I don’t believe I’ve mentioned it yet on Malt as I have done on social media, but this year I’m one of the two official tasters for the leading publication Whisky Magazine. It’s quite the honour – many great names have graced the review pages of the magazine in the past. I’ve written previously for this publication – indeed, I’ve two other articles in this month’s issue – but it’s fantastic to be invited on board as a reviewer. It also means getting paid to drink whisky. Which is nice.
Here’s a shot of the first page of reviews this month (taken from the digital edition), which was the first time I got to see what the whiskies actually were. As you can see, the magazine covers a varied selection of whiskies from across the world. Tasting alongside Laura Foster, we gave our joint highest rating to the Usquaebach Scotch Whisky Usquaebach An Ard Ri Cask Strength – which completely surprised me. Also we enjoyed this fantastic Sullivans Cove French Oak Cask Matured whisky and a Lady of the Glen Aultmore. And it’s nice to see that I personally rated two single cask GlenDronachs quite highly – long-term readers of Malt will know I’m a fan of this distillery, but since we tasted all of these whiskies blind I had no idea it was actually GlenDronach in the glass at the time. Reassuring that I’m not kidding myself.
In fact, with that in mind, I thought I’d share some of what goes on with the process for the magazine. As mentioned – and as you would expect – the whiskies are all tasted blind, much like the way it is for a spirits competition. Once every few weeks a great big box of samples arrives at your home and, once you unpack it all, it looks a bit like this:
I suppose they’re not 100% blind. As is the same with competitions, tasters are provided with some basic information, mainly region and strength, or if it’s a blend, single malt, single grain and so on. There are absolutely no brand names present, nor do you really know if a whisky is from an independent or a proprietary bottling.
We had just a couple of weeks to work through the samples, nosing and tasting, jotting down notes and so forth. Personally, I tried to sample about 6 or 7 of the whiskies a night, over three consecutive nights, at around the same time. And no spicy or particularly strong-flavoured food in the hours beforehand. I left the empties on the table to refer to the aromas if I needed to. If one reminded me of another from a previous evening, I could jog my memory. That was enough to maintain some consistency, but not enough to burn out my palate in any one session. And I used ISO Type tasting glasses for all of them, rather than Glencairns. In fact, I generally do most of my drinking in the ISO glasses these days.
There is a set of criteria with regards to the tasting notes themselves – largely the format they take, and the word count for each section, all of which is for the sake of consistency. This is the same format that’s been used for many years. And finally there’s the scoring, which is out of 100. In a nutshell, anything around 70 is just all right, 80 is very good, and above 90 is outstanding. That’s possibly the hardest thing for me, as on Malt I make a habit of not issuing scores – but when you’ve got 20-odd whiskies to summarise each month, then the numbers makes a nice shorthand reference.
So there we go. I get to do this about 8 or 9 times this year, so pick up a subscription if you want to read even more of my tasting notes throughout 2017. Oh, and if you get it this month, there’s another part of my history of Scotch whisky advertising, and a feature in the Irish supplement on Waterford Distillery.