Who am I to tell you what is good whisky and what isn’t?
Believe me, this question has haunted me since I sat down to right my first article for Malt. I always felt I could spin a decent yarn; but was my palate and taste discernment refined enough to pass judgement on what is the product of literally years of labour? No whisky that I reviewed isn’t the culmination of countless hours of hard work and passion, and I also don’t believe any Master Distiller or Blender is sending out products they believe to be bad (maybe Johnnie Walker Red).
As one of the leading whisky review sites on the web, a good or bad score here could have a meaningful impact for a new product. Therefore, when producing my notes and scores, I do try to spend as much time as I can with each glass, and return to the bottle at least once to reaffirm my feelings.
Recently I’ve noticed my scores skewing high, but that might be because when I am shelling out my own limited funds for a bottle – no gifted samples here – I prefer to spend it on something I think I might continue to enjoy after the review is done.
My confidence was shaken recently when reviewing North Star’s 12-Year-Old Orkney from their seventh outturn. I noticed on the side of the bottle that among the aroma notes listed was “salty sea air.” I could not smell any maritime notes – though I did get them on the palate – and dismissed this as marketing fluff.
After finishing that piece, I did something I often do and read other reviews of the same bottle, to see what other critics made of it. And this is where the problem started. Over on Whisky Fun, Serge noted that he smelled “a briny and acidic noise… beach sand at low tide.” Angus wrote “… crushed sea shells… a mash tun full of seawater… beach sand, bath salts”.
I didn’t get any of that and, upon returning to the bottle a few times, I still don’t. However, Serge and Angus are giants in this field and have some of the best tasting notes in the business.
Was I right then, or were the team at Whisky Fun right? Can we both be right? Are tasting/smelling notes entirely subjective and there is no right and wrong? But, if that is the case and there is no objective truth, what is the point of tasting notes at all?
To explore this line of enquiry further, I asked a favour from a friend in the Australian whisky community. Travis, known as The Whisky Ninja on Twitter and on his Blog, runs Whisky Flights in Canberra, a chance to spend an evening sampling a curated flight of whiskies and often meet the distiller. I have long read his work and trust his views on whisky implicitly. I reached out to Travis and sent him a sample of a whisky and asked him to provide me with full tasting notes. I would prepare my own without seeing his, and then compare the two.
The whisky I chose, for no other reason than it was unopened in my collection, was Raasay Distillery’s Last Orders, the fifth and final instalment in their While We Wait series. Several bottlings in this series have been reviewed here on Malt and a range from Raasay was reviewed by The Whisky Sleuth earlier this year. Raasay are now releasing official bottlings but it appears, in Australia at least, this bottle is still widely available. I bought it rather cheaply down Victoria’s Surf Coast, indicating perhaps public interest has moved on and these final bottles are clogging up inventories.
It is bottled at 46% ABV and was matured for 5 years in ex-bourbon casks and finished in first and second fill Tuscan red wine casks for 18 months. Raasay tell us this imparted “a bounty of dark fruit flavours”, but let’s see what Travis and I can taste.
Isle of Raasay While We Wait “Last Orders” – Travis’ Review
Colour: Pale gold.
On the nose: Burnt toffee, lemon peel, Werther’s Originals, and a touch of white wine. Fairly big grassy notes, with hints of peat smoke lingering in the background.
In the mouth: Quite herbal, and a little sour; perhaps still just a touch young, with a slight burn on the first sip. Decent weight on the tongue – but not incredible. After the first sip I’m getting sponge cake with lemon icing, honey snaps, and fresh cane juice. On the finish I get some of the herbal notes from the nose, along with lots of lemon and honey – with just the faintest hint of smoke.
It’s interesting, and the more I drink it the more I like it, but I’m still not sure I’d fork out for a bottle.
Isle of Raasay While We Wait “Last Orders” – Mark’s Review
Colour: Light gold
On the nose: Bready and doughy scents, like passing a bakery at 6 AM. Custard pastries, cream donuts. Further with honeys and golden syrup, stewed rhubarb and baked peaches. Moving on with some flaxseed oil rubbed into wood and oakiness. This is clean and modern; if a little one dimensional on balance.
In the mouth: A light and drying mouthfeel, some alcohol and youthfulness to the fore. Then on the back of the palate comes something like chocolate flavoured mousse, coffee beans and melted butter. Are there dark fruit flavours per the website description? I think so: plums and dates. Then with more time I get orange peel, red grapes, bay leaves with a light ashy-ness and some stubbed out cigars. This is a quality dram and I concur with the positive impressions from Malt’s earlier Raasay reviews.
Thanks to Travis for his assistance.
It is fascinating – to me at least – to observe the differences and similarities between our notes. I think the burnt toffee and Werther’s Originals Travis received on the nose align with the custard pastries and cream donuts that I picked up. On the palate we both observed lightness, youth and alcohol and the light hints of smoke/ash. I also think the sponge cake, lemon icing and honey Travis detected likely lines up with the orange peel, red grapes and melted butter that I observed.
It fills me with some confidence that we both ended up on the same score. And, for what it’s worth, our ‘colour’ assignation was almost identical!
Evrim, in his recent Caskshare article, opined that tasting notes will vary based on personal experience and background. When reviewing a dram, all I can do is report to you my own truth. For now, it is enough for me to know I am on the right track in my overall judgement of the dram.
Reviewing whisky is like developing any skill – it requires repetition, research, refinement and an enjoyment in the craft. And – going back to where this all begun – a love of whisky. When that goes, and this is a chore, will be the day to give this caper away.