to the ones I am from, you never know you may find an aspect of the ones I'm trying in a whisky some time. I don't know if you drink coffee, some tastes nutty. No one is adding crushed nuts to my coffee, but there it is. In the same way flavour profiles find themselves in a whisky that have not ben added.

I don't want to describe whisky as only "tastes malty and peated" and not be able to communicate how that differentiates to the next malty peat. It would be like music reviews saying "They have drums and a distorted guitar" it needs 'more' to convey what the ear is hearing and put into writing.

I hope my point of view gives you a perspective from my side and doesn't smack of being defensive. I am expressing a rationale on why I use descriptive notes on smells and tastes I have detected.

Thank you for raising an interesting topic.

8 years ago 0

@sengjc
sengjc replied

Taste is very subjective. Green apples to me may be melon to another or peaches to some.

So as long as the juice tastes good to you and you believe the price you paid is at least commensurate to the experience, that is all that matters - I believe. ;)

8 years ago 0

@OCeallaigh
OCeallaigh replied

Everybody has pretty much cleared up the issue for you, I guess but I thought I'd throw in my two cents. I haven't reviewed any whiskies on here either. I have been known to write down tasting notes at home on my own, but at some point I decided that it was forcing me to take whisky too seriously. I very rarely write down notes anymore, and instead focus on enjoying the moment. Taking in the experience.

But I think the point is that these things don't actually TASTE like green apples and marzipan, but something in the chemical compounds reminds one of these things. Even more, I would imagine it's about being reminded of certain scents, flavours, and experiences. Letting your senses and your imagination get lost on the journey together. That may be a bit poetic and nonsensical... but whisky can be a bit poetic and nonsensical!

8 years ago 0

@Spitfire
Spitfire replied

@ Frost @OCeallaigh Yes, I understand you guys. And I also understand a bit about the science of taste, how various aromatic compounds combine to create the tastes we experience-- both through taste buds on our tongues and olfactory cells in our nasal cavities, and both in concert. And I understand that people are doing their best to describe the taste profiles they experience.

But, I also agree about the importance of keeping it fun. I have a tendency, myself, to get a bit too serious about things. Learning to let it go and just enjoy. And I do enjoy a dram now and then.

8 years ago 0

@Uisgebetha
Uisgebetha replied

Good topic this. The overriding taste of whisky is usually whisky but if we just said that of all drams how dull would this website be... and how would Jim Murray sell any books? Can I suggest pitting two or three superficially similar drams against one another and looking for differences in the nose, taste, body finish etc. It's surprising how different two similar whisky flavoured drinks can be. In describing those differences you should be able to identify particular flavours/profiles that you can describe in your own terms. Enjoy the journey and don't feel need to conform in your reviews if you feel like writing any.

8 years ago 0

@Nelom
Nelom replied

I've just begun reading "Whisk(e)y Distilled" by Heather Greene, and in chapter 1 there's a section called "A Primer on Whiskey Appreciation" that has a few parts I thought appropriate for this thread. Allow me to quote some passages:

"You don't need any special training or knowledge to begin identifying aromas in a whiskey... At the beginning, you may only get an image of a time or place, like "Christmas" or "ocean," rather than a concrete aromatic descriptor like "cloves." So be it. Describe the image. The idea is to get comfortable with your sense of smell so you can take better advantage of it."

And:

"The best thing to do while you are practicing with aromas is to relax and trust yourself and your instincts. Don't get frustrated if you have trouble pinpointing any kind of descriptor at first. Dr Rachel Herz, author of "The Scent of Desire" and a world-renowned expert on the psychology of smell, says we may have trouble simultaneously nosing and speaking because the two activities interfere with each other in the brain. She calls it "language-olfactory interference," and research on the topic is newly under way."

And perhaps the most controversial:

"There are a few notes that most people - novices and experts alike - often experience. In this section, I'll explain the characteristics many whiskeys share - a "greatest hits list" of aromatic, taste, and mouthfeel descriptors. I don't want you to get totally hung up on assigning words to your whiskey, though. Remember, that task may interfere with your sensory appreciation. Fact: If you're lucky, you'll be able to identify four or five aromatics in each whiskey. I know a few whiskey writers and reviewers who won't be happy to hear that: They've got careers built on publishing laundry lists of aromatic descriptors in giant encyclopedic books. But here's another secret Dr. Rachel Herz shared with me: Professors, chefs, sommeliers, perfumers, and other top-notch nosers can't pick more than three to five aromas out of a mixture. Whiskey is a mixture. So don't pressure yourself to find a bazillion smells."

I'm only about 50 pages in, but it's quite a good read so far. Accessible and useful. Since I’ve quoted it somewhat extensively in this post, I feel that it’s only right that I provide a couple of links to where the book can be bought:

amazon.com/Whiskey-Distilled-Populist-Guide…

amazon.ca/Whiskey-Distilled-Populist-Guide…

8 years ago 2Who liked this?

@Spitfire
Spitfire replied

@Nelom Thanks for that. I've read "Tasting Whisky" by Lew Bryson--which was interesting--but not Greene's book. I may look it up--let us know what you think when you've read more.

8 years ago 0

@bourbondrinker

@Spitfire Just like most have replied (squidgyash,pandemonium,oceallaigh and others), it's simply what that smell or taste reminds you of. Even mood can change this. Try having the same whisky when you feel like it vs when you wouldn't actually bother....you will find out a taste difference.

8 years ago 0

@Nozinan
Nozinan replied

@bourbondrinker

Quite right. That's why if you choose one to match your mood it can sometimes be a fantastic taste experience.

8 years ago 0

@Spitfire
Spitfire replied

@bourbondrinker Yes, I have experienced how mood can affect my appreciation. Season and weather, too...for some reason, bouirbon seems more suited to summer while a good peated scotch seems most appealing on a cold winter evening.

But, this kinda goes to the core of my original post. You're saying that whisky tasting is a subjective experience, and I agree. But when reviewing whisky for others, I'd hope one would try to be as objective as possible--otherwise, the review may be more about the reviewer's mood than the taste of the dram. Which is fine, as far as it goes, but hardly helps the rest of us choose our next purchase... :-)

8 years ago 0

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