Being disappointed comes part and parcel with being a whisky explorer. Indeed, the longer in tooth you are, the more likely it is that the let downs will start to outnumber the epiphanies. Whilst the journey always matters, it is invariably our earliest steps that offer us the broadest horizons. And there comes a point where true inspiration and fulfilment are simply far harder to unearth. But in most instances these anticlimactic moments are not based on any inherent faults or technical deficiencies with the liquid itself – they’re built on a foundation of expectations, past experiences (which may or may not be related to expectations) and taste biases.
Outside of the friendship and camaraderie wrought of sharing a whisky, expectations are one of the primary drivers of whisky exploration - the possibilities of discovering new and pleasing aromas, flavours and textures. Our hopes of finding the next big thing (ideally before everyone else snaps it up and sends it all to the secondary market). An inherent need to continually compare and contrast – to rate, rank and rave. And for some individuals, a deep-rooted expectation that complete obliteration is a valid method to make the world seem like a better place – at least for an evening – but that’s very much an altogether different piece on drinking and expectations best saved for another day.
Our ongoing experience of whisky fundamentally affects our expectations. And that doesn’t always equate to what’s actually inside our glasses. Whilst palate development is most certainly a thing – and therefore whiskies, which once were plat du jour may later be deemed to be sub-standard (which oft-times simply means “boring”), most of us will have in-built expectations of whiskies we’ve never actually tasted. A 25 year old Brora? A Karuizawa Noh or Geisha? A first taste of a Glenfarclas Family Cask from your birthyear? There are countless examples where the provenance and/or the deemed significance or rarity of a whisky alone…alongside an accompanying unobtanium price…will usually bring with it exceedingly high hopes and plenty of anticipation.
And the psychology behind how those expectations play out is often fascinating. Does the anticipation of trying a lauded bottle actually improve our experiences of sampling it? Sometimes I’ve seen precisely this occur. The moment becoming more important than the actual aromas and flavours of the whisky itself. It’s one of the reasons why dunnage drams always taste better in dunnages. But at the same time, when whisky becomes over-glorified, it has quite a way to go provide the equivalent satisfaction to its perceived renown. And I’ve equally seen countless occasions when the enjoyment of a whisky has been stifled by advance expectations of greatness. “I just though it was going to be better than this”.
Price and accessibility have their parts to play here. The expectations of trying a whisky which is for all intents and purposes unavailable are quite different to trying a whisky which is simply expensive but still a possibility to purchase. And similarly, you’d likely not be surprised to learn that everything tastes better when it’s free.
At the same time, all of us possess taste biases – we might like to think we’re opened-minded, but in reality, few of us truly are. As such, there are going to be styles and profiles of whiskies (and ages, bottlings and distilleries) which we individually hold in higher regard. Very recently, I saw someone railing on a distillery which I have a lot of time for. Yep. There’s no accounting for taste. And those biases will undoubtedly affect our expectations. If you go into a dram expecting it to disappoint – it invariably will. In precisely the same manner that your experience of something you deem to be exceptional (before ever trying it) is far more likely to subsequently turn out to be positively reinforced after the fact. The mind is a funny thing.
All that said, there are some whiskies which are just plain disappointing. Expectations, experiences, and taste biases aside. Some whiskies are just unsatisfactory. Or plain bad. And these releases will either be quickly replaced by distilleries or, bottles will languish on shelves gathering dust. But it is still important to recognise and acknowledge that not every whisky is or should be destined for greatness – were that the case, whisky would actually be a very boring place. A place of exceptional quality, but tediously uniform nonetheless.
It is the imbalances in quality (real and perceived) which make the exploration of any drink worthwhile. And similarly, whilst few of us actively enjoy being disappointed buying a dram or a bottle – this experience is nevertheless an important part the journey. Not only do these occurrences make us more realistic in our outlooks, but they are also a marker of possessing a continued passion. If you’re never disappointed, you'll likely never truly care – because to appreciate the highs, there must also always be the associated lows.
I’m habitually behind in putting pen to paper and therefore today’s review segment comes almost a year after the release of the bottle. Too much whisky - too little time. But with the advent of the 2021 Diageo Special Releases over the coming month and the prospect of a Talisker bottled “from a selection of the smokiest reserves” I thought it was high time to open my bottle of last year’s edition – also an 8 year old expression bottled at cask strength – and one where my own expectations (based on the solid 2018 8 year old release and a smattering of praise from fellow reviewers) have arguably been influenced before I’ve even cracked the seal.
The 2020 edition, of what was a clearly sizable release given how easy it is to still obtain a bottle, is offered at 57.9% and has been finished in “Caribbean rum casks”. For how long? - who knows - though given the 8 year old age statement, I’d posit, not all that long. What precisely are Caribbean rum casks – unclear (outside of not being continentally aged one imagines) - though wider reading suggests the barrels originated from Jamaican pot still distillate – that narrows it down at least. You can still pick up a bottle of this release easily – The Whisky Exchange are currently offering them for £88.95.
Nose: Vegetal, leafy and fairly ‘mashy’ in places. Buttered bread and yeasty buns sit alongside brine and pickles whilst light but tarry smoke and coastal cues of seashells and cliff faces join sweetness of pineapple rings and tartness from lime juice. Dilution expresses more typical cask-led aromas of toffee and vanilla alongside a more prominent heathery peat profile – smouldering flowers, gorse and heather – together with damp wool.
Taste: Oaty Ready Brek joins biting citrus – both lemon and lime – together with crushed aspirin and a hearty glug of olive brine. Smoked apples and bananas cooked on the BBQ in foil sit with salted caramel, whilst pepperiness develops in the back-palate alongside sour and sharp grapefruit. Water amps up the smoke with tarred ropes and floors cleaner but dulls the wider profile substantially – making for a far more basic development of random fruit, peat and indeterminant spice. Simply far better at the higher strength.
Finish: Quite long with citric pangs, touches of tobacco leaf and expected pepperiness.
The 2020 Special Release Talisker 8 year old is a good whisky. But I don't find it to be a great whisky. And in that sense, I'm a touch disappointed - especially when compared to both of the previous years’ Special Release offerings which I have enjoyed more.
As with the potent 2018 edition, this youngster doesn’t hold back, offering a concerted and concentrated experience from nose through to finish. But at the same time, and in the words of Captain Jack: “where’s the rum gone?”. There’s sweetness for sure – but blind, I doubt anyone would peg the finishing cask correctly – as its application feels vague and unsubstantive throughout. There’s a touch of hydrophobia along for the ride also – water adding a real sense of nebulousness as opposed to broadening out the experience. But despite it not quite hitting the heights expected (and that’s on me!) and lacking the wilful abandonment of polish for sheer forcefulness when directly compared to its predecessor – what remains is nevertheless authentic, tasty stuff that has retained a strong distillery profile. I like it. I just don't love it. Ack – expectations are a bitch.