Have you ever tried a whisky one day and not liked it, but then the next time you try it, that initial perception changes for the better, or vice versa?
It’s certainly something I have experienced on a few occasions, and it is one of the main reasons why I ideally like to sample a whisky I am reviewing more than once. There are so many different factors that can affect the way our senses work, and we can’t necessarily trust them fully from a single experience.
There are steps we can take prior to tasting a whisky that help to negate this. One thing I will do before any review tasting is to sample a whisky I am very familiar with. Something matured in a refill ex-bourbon cask is ideal. I want it to be something fairly light, in order to not affect the dram I am tasting next, although I will always cleanse my palate and give plenty of time before moving on. If I am tasting it as I remember it, I know my senses are likely to be working as they should be. If it tastes a bit off, then I will abandon the days tasting.
At a recent tasting I attended with GlenAllachie, Billy Walker claimed the best time for tasting whisky was early in the morning, when our palate is fresh. I’m not quite sure I would fancy an early morning dram – and my employer may have something to say about it too – but I can certainly see the logic.
Our senses are affected by a number of factors, such as previous foods or drinks we have consumed, our physical well-being, medication we are taking, or even our current mood.
If you have recently consumed something sugary for example, the whisky will taste more towards bitter. The palate will have become accustomed to that sweet sensation, and this will accentuate the differences. You can test this yourself by tasting a whisky, drinking a sugary solution, and then repeat the tasting of the whisky. If you were to eat something salty before tasting your whisky, it will appear sweeter than it really is. Therefore, it is important to give plenty of time after meals before drinking whisky, if you really want to taste it properly. If you are just having a casual dram, then don’t worry.
Physical well-being is a more obvious factor. We all know feeling under the weather, especially if we have a cold, our sense of smell and taste will be negatively affected. Let’s not even mention the big C word we’ve heard plenty of this past year and a half!
Medications we are taking can have a major impact, and studies have shown certain medicines have chemosensory side effects, from a general dulling or loss of smell and taste, to metallic or bitter sensations being detected. The US National Library Of Medicine has a study on the Influence of medications on taste and smell, which goes into lots of detail, and individual drugs that have been found to have these side effects. Even simple over-the-counter drugs such as Aspirin and Ibuprofen can cause taste disorders in some individuals.
For me, the really interesting part of the science are the studies that have been undertaken to assess how our mood can affect our perception of smell and taste. Studies have shown that anxiety and depression appear to impair these senses. One such study pinpointed two neurotransmitters, which are low in people who are anxious or depressed. Although I am fortunate not to suffer from depression or anxiety at a clinical level, I do believe that if I am in a poor frame of mind, I do struggle to smell and taste whisky to the same level as I can when I am feeling more positive. Perhaps that is due to a lack of focus more than anything else.
How does this all tie in to the whiskies I am reviewing here? Well, I purchased 5cl miniatures for this review. I was interested in trying the whiskies, but didn’t want to commit to the 70cl bottle. After all, whisky is expensive, and unfortunately I can’t afford to buy full size bottles of everything I want to taste.
It was therefore important for me to be confident my senses were working as they should be prior to smelling and tasting. With the 5cl miniature size, I can split it into two 2.5cl tastings rather than just having one crack at it. I only wish more whisky was made available by producers in miniature form. Kudos to Angus Dundee – owners of Tomintoul and Glencadam – for selling miniatures of many of the whiskies in their ranges.
When looking at both of the ranges from those Angus Dundee owned distilleries, it is easy to be a little puzzled by the offerings from Tomintoul. Most of the range is bottled at 40%, chill filtered, and with colour added. I’m sure there are marketing reasons for this, and it does allow them to bottle a 16 year old single malt for around £40, which is near on impossible to find elsewhere. I can’t think of a single one off the top of my head. We should also be glad there are some offerings which give us a bit more punch with the ABV, and that is where we are going with this review.
Let’s start with the 14 year old, which stands out from the rest of the core range as the one that offers 46% ABV, is un-chill filtered and of natural colour. It is available from Master Of Malt priced at £43.94, and at The Whisky Exchange priced at £45.45. You could also do what I did, and get the miniature for £5.95.
Tomintoul 14 Year Old – Review
On the nose: Sharp green apple and pear is very prominent on the nose – it jumps out ahead of everything else – then creamy lemon posset and white grapes. It’s rather grassy with fresh cut grass that’s sat in a warm garden recycling bin for a day or two. Floral confectionery in the form of Turkish delight, marshmallow, powdered sugar and vanilla fudge. There’s a light earthiness at the back too struggling to come forward, but it’s there.
In the mouth: Apple again for sure, but perhaps a bit less of the pear and instead we get sour citrus lime. It’s quite spicy and peppery on the palate, possibly a little too spicy and it lingers for a short while. Once it subsides, the apple and lime are still there, but we also start to get creamy vanilla, digestive biscuit, heather honey, bitter oak and menthol mint. The spice never departs completely, and remains in the background throughout the finish, along with drying oak, Chantilly cream and apple peels.
I feel like a stuck record with the “The nose was better than the palate” line. Perhaps I should just smell whisky from now on! I thought the nose was superb, but the palate is a little disappointing. The spice rather overshadows everything, and all the other flavours play minor roles as a result. It is still a perfectly pleasant whisky, and a good price for a 14 year old age statement at 46%.
Next we move on to the non-age stated Old Ballantruan, which is a heavily peated version of Tomintoul. Interestingly, there is no specific mention on the packaging that it is distilled at Tomintoul, but I can assure you it is. The name comes from the Ballantruan spring, which provides the water for the distillery. There are also a 10 year old and 15 year old available. All are made using malted barley peated to a hefty 55ppm, bottled at a decent ABV of 50% and un-chill filtered. Unfortunately, there has been some caramel colour added. It is available from Master Of Malt priced at £37.20, and The Whisky Exchange priced at £38.95. Again, you can get the miniature for £5.25.
Old Ballantruan – Review
Colour: Warm gold.
On the nose: Creamy highland toffee, together with medicinal peat – first aid boxes and antiseptic cream – and a dry, dusty earthiness. We also have sweet eating apples, vanilla milkshake, grassy notes of hay and silage, with mixed dry herbs.
In the mouth: Thick and coating on the palate. Very creamy and toffee’d at first, before the peat quickly begins to show itself in the form of powerful, dry, ashen, bonfire smoke, along with a kick of peppery spice. The smoke lingers throughout, but as it subsides a little, the medicinal nature of the peat begins to reveal itself again, with the antiseptic notes returning, together with savoury smoked bacon, some sour lemon and menthol mint. There is a salty earthiness too; like warm pebbles on a hot beach. The finish is long and lingering, with creamy vanilla, apple peels, light oak, salt, pepper and the persistent ashy smoke.
I really like this one. You get all the sweet, salty, sour, bitter and savoury flavours working beautifully well together. I think fans of Kilkerran’s Heavily Peated releases will also be fans of this. There are certainly similarities, but the Old Ballantruan is slightly less sweet and earthier in nature. I would even dare to say this is a notch above the Kilkerran, and much easier to find a bottle. It represents decent value for money and I would thoroughly recommend it to any peated malt lover. A hidden gem, that is perhaps not on as many people’s radar as it should be.
Photos courtesy of Tomintoul.