The original release of this bottling offered an unusual opportunity: a blind tasting in a bottle. The bottle specified only that the mystery within was a single malt Scotch whisky at 46% ABV, bottled by Berry Brothers & Rudd for Royal Mile Whiskies. The challenge given was to guess the distillery and the age of the whisky. Whoever got it right, or got closest, would win a special tasting and dinner at the Berry Bros. cellars.
Other bottlings with a blind tasting element generally have a known distillery – see Glenlivet Cipher and Bruichladdich Black Art – and/or an answer that may never be revealed, like the routine indie releases of mystery Islay and Speyside single malts. This Berry’s bottle presented a more typical whisky club blind tasting challenge, but one that you didn’t have to leave the house for.
Remember leaving the house? It was nice when we did that. The current situation, as it is so menacingly referred to, has at least done some good. Like this Berry’s bottling, the lockdown has opened blind tasting up to people who can’t typically attend tastings in bars or pubs. Brands are sending out sample bottles by the pallet, whisky clubs now have Zoom pro subscriptions, and friends are finding ingenious ways to share samples. Physical distancing doesn’t have to mean social distancing.
But tasting blind isn’t always a joy. For some people, it’s ruddy stressful. As the spotlight shines on the taster and a bead of sweat rolls down their forehead, they flash back to school exam failures and forget what country Scotch is from. In the wrong environment, even experienced blind tasters still get that feeling, especially if they feel they might be getting tricked into making a wildly inaccurate guess. But it shouldn’t be that way.
A better environment is in a group, where all except the organiser are tasting blind. At its best, this format can enable tables of tasters to lean on each other’s culinary references, tasting abilities, and whisky knowledge. At its worst, the power of suggestion leads everyone in the group to make a guess in the wrong hemisphere. What’s that saying about the blind leading the blind?
Blind tasting isn’t just about guessing, though, it’s about having a dram of whisky free from preconceptions. Tasting blind leaves you free to judge what you like without being biased by branding. You can decide how much you’d really pay for a bottle without anchoring your guess on the shelf price. And you’re also free to nose and taste without being told what other people smell and taste, opening you up to a whole new realm of possible descriptors.
Freedom isn’t free, though – we pay for it by guessing that the dram of Bell’s in front of us is a 30 year old Islay malt. You have to accept that you will make blunders when tasting blind. Sometimes those blunders are well reasoned, sometimes you didn’t have the reference points to do any better, and sometimes it’s just not your day. You live and learn.
If you want to improve at blind guessing, get strategic with your drinking. Simple blind challenges, even at home, serve as ideal training. For starters, pour two drams of one whisky of one dram of another whisky, and try to find the matching pair. Advanced attempts can involve coded sample bottles from friends living down the road or on the other side of the world. Practice makes perfect and drinking whisky sounds like perfect practice to me.
Today’s whisky was distilled at Caol Ila in 2008, filled into cask #314308 and aged for 10 years before being bottled in 2019. As mentioned above, it was independently bottled at 46% ABV by Berry Brothers & Rudd as a Royal Mile Whiskies exclusive. The RRP for the bottle was £59.99.
Nose: A welcoming salty sea breeze floats above earthy mulch and beach fire ashes. The lemon zest squeezing through is almost sour, and there are other sour smells here too – active yeasty washback and hints of sour milk. Adding water reduces the saltiness and sourness, focusing the aromas on ashy woodsmoke with underlying sweet malt.
Taste: Sweet arrival on malt, lemon, and grilled pineapple, followed by blasts of slate rock, sea salt, and ashy smoke. The mouthfeel is medium to oily. The sour off notes from the nose are thankfully quiet now, overwhelmed by the salt and smoke. When paired with a salted cashew to dull the salt, the sour unfinished washback is back in full force and joined in the background by hops, burnt white bread, and new rubber. Like with the nose, water concentrates the taste on woodsmoke.
Finish: Medium to long, with clean smoke at the back palate and sweet malt and citrus at the front. Water lengthens the finish and makes it even smokier.
I first tasted this blind together with my wife Caroline, who was rightly thinking it was from Islay. I was far off. First, I guessed peated Loch Lomond, then I went with Ardmore after checking through lists of previous Berry Brothers bottlings. The curse of knowledge – and Google – leads many a blind taster astray. Often it’s better to go with your instincts on the distillery, age, and ABV separately rather than trying to centre all guesses around one specific cask or bottling. Blind and unblind, I like this Caol Ila, and I’ve seen it impress others blind at a Royal Mile Whiskies tasting. But now that this release is no longer a blind tasting in a bottle, its unique selling point isn’t quite there. Perhaps this won’t be the last blind challenge bottling – I’ll keep practicing just in case.