Can’t find the words for the whisky…..

…well sometimes, neither can I.

I haven’t written here for quite some time. It’s been a bit of a year hasn’t it? And I always said, I will only write when something triggers me to do so. Much of my thinking time this year has been captured by politics and climate issues, and when I have a spark of a topic, it’s disappeared pretty quickly as more important thoughts come into my head. So with all that in mind, I haven’t written much. I won’t ask for forgiveness, I never said this would be a regular gig.

Many people blog about whisky therefore many topics are covered. I won’t necessarily write about any particular whiskies here as there are great whisky review blogs out there. You don’t need my opinion as well.

I have however embarked on a little series on Instagram called #12Under30, where I choose an easily accessible whisky to write about. The whole idea is that its always under £30, easy to find and doesn’t bust your budget, especially if you are new to whisky. Its at @cevokins on IG.

Now, believe or not, all this rambling on does lead to the point of this piece, and why I am writing it.

I’ve been drinking (and enjoying) whisky seriously for around 9 yrs. 7 of which have been ‘guided’ and yet I will still call myself a newbie to the drink and the industry. Others may disagree; I have around 80 bottles (all open) at home, ranging in price from £20 – £800+, though the average is around £65 – £80. I have a couple of hundred dramples (drams/samples) from swaps or tastings. I have had the privilege of working for a well known independent bottler at London whisky shows over the last few yrs, I have had a stint at Milroys in Spitalfields, and take part in online tastings. In reality, I can hold my own when chatting about whisky, but I do it my way.

You see, I still feel, as I said quite new to whisky and my early experiences still sit quite fresh in mind.

I remember my first paid for, professionally given tasting at The Soho Whisky Club. I felt so out of my depth. I was in a room of what I thought were experienced whisky drinkers and as we were going through the drams all these nose and palate notes were being thrown around and all I could think was this “Vanilla, I can taste vanilla”. That was it. By the 5th dram I was half cut, promising to buy a bottle of Coal Ila and had another 2 drams to go. (I learned pretty quick you don’t have to drink the WHOLE dram at a tasting, I also learned to bring my credit card with me).

But back to the tasting notes; vanilla. That’s all I could name for my first few tastings. Then one day I got blackcurrant, I wrote it down and showed my friend. When the person giving the tasting said that we may pick up black currant in the notes I was elated!! I was getting better.

It actually took me a good year or so to my head around a couple of things. Firstly, my palate wasn’t rubbish, it was just not used in the way we use it in whisky. Most of taste is from smell, its also very much from suggestion (hence if you ever meet me on a whisky table, I will not give you tasting notes before you try the whisky). The way the brain works with the scent and taste senses is complex. A fleeting smell, less than a quarter of a second can trigger a memory or a feeling, and then that connects to the smell that was there with that memory or feeling and if you are lucky you can name it. But more often than not, the process is so quick its gone before we can recall it.

Other times the smell and taste are wonderfully obvious, and we can connect them quickly to words.

Over time I have found my nose and palate has developed well within my own parameters and experience (this is important!!!). For example, I will never say I can detect crème brullee within a whisky. I’ve never had one, so how can I. But for me the same whisky may give burned brown sugar and custard creams.

I also have little tricks I’ve learned to detect different smells in a whisky, from how I angle the glass, to closing nostrils (one at a time), to breathing in through my nose with my mouth open (try it, weird but you get different scents). I also still rub a little of the whisky on the back of my hand, let the alcohol dry off and I am left with another layer of scent.

When drinking, I sip first, enough to cover my tongue, but not enough to swallow, make a note. Then a normal sip, make another note. Then a 10-20 second stint just holding the liquid in my mouth, make another note. Take a sip, hold my nose, hold the liquid for a 10 secs, swallow, release nose, make a note. All these little exercises get the liquid and tiny particles to different parts of your mouth and nose, and all those parts give different experiences of scent and flavour. But please believe me, I only really do this in tastings.

Going back to my point of “Can’t find the words for the whisky”. The other day I was on a tasting, a few of you reading this were likely on that same tasting (it’s an online Twitter one).

The whiskies we were trying were created by their team to be accessible both financially and by flavour for the drinker, especially those who are new to whisky. With that in mind I entered into this tasting with my “newbie” head on. If a whisky is to be for a new drammer, then its not going to be complex with multiple layers of nose and palate notes. It needs to allow the drammer to identify at least one flavour note easily, it’s a confidence builder. And for me, these drams absolutely nailed the brief. They were simple, with between 1-4 main notes. They were sweet. They were very smooth. They avoided all the things that people who don’t like whisky say; “it burns, it makes me retch, its like TCP”. One was a little too one dimensional for me, but that’s me, someone who has been drinking and tasting whisky for coming up to a decade, not someone who recently decided to try whisky.

As the tasting went on, I was amused (amused is the politest word I can think of) when I saw notes with lists of seven or more scents/tastes per dram. Look, you can say “Custard cream, crème brulee, hints of Devonshire clotted cream with a dash of Madagascan tesco finest icecream” as much as you like. But in reality you’ve used 4 terms to describe vanilla. JUST SAY VANILLA!!!!

Again, these drams were not complex nor crafted to be and I feel sometimes we forget that. If I was new to whisky and was told that whisky “a” at cost “b” was a great place to start your whisky journey, then saw all these tasting notes, I would be terrified that I was a complete idiot if I couldn’t find all those flavours.

The online tasting community is brilliant, but I do feel sometimes there is a weird competition to come up with the most complex, unusual tasting notes. (Nosing I understand, it is more evocative than tasting, but seriously!!). Do we really need ten ways to describe lemon? Do we mix flavour up with something else? Sweet is sweet, salty is salty, and they sit at different parts of our mouth and tongue. Lime and salt trigger the same part of tongue, they are interchangeable. Wet and dry, thin and thick, all what we call “mouthfeel”, literally how something feels in your mouth.

I do understand that tasting notes are likely from personal experience, but honestly, when was the last time you laid in a field eating sweet sticky sileage with a side of burned Pirelli tyre rubber?

Continuing with words in whisky, I saw a conversation the other day where a whisky had been described as “entry level” and that peated whisky was a seen as a point of being a more experienced drinker and if you like it you have progressed. What absolute nonsense.

Using this kind of language really keeps the “club” going, like there is some kind of progression route and until you can drink “a, b and c” then you can’t try or appreciate “x,y and z”.

There is a thing called “Dunning – Kruger” syndrome/affect, and I do wonder if this is part of the situation. (Google it, is that you??)

There is no hierarchy and if people try to claim one, they need to check their drinking ego. My first whisky was Aberlour 12, hated it. My second was Talisker 10, blooming loved it. My preferred whisky has always been peated, and oh, I love a filthy Ledaig. My whisky collection is probably a 70/30 split of peated/unpeated.

Words like entry and beginner can either degrade the person drinking it, or the whisky itself. If it’s an easy sipper, like the drams we had on the tasting noted above, lets think about using the word  “accessible”. Open for everyone. Maybe we can have something a little more complex afterwards to balance the tastebuds?

Whisky is an inclusive drink, so I for one will be more careful about keeping that inclusivity with the words I use. I don’t want to be responsible for putting someone off what is fundamentally a wonderful drink with a wonderful (generally) community drinking it.

Final thoughts: Its just a drink. Drink it how you want, don’t worry if you can’t find the flavours everyone else is (they’re probably making it up anyway). Find your own flavours, from your life experience, find the scents from your own memories.

It’s your whisky, in your glass, in your hand and only you are drinking it. (though I will question your tyre eating habits).


Claire 30 August 2021

Published by Claire Vokins

My am involved in whisky and horticulture. I own a small professional garden care company with a focus on working in a sustainable way. Whisky enthusiast. Studying "Politics, Philosophy and Economics" with the Open University. Stoic.

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