In an era where marketing usually gives the consumer a preconception toward the marketed product, blind tastings are underutilized.
Just in case you’re not familiar with what a blind tasting is: it’s a tasting wherein what you’re drinking isn’t identified. At most, you can tell if it’s aged or not. One of the goals is to remove any bias. There’s usually a theme and a progression. You can get creative with themes. For example: if you can, do a line-up of NAS Arrans aged or finished in different ex-wine casks. I know they’ve released different expressions finished in ex-Port, Sherry, Madeira, Amarone and Sauternes casks. With this, the distillery DNA is consistent, so that’s one less variable to worry about. At the same time, you’re learning what flavors each type of ex-wine cask lends to Arran, and possibly to other single malts of the same style.
Progression usually goes from lightest (in flavor) and lowest in ABV to heaviest (in flavor) and highest in ABV. For Scotch, the peated ones go in the middle to last, depending on what’s in your line up.
I first learned of this from the wine industry. In the movie Somm about sommeliers and what it takes to become a master (wine) sommelier (a.k.a. M.S.), it was shown that a blind tasting is a part of the test. If I recall correctly, a few things the test takers have to guess are the wine’s origin, vintage, and grape varietal(s). This part of the exam, I think, encourages aspiring M.S. to remove any type of bias towards wine and just take in each wine’s characteristics. It also forces the test takers to keep on trying and going back to different kinds of wine.
In case you might be thinking “But sommelier is about wines; wine is not a spirit,” let me tell you who else uses blind tastings: The WSET (Wine and Spirits Education Trust) Spirits Level 3 exam and two of the most respected spirits competitions in the world, the ISC (International Spirits Competition) and the IWSC (International Wine & Spirits Competition). My memory is hazy, but I recall WSET requiring the test taker to correctly guess the spirit and give tasting notes to justify the guess.
If you’re wondering why I mentioned competitions: a lot of other competitions are “pay to win,” meaning certain brands pay to get their gold and double gold medals. A lot of the judges also, often, don’t have the right credentials.
A lot of people are still skeptical towards blind tastings. But, let me say if blind tastings weren’t used in competitions, then the French and the rest of the world might still look down on American wine. Read The Judgment of Paris or watch the movie Bottle Shock for more context. Also, Kavalan wouldn’t be this big now if they didn’t enter a whisky competition that judged the samples blind. I think this was in 2015, wherein they won a gold or best in the competition.
Years before COVID, I occasionally hosted blind spirit tastings with friends and/or acquaintances who were curious about spirits. The line-ups would range from just whisk(e)y to being rum, agave spirits, and brandy. They all enjoyed judging and guessing what was in their glass without any prejudice. It even led to them appreciating other spirits more. As a result, I started wondering why brands didn’t host blind tastings.
Being cautious that asking this from a big brand wouldn’t give me a reliable answer, I once asked a brand ambassador who used to work for a medium-sized company. The answer I got was that blind tastings don’t work.
At this time, this medium-sized company was still well-liked. It’s a different story now with them showing a willingness to do anything to get their way. I get along well with this brand ambassador, but the company’s ethical issues made me doubt any answer coming from them.
I unintentionally learned of another answer when I recently hosted a blind tasting. This tasting consisted of six samples, all of which were from one distillery. They were a mix of basic expressions to limited releases. Let me add that this is a really popular and well-liked brand. I went from regular expressions, which have a lower ABV, to limited releases bottled at cask strength.
As expected, the results were varied. But, more importantly, the different tasters all had similar comments after we went through the line-up. Each of them found certain expressions to be faulty when they went back to the other samples.
It’s obvious that without marketing, brands are unable to pull the wool over people’s eyes. Most likely, if they did blind tastings, it’s possible that some of their brands will lose fans after seeing their products through a clearer lens. Also, blind tastings would render marketing useless, which would be like them throwing away money. We all know that they love money. It would also mean that it would be harder for the blind tasting’s host to stick to a script, since the questions might be more varied and could lead to them giving bullshit answers or saying they don’t know.
This topic came about because I was recently sent a blind sample of Macallan’s new The Harmony Collection Rich Cacao. It seems that after their Teletubby editions, they’re now starting with another series of shenanigans.
When I tasted the sample blind, I immediately thought this was a shell & tube-condensed Speyside or Highland Scotch, something that’s similar to the profile and lightness of Glengoyne or Glenlivet. The flavors I got were dried apricots, honey, apples, honeydew melons, grapes, hay, and orange cough syrup. I had a laugh when this was revealed to me, mainly because the sender knows I detest Macallan. The other reason is: for something with Rich Cacao on the label, I didn’t get any noticeable cacao notes in it. This added another surprise since, like most Macallans, this is a blend of whisky aged in European and American oak seasoned with sherry.
Macallan The Harmony Collection Rich Cacao – Review
On the nose: Light, watery, and a bit peppery. I get light aromas of honey, dried apricots, roasted coffee beans, honeydew melons, hay, orange-flavored gummy bears and chocolate barley.
In the mouth: Light but not as watery as on the nose. For something so light, I find the lingering but light ethanol sharpness to be a nuisance. I get light tastes of dried apricots, orange-flavored cough syrup, sulfur, honey, cereals and cantaloupes.
The name “Rich Cacao” is very misleading. As mentioned above, I don’t sense any richness of cacao here. Mind you, my senses aren’t desensitized towards chocolate. I barely eat any in a month.
This is Macallan taking another piss aimed down our throats. Even with the price from Master of Malt, €114.50, this isn’t worth it. SRP here is P13,500 (around USD $270) and HKD $1850 (around USD $260) which makes it comparable to throwing away gold. In no way is this whisky worth that kind of money.
If you’re someone with more sense than money, why support this? Whether you’re buying this for your collection or for an investment, you’re part of the problem that’s plaguing whisky and its prices. Paying for releases like this is like you enabling a junkie family member. Just stop it. Make Macallan stop and think about what they’re doing.
If you think this is a great whisky, then you’re either pandering to Macallan or you need to drink better stuff.
(at the Master of Malt price, 3/10 at local and Total Wine prices)
Thanks to the sender for sending me this, otherwise, I wouldn’t have gotten to try this whisky, since I don’t like paying for contemporary Edrington products.
Image courtesy of Macallan.