First impressions are everything, or so the saying goes. In a fraction of a second, we can judge how attractive a person’s face is, how much we can trust them, and how likely they would be to get something done. But first impressions are far from perfect. Biases can mangle our judgements and there are times when first impressions don’t last.
We make quick judgements about whiskies too. First, the colour – some are attracted to whiskies dark as night and others towards whiskies that are almost transparent. Then we read the label to decide if we can trust the brand and the legal wording – is the whisky from Johnnie Walker or Johnny Warder? Plus, numbers and facts tell us where the whisky is from, how old it is, and how strong it is. We take a lot in with our eyes alone.
In the glass, we can usually make a rough judgement after the first sniff and sip. We can quickly work out if we like a whisky or not, and get a good idea of its style, perhaps even produce some tasting notes. But there’s a reason why job interviews always last longer than 15 seconds and some even last for days. We need more than a single sniff and sip to make a detailed judgement of a whisky.
However, we don’t always decide how much of a whisky we get to try. The volume of whisky we sample varies by setting and by regional regulations. At the Whisky Show Old & Rare, where I purchased today’s sample, the pour size was a mere 10ml, which is standard for a UK festival. Bar drams in some countries are not much larger at only 15ml or 20ml. Drams in UK bars are more generous at 25ml, while US portions tend to be characteristically supersized at 1.5 fl oz, a whopping 43ml.
Dram sizes in other settings vary even more. At UK tastings, I’ve seen everything from 10ml to 50ml per dram, with 25ml the most common measure. At home, where we can choose our own dram size, some people use mini glasses and have mini drams, while others pour almost by the pint. We might mostly be happy to judge whiskies after one dram, but the one dram I had may not be the same size as the one dram you had.
How much liquid is enough to assess a whisky? There’s no easy answer. The first dram of a bottle can taste rather different to the last, but that doesn’t mean a full 700ml is required to reach a reasonable conclusion. The relationship between whisky amount and judgement quality is not linear: 700ml does not give you a whisky judgement twice as good as 350ml. A 2ml shop sample will only let you learn only a little. A small 10ml dram will give you much, much more to go on. A typical 30ml dram gives a bit extra and more flexibility to experiment with dilution. Further 30ml drams, though, will provide diminishing returns.
It’s not just the dram size that affects the quality of our judgements, though. The situation matters too. Tasting a 10ml dram with a 1920s blender’s glass in a controlled setting will tell you more about it than tasting 50ml from a tall plastic cup in a nightclub. And you’ll likely extract better notes from a 40% floral whisky if you’re not tasting it after a Vindaloo and a pint of cask strength Laphroaig. If you have a full bottle of a whisky you can find out if the situation affects the experience by tasting the whisky with different glassware, in different lineups, and with different friends. With a small sample you have to make it count and that’s why I waited for the right moment to try today’s whisky.
This review is of a sample on the smaller side. I purchased a 10ml sample of this whisky for £3 from the Whisky-Online Auctions stand at the Whisky Show Old & Rare 2020. The whisky was distilled at Benrinnes in 1974, matured in sherry butt #2579 for 21 years, and bottled by Signatory Vintage in 1996 at 43% ABV.
Nose: Opens light and sweet on apples, with old bottle effects of dusty metal in the background. Time in the glass brings caramelised almonds, hazelnut skins, and currants. A little longer and the bookshelf dust overpowers the fruits and nuts. Like a lot of lower ABV old bottles this is not the most complex nose, but it’s entirely pleasant and without any harsh edges.
Taste: Ooft! Ginger spice and tannins hit first – the taste is woodier than the nose let on. The mouthfeel is medium thickness with some tannic cling. But it’s not too dry, as the development brings juiciness: some currants and sultanas plus a whole punnet of red grapes. There are also almost sour old bottle tropical notes of dusty pineapple and mango.
Finish: Medium length on red grape juice and drying wood tannins.
I’m glad I bought this sample. This Benrinnes balances its old sherry and old bottle effect characters well throughout and the taste also has a good balance between woodiness and freshness. As for the quantity, 10ml was enough for a reasonable impression of the whisky. A larger sample would have enabled me to explore changes from dilution – here, a few drops didn’t have a huge effect – and to revisit how the nose changes in the glass. Buying a smaller quantity of this dram meant I could try a greater quantity of drams overall from the show, so purchasing only 10ml was a fine compromise. But despite the saying, first impressions aren’t everything, so I might try to meet this whisky again if I can.