We’ve been celebrating Whisky Month throughout May here at the Scotch Whisky Experience by shining a light on our team’s incredible expertise and passion for whisky, letting them tell their stories and showcase their enthusiasm for all things Scotch. As the month draws to a close, we’re sharing Peter Adams’ blog piece on The Shape of Whisky. However experienced you are in nosing and tasting, when it comes to trying a new dram it’s always best to keep your senses keen and your mind open: read on to see this amazing spirit in a whole new light…
“Whisky appreciation is a wonderfully gratifying hobby. Particularly when you start to notice how fine-tuned your nose has become, or how evocative the experience of trying a new dram can be. Finding the language to express how you feel about a whisky, among people who are also fluent in it, is a point of no-return for the budding Scotch enthusiast. You understand at last why people spend their lives talking about this, or why people spend unthinkable amounts of money on individual bottles of the stuff. It’s magic.
Getting there can be difficult though, particularly if you’re in a group whose knowledge and familiarity with whisky tasting is far in advance of your own. I remember being impressed, and also quite intimidated, the first time I sat in a tasting at the Scotch Whisky Experience and watched almost everyone find the words to describe what they were smelling, tasting, and feeling about their whisky. I’d never been asked to describe aromas that were so completely out of context before. Of course once you say cinnamon, or honey, or Parma Violets, then yes, of course that’s what it smells like. But I would never have gotten that on my own! These people must be genius sommeliers who’ve spent years, maybe decades practising to have such a command of their own nose.
What was also revealed over successive tastings was the sheer subjectivity of whisky tasting. The power of suggestion certainly established some orthodoxy about the more obvious flavours (no one could doubt that this one was fruity), but people often disagreed. Was it more like pears? Green apples? Or is it bananas? Realising that, of course, there was no correct answer to that question liberated me to be a little more confident in my own senses.
So the next time I tried a dram, I decided to consider it my own way: visually. I’ve always thought in a very visual way. I often solve problems by picturing them spatially, organising my thoughts like unmatched socks, or like stones on a beach. My mind’s eye tends to be very clear. Indeed, I’ve always been good at reading maps and retracing my steps, because they come clear to me in the film reel inside my head. So why not apply this to the taste of whisky? What does this whisky look like?
Closing my eyes, and asking that question, brought almost immediate results. Glenfiddich 15 year old, for example, is curved like an old arch bridge. The top surface is corrugated with little ripples that run long-ways across it. It looks really nice! It was so clear, and it made so much sense. The sweetness just looked so curvy, the mellow tingle was so clearly rippling, the fruity taste at the front of my mouth just arched as it travelled to the back. I could even see that it was quite small – which of course it was, because the finish was quite short. I can’t explain to you why this image was conjured up so effortlessly, but it described it perfectly! And then by focusing on those visual details I could start to unpack what I was tasting.
It took a while for me to explain this methodology to my colleagues; and of course, it was met with some scepticism: it sounded like utter nonsense. It was so esoteric, and weird, and I was obviously making it up on the spot. But that’s exactly the point! Tasting is made up. It’s an imagined experience, made real by our ability to talk about it together. Once I was able to explain why a certain whisky looked the way it did, then I started to get an audience. A whisky can be any shape, any size, and moving in any direction, and as long as I can see it, I can understand it, and break it down into more communicable tasting notes. For example, as a rule of thumb, heavily-peated whiskies look enormous. Bigger than I can put to scale. And that makes sense, because the ‘size’ of the whisky is almost always to do with the length of the finish, and those kinds of drams can really stick around.
Now of course, I don’t need to use these shapes. Because time has passed, drams have been consumed, and my nose and palate are up to speed. But it’s still a lot of fun to try a new dram and really, seriously think, what shape is this?”