How I Write About Whisky

While churning out blog posts in anticipation of my impending fatherhood (Yay! I’m gonna be a dad!) and thus period of not sleeping, it occurred to me that my regular readers might enjoy learning a bit about my process. The development of a good whisky review post is not a simple matter of sipping a dram and writing some notes. Here are the steps I generally follow, in more-or-less the correct order:

1. Source the whisky.

The whisky I review comes from, basically, anywhere I can get it. I buy maybe 10 bottles of whisky per year, mostly with proceeds from advertising on the site. I also buy a copious amount of Master of Malt Drinks by the Dram 30 ml sample bottles. Seriously, if you’re trying to expand your whisky horizons, there is no better way to do it than with a few dozen sample bottles from MoM. I also receive a handful of sample bottles from Distributors, Importers, and PR/Marketing firms, mostly after begging for them. I attend K&L Wednesday evening spirits tastings when they’re pouring something I haven’t had (I spend a lot of time there nosing and writing careful notes). I buy 50 ml miniatures (“minis”) whenever I find them for whiskies I haven’t reviewed yet, but this is increasingly rare. In the past I frequented two bars in my area with decent whisky selections, but I found that a busy bar is not the best place to write tasting notes, and I’ve mostly exhausted their selections anyway. Finally, I get a few samples from friends who buy bottles or by trading via mail with other bloggers or whisky fans. I should note that while I have a whisky tasting group (which splits bottles and meets at restaurant to taste them), I can’t really write notes at a dinner and I can’t bring any leftovers home. Also, while I’ve attended a few whisky conventions (WhiskyFest and Whiskies of the World), those are absolutely the worst way to get tasting notes – the few notes I record on my phone are incoherent and hugely biased by the assault of previous whiskies on my palate. I never post reviews based on tastings at events where more than three whiskies are poured.

2. Taste.

If I’m at home, I choose a clean, dry Glencairn glass (for consistent tastings, I always use the same type of glass). I pour the sample, swirl it a few times, and let it rest for at least 1 minute to avoid any volatile aromas that might be lurking in a sealed bottle. I look at the color (although I rarely write about it, since color means very little to taste or aroma, and there’s only so many ways you can recombine the words ‘amber’ and ‘golden’), and then test the aroma by starting with my nose about two inches above the glass. I slowly work my way closer, stopping for fresh air and to write down anything I encounter, including my (very valuable) first impression. I spend anywhere from three to ten minutes just nosing. Then I sip, hold the liquid in my mouth for at least 10 seconds (usually longer), while I write stream-of-consciousness style. I swallow, and continue writing about the finish, waiting until it fades completely. Then, I repeat the same process to look for notes I missed. Sometimes, if the whisky is particularly biting or sharp, I will allow the glass to rest for up to 10 minutes before trying again. Next I add a few drops of room temperature filtered water (Brita) (I use a glass eye dropper), swirl, wait 30 seconds, and repeat the process again to determine how water affects the dram. For a cask-strength whisky, I’ll generally dilute it further (to around 50%) to note any differences at that strength. Finally I’ll write my conclusions.

Fun fact: I assign a number (1 to 100) rating to each whisky, which I never, ever, divulge to anyone, ever. Read here for an explanation of why.

3. Research.

I spend an unhealthy amount of time pouring through a stack of (8 or so) whisky books and then correlating my findings with scraps of unsubstantiated info from the Web. Oddly enough, the official websites of distilleries are the absolute worst place to find information. What little info there is, is skewed by marketing nonsense and is too vague to be useful. Even basic things like ABV, age, and barrel composition are so obscured by the “fog of marketing war” that I scarcely bother trying anymore. I also spend some time averaging bottle prices from online retailers (I rely heavily on – my local go-to shop for the best prices anywhere). When I’m reviewing a whisky from a distillery I haven’t reviewed in the past, I spend even more time writing and archiving the “About the Distillery” section. Note: I intentionally avoid reading any tasting notes about the whisky so that my review won’t be biased or altered by other reviewers.

4. Write.

Next, I take all of my notes (which are in Evernote) and create a new WordPress post, usually by cloning a similar post from another whisky from the same distillery or region. I then come up with something pithy or funny to say about the whisky, with varying levels of success, and mold all of the notes into a cohesive whole, including buying recommendations, and then proof-read the whole thing. Sometimes there is a long time lag between the tasting and the writing, if I have a large backlog of tastings (from a glut of samples, a lot of free time, or a tasting event). Often, my mom also proof-reads it. Even though she doesn’t like whisky, she loves me. Thanks, mom!

5. Sweat The Details.

I source a bottle image from Google Images, and alter it to fit the style of my site using Photoshop. This usually means removing backgrounds, resizing, adding a consistent “mirror” shadow to the bottom, and placing it on a white background. If I can get an “official” marketing image for the bottle, I always use that. I also accumulate factual information (price paid, distillery location, ABV, etc.), link anything that needs to be a link (or a cross-link within my site) and proofread the whole post again. I save this as a draft, either scheduling it for the following Monday morning, or saving it as a draft for the future. Each Monday after the post goes live, I link to it on Twitter and Facebook.

There you have it. A lot of work goes into these posts, and sometimes I just don’t feel like going through the effort, which is why it’s a good idea for me to have a backlog of drafts. Of course, sometimes I’m inspired to write an article or an opinion piece (like this one), which is usually a much simpler process of regurgitating everything in my head into Evernote, polishing and filling it out, proof-reading, and posting. Cheers!

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  • Congratulations, SN!!! I’m a fairly recent addition to the ranks of dads myself. I’m excited for you. Keep us updated.

    Thanks for the rundown on your review/posting process. It’s nice to know that stuff as it helps me understand the context of your reviews (which have helped me in my whisky purchasing, so thanks for that). And thank your mom too.

  • I appreciate/enjoy the “fun facts” about the whiskies/distilleries almost as much as the drams themselves. My favorite little brain nugget I’ve found so far: lagavulin, in it’s early stages, was an attempt to replicate laphroaig. Crazy!

  • Thanks for describing your process! I suspect I know many of them, but I’d be curious what reference books you use, if you would be willing to divulge them.

    • Sure, I use the latest versions of Michael Jackson’s Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch, and Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible. I don’t really focus on the tasting notes, since I don’t want to adjust my own to fit the “experts”, but more to see what expressions from the same distillery are similar. I rely heavily on Dave Broom’s Whisky Atlas, and a book called Malt Whisky by Charles MacClean. I also have a quirky little paperback called Whisky on the Rocks by Stephen & Julie Cribb which has info on the geology of Scotland as it affects the malts, which is invaluable. I have Michael Jackson’s Scotland and its Whiskies, which is really more for info on the towns and terrain of Scotland. Finally, I have a stack of Whisky (and Malt) Advocate issues. Cheers!