In 2001 a group of students at the University of Bordeaux were asked to taste two glasses of wine – one red, one white. They invariably described the red wine as “jammy” and offering notes of red fruits and berries. They failed to note that both wines were in fact completely identical, save for one being coloured red using a flavourless dye. A somewhat unkind experiment, but one which highlights that biases are both regular in drinks tastings, and that regardless of wine or whisky, a taster’s judgements are easily influenced and prejudiced by external stimulus or additional information (which may or may not be correct).
Whether consciously or unconsciously we’re all susceptible to predispositions – and not just of the colour of a drink. Country and/or distillery of origin, style, age, price, cask style - knowing any of these things will influence your expectations of a whisky simply though the power of perception. You expect a more expensive whisky to possess more of the desirable characteristics that you believe are found in expensive whiskies – and therefore if you’re told it’s expensive you’ll likely find aspects of it to be so. You suppose a whisky bottle adorned with maritime imagery to taste of the sea. And when you taste it salt, salinity and coastalness will likely appear in your whisky vocabulary.
Still not convinced? Hold a tasting with your mates and pour two identical unspecified whiskies. Sample one with a background soundtrack of meadows, fields and farms, and the other with a recording of seaside noises. Then just sit back and wait for two sets of completely different tasting notes. It’s as simple as that.
Offering drinkers blind tastings invariably has an ability to conjure up a variety of emotions. Excitement in trying something new. Fear of incorrectly guessing. Frustration of completely missing the cues that others seem to pick up on. And just occasionally, when the olfactory memory kicks in, a sense of jubilation.
Tasting blind can be frustrating. We’re all pre-conditioned to combine our sense of smell and taste experiences with that of external knowledge. And no one likes to feel like they’re coming across as an idiot. But whilst there can be a sense of nervousness in making guesses without the comfort of known truths, blind tastings are nevertheless a highly useful educational tool for the continued development of your palate. They’re not just for those looking to undertake qualifications (where the blind tasting module habitually causes panic) – they will help develop your whisky associations without prejudices - which will ultimately improve your overall understanding of whisky and particularly your assessment of the most personal of measures – that of value.
Today’s review of the Drumshanbo Inaugural Release was (initially) tasted blind this Saturday past as part of the always entertaining #BlindDrams Consortium over on Twitter. It was then supplemented with a second (Iess rushed) review session where the whiskey was given more time in the glass and offered some hydration.
The bottling is produced by The Shed Distillery of PJ Rigney, situated in Drumshanbo, Country Leitrim. Better known for their Gunpowder Irish Gin – which I’ve got a recollection of trying with Dramble Webmaster Danny as part of his gin magazine subscription. But I have to confess that the release of this first whisky from The Shed totally passed me by. Too much whisky, too little time.
Researching the release for this piece has however offered some amusement. From the description of the Holstein stills (a company founded in Germany in 1958) as “medieval pot stills”. To the slightly more esoteric filling schedule…. the first cask distilled at Drumshanbo was integrated into this wider release (I wouldn’t have, but there you go). It was filled on 21st of December 2014 to coincide with the exact time of the transit into the Winter Solstice. The significance of this isn’t explained, but in all honestly, I’m just thankful that magnetic fields and AU’s from the Sun are mercifully omitted from the maturation description. I guess it’s at least a little different from a Christmas Day first distillation and likely, by the 21st everyone just wanted to pack up and head home for the festive season.
The whiskey is triple distilled, single pot still in type, crafted from malted and unmalted barley with an addition of Barra oats (a moderately yielding variety which was originally cultivated in Sweden). It has been matured for four years in both ex-bourbon and ex-oloroso sherry casks before being bottled (12,000 of them – not too shabby for a first release) at 46%. You’ll still find the release for sale as of writing at € 80.00.
Nose: Pears poached with cardamom sit alongside lemon posset and sliced green apple. Crushed nettles, leaf mulch offer a ‘damp’, vegetal and vegetable note, whilst crumbled digestive biscuits and golden caster sugar are sprinkled over a French crepe. The botanic mustiness persists once reduced – decomposing plant-life and water-logged carpets with touches of cask-influenced vanilla.
Taste: A silky arrival with feels fresher than the nose – more pears, this time spiced with ginger and pepper, alongside apple and apricot yoghurt. Golden syrup is joined by rolled hay and charred pepperiness whilst cream custard and split vanilla pod sit with a squeeze of lemon juice. Dilution increases sweetness with candy canes, icing sugar and touches of barley water – it also adds a youthful sense of copperiness from thrupenny bits.
Finish: Rather brief with pepper and mentholated oak
It’s fair to say that there were some attending the #BlindDram event who really didn’t take well to the nose of the Drumshanbo Inaugural Release. I find myself less adverse to this highly vegetative character, but nevertheless will observe that this ‘wet’ quality runs throughout and feels quite disconnected to both the underlying fruitiness of the pot still distillate as well as from the from the sweetness that has derived from the maturation. The palate surpasses the nose with a brighter, creamier quality, and a more convincing integration of the hay-like notes sans the moisture. Overall, not unlikable - but it’s a whiskey I’d personally probably prefer to revisit again once it’s got a few more years under its belt and at that point, hopefully a better harmonisation of its elements.