I bought this bottle based on a glowing review with a high score. And – spoiler alert – I don’t like it as much as that reviewer did. Sure, this whisky has an older age, a natural presentation, and was sold for a fair price. But Glenallachie isn’t a distillery I normally go out of my way for, so with no samples available, I would have left it on the shelf were it not for that review. I’ve been spoiled by getting into whisky in Edinburgh and now by living in London, which means I can often taste before I decide to buy. Most whisky drinkers aren’t so fortunate.
Out of necessity, many whisky drinkers buy primarily based on specs or reviews. If you’ve been around whisky for a little while, you’ve probably encountered the standard advice for consuming whisky tasting notes and reviews. The typical recommendation is that you should read a variety of writers and compare their notes to yours on given whiskies. By doing so, you can decipher the scrolls and understand how their notes on a dram will relate to the experience you’ll have with it. But that’s easier said than done. To understand how you personally experience one writer’s “quince jelly” takes a fair bit of skill, a good bit of money, and far too many trips to supermarket jam sections.
Translating tasting notes is hard enough, but when deciding what to buy we also need to understand how another person’s scores might predict ours. This is an ongoing process of reading, sampling, and re-reading. Eventually, we get a fair idea of whose tastes we believe are similar to ours, and with that we get the confidence to buy based on the words we read and the numbers we see from our favourite whisky writers.
So you buy a whisky based on a review, uncork it and taste it. Can you have an unbiased opinion? Forget blind tasting, the 9/10 or 90 points stare you in the face at every sip.
And what if you then find you disagree with the rave review? If you’re like me, you might doubt your own experience and start reassessing your notes and your opinions, perhaps even trying to convince yourself differently. It’s the same feeling you would get if you were are a classic rock fan finding yourself bored with Led Zeppelin IV or a budding 1980s horror buff apathetic about The Shining.
Processing reviews for anything you know and like is a careful balance. It probably does make sense to give a whisky a bit more time and thought if others have raved about it. But the old chestnut that “no one can tell you you’re wrong” does ring true. After all, we do taste whisky with our own tastebuds, not anyone else’s. We have to trust ourselves more than we trust the ramblings and ratings of others. Perhaps, like the customer, “the taster is always right”?
Today’s whisky was distilled at Glenallachie in 1992, aged for 26 years in a bourbon hogshead, and bottled in spring 2019 for Cadenhead’s Authentic Collection. It is non-chillfiltered, natural colour and bottled at a cask strength of 54.8% ABV. At release, it was priced at around £102 in the UK.
Nose: Lightly wafted but forward on blanched hazelnuts, milk chocolate, caramel, and roasted malt. The combination would make for a great chocolate bar. With air, the smell is sweeter, turning towards white chocolate and pale malt. Water amplifies the caramel and adds toffee.
Taste: Nutty and sweet, with an arrival of almond skins and milk chocolate. The development brings pale malt, lemon zest, and fizzy sweets. A few drops of water roasts the nuts, but adding more water tones down the nuttiness and amplifies the citrus.
Finish: Sweet on milk chocolate and hazelnuts, with wood spices and tannins lingering on the back palate.
This Glenallachie has some flavours that could come from a straight bourbon or a sherry cask malt – chocolate and nuts – but here they’re clearly delivered in the package of a bourbon cask malt whisky. It delivers a different experience to most Speysiders of this age and maturation, with less fresh fruit and more artificial sweetness, combined with spirit character and bourbon cask influence. This whisky is a great example of the kinds of whiskies Cadenhead’s puts out on a regular basis. But it doesn’t quite live up to the high hopes I had based on the review I read. And you can’t tell me I’m wrong about that – after all, the taster is always right.