Just because we can doesn’t mean that we should. Touching clearly marked wet paint, tasting yellow snow, getting into yet another protracted discussion about whisky terroir. And so it is with the announcement that researchers at Virginia Tech are utilising artificial intelligence to ‘standardise’ tasting notes. The hypothesis (which has received grant funding) being that the language used to describe whisky is “metaphorical, messy, natural language which can be a barrier for consumers and industry professionals alike to having a shared understanding of what whiskey (sic) tastes like”. All very noble. But entirely missing the point – our experience of whisky whilst often shared *is* as individual as our olfactory systems – and this freedom of expression is fundamental. A love of language, with all its vagaries is something to cherish – not something to seek to homogenise.
Tasting notes, whether official or enthusiast-based are disordered and inconsistent – and they are regularly criticised for being overly florid, excessively specific and oft-times unfathomable as to the basis of their creation. But would a normalisation…..a taxonomy of whisky flavour as it were….actively help consumers?
Take vanilla – one of the most commonly detected and over-documented of whisky flavours – to my palate, there’s a tangible differentiation between vanilla pod (natural), vanilla essence (artificial), vanilla cream (thin) and vanilla custard (thick). Arguably an individual approach based on my personal lexicon of both flavour and language – but irrespective, a method which can be applied to identify distinctions and shades. Were vanilla to be standardised, it is unlikely that any of these personal diversities would make the cut. An observation of vanilla would simply become vanilla – the variations in the type of vanilla falling into “metaphorical, messy, natural language”. Computer says no.
As a consumer (particularly those newer to the category), the breadth of choice of whisky can prove to be an intimidation. But in losing the embellishing power of language and falling back to the lowest common denominators – how is selection improved if faced with a sea of bottles all described plainly as 'vanilla, fruit and spice'? - To say nothing of the tedium which whisky marketing would no doubt then become.
Whisky can at times be a very cold and impersonal subject – a deluge of capacities, flow rates and temperatures – the purview of the creator and the geek. But its wide appeal and sense of wonderment rarely derives from these – at least not conceptually for most people. It is through our use of language that we’re able to frame and explain both the remarkable aspects of whisky’s creation and its unfathomably broad palette of aromas and flavours. Appeal and enjoyment often derive from our personal experiences of a thing – and our shared discussions thereafter of how our experiences differed. If we're all the same what is there left to discuss?
Whisky people (as lovely as they are) already put the liquid into as many different boxes as possible – ingredients, country, region, style, age, price – over-categorisation is human nature. But there are some facets of whisky that deserve to be preserved as individual explorations of what is a very individualist appreciation. Our use of whisky language is one of them. Language is love.
Today’s review comes from TWE’s somewhat stealth released ‘Single Casks by The Whisky Exchange’. We’ve already covered a few of these bottlings in the form of review on Laphroaig, Glenburgie and Ledaig, but the extent of the wider series (which was available to those who attended The Whisky Show in London last autumn) has now been revealed with the release The Perfect Measure sample set covering all of the initial nine releases in the series. More to come no doubt.
Over the coming weeks The Dramble will be bringing you reviews of four more releases from this series – first up the 1993 25 year old Aberlour drawn from ex-bourbon hogshead #7366 which produced 162 bottles at 54.1% ABV. Still available from The Whisky Exchange directly – this will set you back £199.
Nose: Expressive and dense syrupy fruits – ripe pears, mango and papaya slices and glug of orange juices (bits left in). Polish follows – a combination of floor lacquer and Airflix glue – supported by cracked black pepper, dusty nutmeg and cinnamon sticks. In the background, buttery shortcrust pastry alongside crumbled milk chocolate and residue earthiness. Dilution resets the composition into a highly attractive frame of lemon gel, pancake batter, fairground toffee apples and slightly mineral powered sugar.
Taste: Bright, fruit-forward polish notes are up front – apricots and peaches served with orchards fruits and a twist of mint leave. Then……well the official tasting note suggests “…a background hit of spice…”, but to me this is more of an eruption – directly into my face. Huge peppery cask influence roils like a building wave – very dry, slightly mentholated and with palpable (almost Scoville scale) prickle and heat. Once subsided, behind this wall of spice is golden syrup and plenty of ginger-infused butterscotch sauce. The addition of water feels like a necessity to my palate – fortunately, its application is immediately rewarding – lemon verbena, peach melba, toasted bread and a much more earthy oakiness which presents its spice on a platter rather than with a sledgehammer.
Finish: Long and still highly spiced with Jolly Rancher (green apple) and confectioners’ sugar in the tail.
Reduced, this Whisky Exchange bottled Aberlour 1993 25 year old offers rich, concentrated fruitiness with a very likable patisserie/confectionary heart. But straight out of the bottle I found it to be a rather imbalanced struggle. Whilst the spirit character can be perceived throughout – and the nose is quite lovely for this – the palate feels crushed beneath the weight of a cask that has held back on overt oakiness, but let it rip with the spicing. I quite like a spicy dram – but this is too much even for me. A mixed outcome – but with a pipette handy, there’s a fine dram to be unearthed.
Review sample provided by The Whisky Exchange