I Don’t Read Tasting Notes

I don’t read tasting notes.

“What?! But you’re a blogger – surely you must spend ALL DAY reading tasting notes?”

Yes, I actually avoid reading tasting notes. I find they only do two things for me, neither positive. One, they color my perspective. If I read that a whisky has “herbal green notes” before I taste it, then the entire glass tastes to me like blended lawn clippings. Suggestion is a very powerful thing, and works multi-fold upon the subjective senses of taste and smell. Two, it causes me to question my own impressions. If I think a whisky has very heavy banana notes, but a blogger whom I hold in high regard talks only about its “toffee” and “caramel” notes, I begin to wonder if I know what the heck I’m talking about. Seriously, this guy has been tasting whisky since I was in diapers. Who am I to disagree with him? This causes a downward spiral of shame and feelings of inadequacy which are quite unproductive.

So, I just don’t read them.

This may seem highly disrespectful to the community – after all, it is tasting notes that allow us to compare and contrast our feelings on products that can only be discussed in paltry words – but I think it frees me to write tastings notes how they occur to me without the tendency, I hope, to standardize terms and end up talking exclusively about Christmas cake and treacle. It also frees me to read about the objective aspects of whisky that really sink in for me. You have no idea how much I geek out over the discovery (usually on a blog) of some snippet of interview transcript with some now-retired master distiller who reveals that whisky X was using sherry barrels all along, or stopped chill-filtration when they upped the ABV to 46% without telling anybody, or whatever. THAT puts me in direct emotional and intellectual contact with a whisky far more than discovering that someone else tasted strawberries in it. I never taste strawberry in whisky, so what does that mean to me?

Don’t read my tasting notes.

Seriously. I would be totally unmoved to discover that my readership did me the same disservice. I don’t expect my detection of cotton candy notes in an aroma to influence my reader either way. If you go out and buy a bottle, taste it, and are totally unable to associate it whatsoever with cotton candy – will you be disappointed? I don’t want that. What I do want is to be able to dissuade you from buying Macallan 12 when you could be buying GlenDronach 12, or to try Balvenie DoubleWood instead of yet another bottle of Chivas. I want to share those juicy little tidbits – like the 25% sherry maturation in Green Spot – that will really make a difference in your appreciation of a whisky. I want you to taste it and say “Yes! I CAN tell this was partially sherry-matured”, not “Oh right, there’s the raisin and plum notes”. I think the first more directly impacts your own journey of whisky appreciation. The first one you (and I) can learn from.

“Then why don’t you give ratings?”

I still get asked this. The typical rationale for dropping ratings is that the writer wishes to convey his or her thoughts about a whisky via tasting notes instead of a cold, hard, factual number (which is generally neither hard nor factual, but appears that way). You come to my blog for two reasons (I suspect). One, to learn about whisky appreciation and to expand your knowledge about what whisky is available in the market. Two, to let me tell you what to buy, and what not to. I suspect you don’t really care if I taste strawberries or not, as long as I can tell you whether or not to drop $50 on that bottle. My non-numeric ratings, therefore, are a wholly subjective wrapping-up of the answer to the question “Should I buy it or not?”. Usually the answer falls unsatisfactorily in the middle: “Some of you will like it, some of you will be ambivalent” is not a very good conclusion, but can safely be applied to 90% of the bottles on the shelf. It is therefore my hope that those of you looking for any reason to buy the whisky in question will not be dissuaded, and those of you looking for “The Best” will avoid wasting your money. In both cases, my unearthing of cotton candy aromas is immaterial.

What about you, dear reader, do you read the tasting notes, or skip over them?

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  • Yes and no. I generally read them, but if I’m planning a tasting event, etc., I’ll deliberately refrain from reading anything related to the whiskies involved for several weeks beforehand, just to get the potential for confirmation bias out of my head. I’ll also read things after I’ve sampled a whisky just to see if I had a similar experience with other bloggers – is there a common baseline? Was my perception wildly different from everyone elses? Could there have been a reason beyond simple subjective sense memories – as in, could the bottle have been off somehow?

    I do prefer, however, your rating scale vs. a numeric rating scale (be it 10, 50, 100) as people tend to fixate on the numbers rather than the whisky itself (hence the reason that when I do whisky reviews, there is no score, just a general commentary on my perception, with some references to what other people thought about it).

  • I have a dull sense of smell and a crude palate. So if someone writes that the addition of water changes a nose from blueberries to gooseberries, I’ll take it on faith – albeit with difficulty – that they can distinguish between those two aromas.

    Where it gets into “Oh, come on now” territory is when they describe tastes as things which it is difficult to imagine anyone willingly putting in their mouth. For example: someone described the palate of an Ardbeg 10 as, among other things, “hot straw on wet asphalt”. Really?

    • Eric,
      Certainly tasting notes can be very off-the-wall… a lot of that comes from the extreme difficulty of putting obscure aromas and flavors into words. Countless times I’ve been writing notes and struggled with the right words to connect what I was sensing – it’s tarry, like asphalt, but there’s a savory, yeasty quality… like bread dough, but dryer than that… like stale bread dough… on asphalt! You see the problem. 🙂

  • I like to read other people’s tasting notes only after I have tasted the whisky myself and put down my own notes first. That way I get to see how other people interpret the whisky without having that subconsciously affect how I taste it.

    I struggle to come up with tasting notes because at best, they are only the roughest approximations of what I taste. The flavor of sherry-aged whisky is unmistakeable, but while I think it is somewhat similar to that of a raisin or violin rosin, it is not quite the same thing. It’s a unique flavor that isn’t quite duplicated by anything else.

  • i dont like tasting nots much either.
    i new to whiskey(whisky) but i dont like having other peoples experences in my mind when i try something,i just got a bottle of laphroig 10 year and i read a tasting note that said it tasted like used motor oil,as soon as i opened the bottle thats all i could smell was oil,a freind smelled sausage though.if i hadnt read that it might have tasted different for me,i will try it agian later on but for now all i think of is oil. 🙁

  • Well, as a fellow whisky blogger, I rarely read other whisky blogs, not only because their tasting notes also seem to persuade me, but also because I am trying to be original. If I read too many whisky blogs, I fear I will end up like the rest, which can be boring.

    However, from time to time, I do read yours and Peter’s (The Casks) because of the funny writing style and the original content.

    Keep bloggin’ and speaking your mind!

  • I like tasting notes, even the marketing stuff written on the packaging, but like some other posters I read them after I have tried the whisky and written my own. Then I’ll compare my notes with the manufacturers’ and the bloggers’. ‘Like an ancient mariner’s farewell’ (read this somewhere, I think about Talisker or similar) is plainly not that helpful, but as a poster above said, there might not be an easy comparative word for a unique smell or flavour. So used motor oil split on cold concrete or whatever may be the evocation (sp?) of the taster’s impression. But I draw the line at ’10w40 motor oil; or possibly 5w40 semi-synth’, because only a bloodhound is ever going to get that precise!

  • I have enjoyed reading your posts and your writing style. I find them well written and help with my search for good scotch. It is writing like yours that help me in my search for quality scotch. I hope to get some of your must haves.

    I wish to share my first taste of scotch story with you and this is why I believe it is so important for those like you to share your tasting notes and reviews of products.

    I recently had a special occasion. I was going to ask a man for his daughters hand in marriage. I needed a peace offering. I new he and I had a connection being both combat veterans and I wanted it to be a special momentous occasion. I fully expected him to bless the union of his daughter and I together.

    I new he enjoyed a good drink and would often stop at the local pub with his buddies after work to toss a few back before going home. I had already learned that his favorite drink was Crown Royal. But for this occasion I wanted something really special. I had never tried scotch. I had the impression there was a refined masculinity to drinking scotch having seen a few Hollywood movies in the past and seeing this beverage used by men of power in the movies as a prop. They seam to always be in that special spot away from the rest of medicine cabinet presented in some way to indicate it was special. It would be a special mantel or an ornate globe that when the top of the globe was rotated it revealed its precious contents to hold a few crystal glasses and that person’s most cherished beverage. There always seamed to be a masculine romance attached to a good bottle of scotch. This created a curiosity in me to try a bottle.

    I needed to do some research into what scotch was. I had no idea what made scotch “scotch” or what was special about it. I new it was an adult beverage but that was it. I did not know it was a style of whiskey. I did not know that it was a whiskey that had to come from Scotland to be scotch. I had no idea there were so many brands and I have never truly been a lover of strong drink, until now!!! Being a “Wallace” born and raised in the USA I enjoy learning of the Scottish traditions and romance of that country. Supposedly where my ancestry leads back too. Now that I know what scotch is, what is more Scottish than Bag Pipes or a Kilt than a good bottle of scotch?

    I decided to stop by the only liqueur store I know of in my area. It is a tiny little place and they offer a very limited selection of anything. I live in the Bible belt. Adult beverage stores are considered taboo places by the community and are very few and far between. I ask where the scotch was and the young man was kind enough to take me to his selection. He had an offering of maybe six or seven to choose from. They ranged from Chivas Regal to Glenmorangie.

    There were three different bottles of Glenmorangie the Chivas and two or three other bottles. I had no idea what to choose. I quickly pull my trusty iPhone out and Google reviews for each. Because of the reviews for Glenmorangie I decided I would pick from one of those. They are somewhat more expensive in the store than the Internet sites offer them at. They offered a 10yr, a 12 yr Lasanta and an 18 yr. It came down to what I was willing to pay for a special memorable occasion and my first taste of scotch. I chose the Lasanta. I had never paid so much for a bottle of anything in my life. It was a $60 bottle and the 18 yr was over $80. So I figured $60 was enough to risk seeing if I would even like it. I hoped it would, because I still did not have a clue what a good bottle was and what would cause it to be so expensive. I also wanted to make a good impression on the man I was asking permission from to marry his daughter.

    I have very little experience with adult drinks. I have enjoyed a glass or two of these adult beverages and now keep them in my medicine cabinet: Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, Makers Mark, Crown Royal Original and Maple, Captain Morgan, Sailor Jerry, Disaronno Original Amaretto, Southern Comfort, Jose Cuervo, Smirnoff, in various flavors, Kahlua, Baileys Irish Cream and others. I don’t know how to mix drinks. This is something I would like to learn.

    In my younger days, I would have just enjoyed the effects of alcohol in the attempt to get totally snookered with my buddies. Keeping a true medicine cabinet would have been out of the question a bottle did not last through the night and it was not something to be treasured and enjoyed for its quality but for quantity. Now as I find something I like I will keep it in my cabinet. I have mostly used liquors for cooking and accenting a desert and occasional Hot Toddies to help with a cold. I am becoming a collector I guess. I have limited experience and by no means a connoisseur or expert but I know what I like when I find it.

    I called ahead to see if he was there. His wife and daughter were busy with an in home party hosted by my girlfriend for the girls so it made a perfect excuse for us guys to get together. I presented the bottle to him when I got there and he was very willing to crack it open with me. My initial impression it was strong but not with the same punch I get from Crown. Then other flavors seamed to erupt from it. I tasted beeswax and caramel a hint of fruit. The finish was smooth, with a hint of wood, beeswax and caramel. I was instantly taken aback by all of the flavors that seemed to burst from this nectar. I had not experienced a drink like this. I was hooked.

    Since that first taste, I did over the next month finish the bottle off. Enjoying a glass before bedtime as a nightcap. Not being a connoisseur I did take liberty to mix it with Coke and I liked that as well. I also tried it with a quality cream soda and that brought a lot of flavor out of it as well. I have had some other brands of scotch since then and been very disappointed. If I had tried them first I would not have gone onto try others I think. But so far I have found two brands I like and will keep trying more. I am glad I tried the Glenmorangie Lasanta 12yr as my first taste of scotch.

    I did ask permission and he did bless off on us. He was very pleased. So yes we will be getting married and I will buy more scotch. I will buy another bottle of Glenmorangie Lasanta 12yr and I can’t wait to try a bottle of Glenmorangie 18 yr and if I can find it Glenmorangie Nectar D’or.

  • The whole business of reviews and ratings is simply laughable and absrud.
    In short, they say so much that they say nothing at all, in the end you’re still left wonder, “so what does it taste like?”
    Seriously, how can something taste like, honey, cookie dough, apples, citrus and from-under cheese all at the same time – IT CAN’T – simple as that. It’s all just people try to make something out of nothing and in the process, feather their own nest and proport to besomething they are not. So don’t fall for any or it.
    The other obvious clue that this is a bologna is that if it taste like lemon to one person it should taste like lemon to the next person, and you’d like the same profiles described by different reviews, but rarly to they agree, hummm, lemon is lemon is leom, so it should taste the same to everyone, unless of course…. so you get my point, it’s a bs.
    How much more helpfull would a review be if the reviewer simply stated that the whiskey in review tasted like two or three other familiar brands, and gave a few simple reference points like, it’s a “lightly sherried highland”, with that in hand the reader would be light years a head, instead of the reviewer bloviating on and on.
    This whole industry has become over hyped from top to bottom trying to convince and justify to the consumer the ridicuous prices of scotch these days.

    • Ratings, especially numbered values, may be a bit absurd, but the review process is not. One just has to remember that any review is subjective, which means it is limited by the sensory perceptions of the reviewer.

      While a lemon is indeed a lemon, how that lemon tastes to different individuals will be different (have you ever heard of a ‘supertaster’?). By this same argument we could say that Blue is Blue, but as I am more than partially colour blind, what I see as Light Gray, most people see as Blue…so who is wrong?

      The ScotchNoob often picks up banana scents where I do not, but that does not invalidate his position. To reduce things to a ‘lightly sherried highland’ negates the entire discussion within the whisky community regarding the continued validity of terroir itself, and the notion of first, second, and third fill casks in production.

      And trust me, the one thing the consumers (that includes us, the bloggers, who are trying to educate, and who are outside of the industry) want is a continued rise in the price in whisky…

  • I read tasting notes, but don’t take much notice. I usually can’t remember what i read by the time i get to tasting and i’m used to not being able to taste anything that was in the notes anyway.

    Another concise and well written article. The tasting debate rages on. My personal feeling is that they almost render themselves redundant by seldom agreeing. It’s like your horoscope varies depending on what paper you read.

    If tasting notes provide any use, its so that we have more to talk about than the histories of distilleries, and so that us bloggers don’t have to write the same content.

    Anyway! Good one. Cheers.

  • I enjoy reading your tasting notes AFTER I have composed my own notes on the dram. Having a fairly unrefined palate, its fun for me to try a whisky and say I definitely found these 3 flavors. Then I read your notes and see you found 4 other flavors. Now next time I can seek out those flavors. This helps me (IMO) to refine my own palate, and to approach the whisky different ways to further deconstruct it. Maybe next time I swirl it more, I get my nose closer, I do something different with it in my mouth, and I find some of those flavors. Or maybe I dont, and that’s fine with me too, since I’m already enjoying the dram anyways.

    The value of your blog to me is in deciding what to buy, both quality and value-wise. I consult this site before making any purchase, and am usually scrolling through reviews on my phone at the liquor store to do comparisons on bottles that have my interest. It is entirely because of this blog that my first single malt purchase was Laphroaig 10, my first bourbon was Buffalo Trace, and my first sherried malt was GlenDronach 12 over Macallan 12.

      • Dear Scotch Noob,

        I am relatively new in the single malt universe (<2 yrs.), I started with something unusual for a beginner (Laphroaig 10 … compared with the cheap and mediocre taste of the ordinary (blended) whiskey looked rough, aristocratic, and from a different world..). I also discovered in the last months your blog and it was very useful for me …. from general tasting&selecting advices to tens different reviews.

        Meanwhile I tasted (mainly using full bottles not drams ….) 8-10 different single malts, also comparing them with bourbons (JD, Four Roses Small batch..) or blended w (JW Black..), and I have two main “issues”:

        – I cannot distinguish more then 1-2 notes in nose and palate. Even in the case of the one that I personally liked more (a dream of Macallan Amber) smoothness impressed me more than the complexity of notes…

        – Some of the malts had for me the smell/taste/finish of a cheap alcohol (as JW Red label…), despite the reviews, the reputation and the presentation (I will mention here Aberlour 10 for example).

        From the nice experiences (including some “blind “tastings”J) I can mention: after I remarked similarity (but at a higher quality and finesse in the single malt) between JW Black and Cardhu 12 I’ve read in your review that Cardhu is the main malt used in Black, so the similarity “discovered” by myself had a simple explanationJ…

        Do you think that I just do not have the necessary "tongue" for a scotch drinker or this is happening to most of the normal users?

        • Tasting/identifying individual notes is a learned ability, and (I believe) not necessary for the enjoyment of the spirit. In fact, I kind-of miss being able to taste whisky and wonder at its un-nameable quality without immediately trying to put words to tastes or aromas (which is now my habit). I wouldn’t worry about it – taste is so subjective, anyway, that even if an “expert” tells you that a whisky tastes like strawberries, what matters is how it tastes (positively or negatively) to YOU. The cheap alcohol flavor/aroma is present in young malts, NAS malts with too high a proportion of young malt in the vatting, and blended whiskies with any amount of young grain whisky in the mix. I do think that you begin to ignore that flavor, as I’ve been able to sip and enjoy whiskies lately that absolutely turned me away initially (this is especially true of blends). There’s nothing wrong with avoiding whiskies that give you this aversion, though, and learning your personal preferences though observations like that. Keep on enjoying the whisky, and Cheers!

  • What would you recommend between Glendronach 12 and Balvenie 12 Doublewood? What are the main differences between these two malts? Which is closer to Macallan Amber/12yrs? (PS my local promo acquisition price for Balvenie is 10% less than Glendronach….)

    • The main difference is that GlenDronach is 100% sherried (like old-school Macallan), whereas the “double” in DoubleWood refers to the use of both sherry and ex-bourbon casks, so it’s (kind of) “half” sherried. These are just different styles – that doesn’t make either one better. ‘Dronach is fruitier, but with a dense jammy/cooked kind of fruit. DoubleWood is lighter, with more honey and cereal notes. The GlenDronach is closer to Macallan, but I usually recommend the DoubleWood first just because it is the quintessential modern single malt and can be used as a basis for comparison for everything else. Cheers!