I attended a very interesting Whisky Squad last night where the theme for the evening was competition scoring. Divided into ‘pods’ of four, we were asked to score some recent medal winning drams and then compare and contrast with colleagues within our pod to award an overall medal (or not) to six different whiskies. Scoring in a collaborative and collegial manner is quite intriguing and provides yet further proof that spirits appreciation really all is a matter of opinion.
Provided with a briefing from two current whisky award judges (who gave us the guidelines for the most recent whisky awards that they both judged) off we set. I have a few observations from this evening, that I’m still trying to work though in my head, and with some of them, frankly I’m struggling. Firstly: Scores below 60 are deemed faulty (seems completely fair enough to me), but just 10 points higher at 70 and you’re straight into the Silver Medal category. Wow. There’s very little difference relatively between a whisky deemed incorrect from a production standpoint and another whisky which would be given a prize for being indicative and representative of quality. Surely there should be more nuance than just 10 points between failure and accolade?
The second observation from last night is that of scoring the colour of a whisky. 10 points out of 100 are given for this. So ‘how do we judge and score that?’ was the immediate and obviously question. Apparently, unless there’s something plainly wrong with the whisky, then it’s just 10 points straight off the bat. I can’t imagine what would have to be wrong with a whisky for it not to get full marks here - Green mould floating across the surface, a light carbonation more commonly associated with other lower alcohol beverages?! I honestly don’t know. Anyhow, so yeah, 10 points immediately. Which means you’re effectively scoring these whiskies out of 90.
Slight oddness aside, it became very clear that there is no magic art to whisky judging. It is still all a matter of opinion. There were some widely divergent scores as personal taste reared its head, even within our pod of four. I can’t help but think that perhaps whisky could benefit from adopting aspects of approaches from elsewhere within the drinks industry - The WSET (Wine and Spirit Educational Trust) Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine provides an excellent (and scalable with experience and ability) matrix for the judging of quality. Utilising a matrix-like approach seems dreadfully middle-class business school, but it could provide baseline expectations and offer more gradation than a points scale that punishes and praises within 10% of each other.
Then again, I got the impression last night that in some ways the details of an individual’s scoring was largely irrelevant. It was the group discussion, conversation and collaboration to find that consensus point that really mattered. And that feels very like whisky to me.
One of last night’s judging drams was Aultmore 18 year old (though we tasted, noted and scored entirely blind of course). It was released in 2015 as part of Dewar’s Last Great Malts range, joining the 12 year old, 21 year old and 25 year old in the range. I believe it’s more commonly available in travel retail, but a little look on the Internet should secure you a bottle for around £80. It’s a combination of ex-bourbon casks and refill sherry casks and is bottled at 46% ABV.
Nose: Fresh and demi-sweet. The sherry influence is dainty and light (perhaps American white oak and not European oak casks for this?!), and is joined by honey, fudge and some lightly damp hay. Vanilla and red berries provide substance and are supported by light heather florals and some sharp lemon. Simple, but pleasant enough.
Taste: A good mouthfeel for both the 43% and likewise the light character of Aultmore. Honey, toffee and hay again, but now more defined with apple peels, grapes, orange zest and some real creaminess. Earthiness is still here, quite musty, almost like a forest mushroom.
Finish: Short to medium with some light pepperiness and fair amount of astringency.
Aultmore 18 year old has good mouthfeel and a simple but effective array of flavours. Tasty stuff and very indicative of the light Speyside style – it’s also just a touch dull to my palate. It sits in between the 12 year old and 21 year old and yet doesn’t necessary offer any particular distinction to either. At £80 that makes it a slightly tough proposition. Overall - well-made, light, sweet and inoffensive.