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Map Is Not Territory. Where to with Whisky Reviews?

Given the dozens of new bottlings released every month, the limited amount of alcohol our livers can (and should) take, as well as our all too narrow budgets, orientation is key when it comes to buying whisky. It is not by accident that questions like “Should I get this whisky?”, “Is this one worth a shot?”, or “I like this distillery, which one should I try next?” are among the most frequent ones in whisky-related social media groups. Not least fuelled by FOMO, people want to know if a certain bottling might be down their alley or a pass.

To begin with, one should therefore know one’s alleys and have an overall sense of where one likes to be headed. After all, what good does it do, if one purchases a whisky that everyone else is fond of, only to find out that its sulphuric/floral/nutty/medicinal/custard/etc. style is not really one’s cup of whisky? It helps to know one’s overall taste and to have some points of orientation in deciding which one to buy next. Yet, it is also important to remain open-minded and willing to explore new alleys which inevitably involves running into dead ends every here and then but also can bring one to new places that one did not know one was missing out before. Nowhere have I learned more about whisky and its many alleys than in real-world, live interactions with fellow whisky-drinkers. So, I encourage you to visit your local bars, dealers, and fairs. Get involved with, learn from, and support these actual people by buying your whisky from them – especially during these difficult times. Predatory and tax-evading websites named after rivers won’t spend hours chatting about whisky or counselling you which one to buy because they appreciate you as a regular customer and have gotten to know your taste over the years.

Most certainly, the best way to find out if one should buy a certain bottle is to try before one buys. Have one or two drams and then decide if you would like to go for it. Yet, well-sorted whisky bars, shops, or fairs are not always close by, and samples are not always readily available. This is where the countless whisky-related sites, blogs, vlogs, magazines, publications, and other resources come in as a prime source of information. Numerous authors and bloggers have written great and very useful stuff about whisky. There is a very active whiskybase on the web Serge Valentin and his readers have lots of fun with whisky, this site has uploads on a daily basis, and Ralfy reviews a new whisky every week – to name only some of the most prominent sites on the web. In print, there are numerous books to refer to and even a “Bible” written by a strange prophet who likes to wear summer hats and seems to change the colour of his eyes on a yearly basis according to the covers of his book.

Whisky reviews on the web and in print share three general features. Most of them use scoring systems and ascribe a numerical score to the whisky under review. I find these scores quite useful when it comes to learning at a glance if a whisky is outstanding or not, as they give a firm and easily comparable sense of there one stand with this one. However, scores don’t tell much about the whisky at hand – imagine a bottle of whisky in your hand that has an 87 written all-over and nothing else to offer. At least, you would probably like to know the distillery, age, ABV, and the type of casks used during maturation? Ralfy has quite some interesting thoughts on the information that should come on a bottle, so I won’t get into this here. Second, every reviewer has his*her own style of presentation and stories to tell, but I won’t get into these either, as I wish to focus on the third general feature that their reviews share: the tasting notes and other descriptions of the whisky under review. I seek to find out where these notes can take one and how they can help one to make up one’s mind about a given whisky.

In what amounts to an uncontrolled comparison but comes quite close to what one would normally do, I juxtapose and compare various tasting notes. Let me stress that I am not about judging if someone’s notes are right or wrong – palates and preferences differ –; nor am I about reviewing reviewers either – I am not a literary critic, and it is great to have so many different styles out there. I aim at assessing what one can get from different tasting notes and how they might help one to learn something about a given whisky. To facilitate this comparison and to enable you to partake in this project (if you should wish so), I have opted for a rather common and quite prominent whisky that many authors have written about and that you could easily get a hold of: the recently rebranded Deanston 12 Years Old.

As a procedure, I have first tasted the whisky on my own and taken my personal notes (so, if you’d like to partake in this project, maybe stop reading here and take the first step for yourself?). Thereafter, I have searched the web and some books for tasting notes and compiled these together. To limit my comparison, my compilation does not include the many different notes found on whiskybase.com nor those provided by commercial sites (besides the official ones). For a second round, I have tasted the whisky again, checking my impressions against those I found in the collected notes. Thereafter, I have compared these notes with each other and my own. Lastly, I have generated a word cloud from the assembled reviews to visualize their correspondences and to check back on my comparison. Assessing and comparing the tasting notes, I use the following markings:

• the underlined sections highlight notes which I fully agree with or share;
bold notes appear to be widely shared;
• the crossed-out parts demarcate notes that I could not find in my glass;
italicized words were unclear or simply unknown to me (we all take inspiration for our notes from personal culinary experiences, and something like fresh egg custard is as mysterious to me as Bergische Waffeln mit Pumpernickel might be to you);
• the parts I left unmarked did not really strike a chord with me, nor did I disagree with them, these notes might well be there, but they did not really matter or occur to me.

In the process, I have used a sample that a friend has gifted me with. The Deanston 12 Years Old comes at 46,3% without colouring or chill-filtration and has been matured in bourbon casks. You can shop a bottle at X £ on Y or at X £ via Z, but preferably just get it from your local dealers. Let us start with my own notes and then move on to the others. Given the rather extensive length of the comparative section, you could also skip this part and move directly to the final section following the word cloud to learn what I have made of these different notes and their comparison.

Deanston 12 Years Old – review

Ben’s personal notes taken on April 14, 2020 (without underlining, as these are my own):

Colour: a light hue, Chardonnay.

On the nose: floral-cereal, toast with honey and butter, vanilla, oranges, apples, some pears.

In the mouth: creamy-chewy, toast with honey and butter, stewed apples with a touch of vanilla, some soft citrus fruits and pears, round.

Finish: honey, vanilla, apples, medium with a slight edge and some bitter notes, cereal.

Conclusions

Quite round besides the finish which is a bit off with the bitter notes, cereal-fruity, apples with vanilla and the toast with honey and butter, not too gentle, quite pleasant overall.

Score: 6/10

The official notes

On the nose: fresh hays of summer, malty cereal, rich creamy toffee and honeyed heather, balanced with sweet oak and barley sugar.

In the mouth: smooth creamy sweetness with sumptuous hints of fruit, malty honeyed spiciness and soft vanilla.

Finish: crisp and satisfying with a tingle of cloves which linger, then gently fade.

Malt-review.com

We find, in chronological order, reviews by John, April 2, 2020:

Colour: hay.

On the nose: sharp but pleasant notes of honey and oak. They’re quickly followed by ginger ale, stewed apple, coconuts sugar syrup, ginger. It’s rounded off by dried apricots, dried figs and hints of tannins with some sneaky cloves.

In the mouth: a pleasantly mellow welcome of honey and ginger syrup, banana syrup, stewed apples. Then some sharp and mildly tannic notes with cloves arise. More apple concentrate, dried apricot, banana liqueur and hints of latte come out to round everything off.

Score: 6/10

I like the Deanston 12 a lot. It’s sweet and full of tropical fruits. If the 46.3% scares you, then don’t be scared. It hits more like a 43% spirit but has the body and mouthfeel of a 46% whisky. This lacks some depth and complexity though, but that’s expected for a 12-year-old.

I haven’t been following Ralfy lately. So, I can’t say if this is really the best whisky, he had for 2019. But I can see why he would make this his whisky of the year for 2020. It’s a straight-forward and easy to drink, but not interesting (sic!) 12 year old, non-chill-filtered, bottled at 46.3%. What you get on the nose is what you will get in the mouth. For something that’s about $60, this is a great deal and a great everyday sipper if you’re sick of bestselling brands. The label is also pretty nice as it acknowledges the different steps and people responsible for making the whisky.

Jason’s review

Published August 17, 2017.

Colour: a light honey.

On the nose: more of the honey but matched with a gentle sweet cinnamon, a malty vibe and a twist of orange. There’s shortbread and a touch of ginger, some hops and raisins. With water, a maple sweetness is revealed and cream soda before the vanilla comes through more strongly.

In the mouth: a vanilla cream is my first impression, then oat biscuits with an array of nuts. Beyond there’s chocolate, more malty flavours and a sugary sweetness with caramel and apples. On the finish a hint of cinnamon before the addition of water delivers fudge and marzipan.

Mark’s review

Published November 28, 2016.

Colour: amber.

On the nose: heather honey and a very attractive maltiness. Creamy vanilla custard. A gentle oak note. Perfumed and sweetly floral – old roses. Then that malted barley quality comes back. It really is a lovely balance between the sweet and savoury aromas.

In the mouth: fantastic oily texture, and ever so slightly waxy. A lighter honey than the nose. Milk chocolate. Hazelnut praline. Huge toffee notes in the middle, with a spot of golden syrup, and then that gorgeous malted barley quality from the nose becomes more apparent. The finish is long and warming, without the oak being too dominant. A wonderful bit of blending.

Whiskyfun.com

Serge Valentin has tasted and scored the Deanston 12 Years Old lastly in December 2017:

Colour: pale gold.

On the nose: there’s more happening in this one, I’d add that it’s a little wilder, earthier, with even wee whiffs of coal smoke, then rather grapefruits and limestone, rather ala unsherried Highland Park. Leaves, tobacco, a touch of curry powder, unexpected oysters (one tiny flat oyster)… In short, this one has more substance and more asperities, as we say. But it was bottled at 46% vol., undeniably a smart move.

In the mouth: ho ho ho! Lemons covered with iron filings, shoe polish, barley water, and one drop of olive oil. Perfect body and feeling on the palate.

Finish: rather long, with a little green pepper and funny notes of mezcal.

Comments: the missing link between Springbank and Highland Park? Love it as much as I loved the 15, great job done on this youngster! Deanston’s becoming a name to watch closely… Oh and I love this mention on the label, ‘Un-chill filtered, exactly as it should be’. Apparently, they’re right.

SGP:561 – 87 points.

Ralfy.com

Ralf (“Ralfy”) Mitchell has given the Deanston 12 Years Old 89 points and crowned it his whisky of the year 2020, certainly contributing to the present interest in it:

On the nose: cereal rich, slight vanilla, honey, refreshing, zesty, spirity without being salvanty, young, balance on spot, a slight apple note, touch of banana, a little bit of fresh egg custard; with water a slight perfume note.

In the mouth: measured arrival, sharp, spicy, hot spices, richness and intensity of the flavour, a light caramelised toffee note, fresh wood note, a challenging malt; with water flavour prolonged, measured, complex arrival, perfect balance of spirits and cask, not a clean malt, grain rich, green campher, a little bit of spearmint, fruits: pear, apple, fresh banana, grapefruit jam, a little bit of anis.

Finish: lemon oil, lemon juice, grapefruit conserve, jasmine tea, subtle, very delicate, an absolute pleasure, a joy.

Malt Whisky Yearbook 2019

Gavin Smith describes the Deanston 12 as:

A fresh, fruity nose with malt and honey. The palate displays cloves, ginger, honey and malt, while the finish is long, quite dry and pleasantly herbal.

Whiskypedia (2018 edition)

Charles MacLean assesses the Deanston 12 as:

Style: waxy, light, fruity.
Mature character: lightly oily on the nose, with cereal notes. The taste is malty and fruity and lightly nutty, starting sweetish and finishing dryish. Light-to medium-bodied.

Michael Jackson’s Malt Whisky Companion (5th edition, 2004)

Describes the Deanston 12 (old version) as very good, but gives it a score of 70 only:

On the nose: linseed oil.
Body: light, smooth, soothing.
Palate: malty, drying in finish; reminiscent of a lightly nutty, dry sherry.
Finish: again, very light, but a touch of nuttiness; in character, less of a Highland malt than a very good Lowlander.

Score: 70

Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2017

The prophet with the summer hat and changing eye colours has come up with:

The delivery is, for a brief moment, a malty/orangery delight. But the nose is painfully out of sync and finish is full of bitter, undesirable elements. A lot of work still required to get this up to a second grade malt, let alone a top flight one.

Score: 75 points

A Word Cloud Generated from the Assembled Notes

On Maps and Territories

So, what can we make of this compilation and comparison?

One finding is that it is fun and always good to compare. Chasing the various notes in my dram was a bit like playing hide and seek. A juxtaposition and comparison of different reviews gives one are more comprehensive, complex, and even contradictory impression of a certain whisky. Comparing reviews, one also comes to appreciate the different styles, references, and preferences of their writers. Assessing their notes against my own has helped me to discern whose descriptions, references, and tastes are closer to mine. The reviews differ in their scores and notes. The authors have different palates, the toolboxes they get their references from differ, and their styles of writing are not the same. Furthermore, they did not have drams from the same bottle, most likely not even from the same batch, so it would have come as a surprise if they had agreed on everything. Nonetheless, I did not find all the collected notes in my dram, and I would even beg to differ about the nuts and the chocolate that some writers have found in theirs. Yet, the different notes also largely agree on certain traits or characteristics, so that an overall profile of the Deanston 12 Years Old and its general style emerges from their juxtaposition.

Overall, the Deanston 12 Years Old is described as a malty, cereal rich whisky with prominent honey and vanilla notes, its fruity aspects remind the writers of apples, pears, and citrus fruits, the mouthfeel is creamy, and the whisky displays a sweetish to dryish development from palate to finish. The opinions on the finish are quite mixed which might be due to varying batches or to the writers’ different preferences. Several writers mention chocolatey and nutty notes which I could not find in my dram. Juxtaposing and comparing these reviews, I have thus come up with an overall profile or “map” of the Deanston 12 Years Old which allows me to gain a general sense of the direction where it is headed. If this profile is something down your alley or a pass is up for you to decide, but now you have something to draw on in making up your mind as well. Drawing on these resources, one can sketch out a map or panoramic view of the landscape that a whisky covers but moving across its territory and appreciating the various notes it develops as one drinks it make for a whole different story. Whisky on one’s palate will always differ from what one can learn about it on the web and in books.

  1. Avatar

    I’m not sure where this is going. In fact I am always surprised by people (especially reviewers) having this epiphany of tasting notes being unscientific and sometimes contradictory. People have different tastes and we are not wakling spectrophotometers. We simply need to identify other people who we trust most or who seem to have a similar preference (especially when it comes to the more quirky notes like sulphur).

    Wasn’t that clear already? There’s even a blog doing meta scores as a USP, comparing different sources (whiskyanalysis.com). The same can be said about car reviews, stereos, tv’s or smartphones. It’s rare for a product to be evaluated and liked by everyone to the same extent.

    As a side note, I don’t think aroma maps / clouds are the solution. It will only result in 90% of all whisky hovering around malt, honey, vanilla and apples.

    1. Avatar
      Ben says:

      Thanks for your thoughts and comment!

      This essay was kind of a digression through various whisky reviews to see what one can gain from or make of them, so I am not too sure where this is going either if it wasn’t just for a walk around the block.

      As you might have read, we are more or less on the same page regarding the fact that tasting notes will always differ, but I wouldn’t blame it only on different tastes; neither would I like to be a measuring device, nor would I expect anyone else to serve as one 😉 But I agree that this was quite clear already before I took off for my walk.

      Your conclusion, to identify those reviewers who seem trustworthy and share the same preferences as oneself, is certainly one way to find one’s orientation through the tons of reviews on the web, but there are also some other possible conclusions that I highlight in my text.

      The word cloud was more or less a doublecheck on the “overall profile” I have derived from comparing the different notes, and it was not intended as a solution for anything (but see some other comments below). It is just part of an overall picture that I have attempted to draw in this text. Nontheless, I would be surprised if a word cloud for a 10yo Laphroaig would look or read as one for a 12yo Glenkinchie 😉

      Thanks for the whiskyanalysis link. I wasn’t aware of that site and think that it is quite a good case in point regarding my short comments on scoring whiskies.

      Cheers!

  2. Avatar
    Gareth says:

    What a brilliant article! More please. Is there a book in the offing? “The Whisky Map”. I would certainly buy it. Loved it. A lot is written these days about the importance of transparency, terror, quality ingredients, care and passion in Whisky making, which is as it should be, but ultimately what we all want is flavour, and flavours which ‘we’ enjoy, in our hard earned purchases. Keep up the good work.

    1. Avatar
      Ben says:

      Many thanks, appreciate it!
      I will write another piece whenever I find the time to do so 🙂

      I don’t know if you know Blair Bowman’s The Pocket Guide to Whisky (2017). This booklet is quite nice, not very pricey, and plays around with another kind of “whisky map” than the one suggested by my word cloud.

      Actually, there is a book of my own in the making, but it has nothing to do with whisky I am afraid…

  3. Avatar
    TheWhiskySleuth says:

    Really enjoyed this piece! Great idea. As a very visual person I find that style of word cloud you’ve done extremely easy to absorb in a flash. Tells me exactly what the main and supporting notes are. Now you just need a tech geek to write some flash algorithm and trawl the net to compile these for all major releases. Your piece also highlights that Serge’s taste buds are just on another planet and he is probably drinking tequila most of the time. Gave up on his notes a long time ago.

    1. Avatar
      Ben says:

      Many thanks, appreciate it!

      As I have no clue about any algorithm whatsoever, I would be more than happy if someone else would do that job…

      I think that Serge’s notes are just another landmark to find one’s sense of orientation, but frequently more fun than other landmarks on the web. If or how one uses them for oneself is, obviously, up to oneself 😉

      1. Avatar
        James Sampford says:

        I enjoyed it – wordcloud for every Malt article going forward. I think there is something in amalgamating multiple notes.

  4. Avatar
    Craig says:

    Excellent article. Some really good ones recently (particularly that bimber article that I disagree with yet enjoyed thoroughly).
    I’m enjoying writers finding something new and fresh to explore. Keep up the good worm

  5. Avatar
    Darren says:

    Any review or tasting that is not done blind and does not involve tasting the whisky on several occasions over a fairly lengthy period is flawed. I am afraid Youtubers and Bloggers tasting a 20ml sample over a 10 minute period provides very little insight for me.

  6. Alex
    Alex says:

    Hi Ben,

    Great stuff. What an interesting read and fantastic way of pointing out we’re all different and that relying on others to help you guide you to what’s good is a mistake.

    An interesting experiment. Thank you.

    Cheers
    Alex

    1. Avatar
      Ben says:

      many thanks, appreciate it!

      I wouldn’t call it a mistake though. Take others’ notes and opinions with a grain (or spoon) of salt and come up with your own. However, it is still nice to be able to gain some sense of orientation – if one wishes so 😉 -, but it is also nice to be (positively) surprised and discover for oneself 🙂

  7. Jojo
    Jojo says:

    Rather interesting article. It just highlights the fact that each one of us are different in so many ways – we have different experiences that relate to whatever we are drinking, for example. And that there’s no standard in whisky reviews, nor should there be.

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