Scenes from Some Whisky Tastings

In lieu of a fresh tasting note today (I have a long day and then a long evening ahead) here are some sketches by my friend Stephanie Cox of our local whisky tasting group. All sketches are used with permission of the artist and of those represented in the sketches. Use of these images without permission of the artist is forbidden and will lead to the disintegration of the corks in your most prized bottles. 

More sketches will be added to this slideshow soon, so if you enjoy these you should check back again. And if you’d like to contact the talented Stephanie you can do so at “stephaniemcox at hotmaildotcom” (replace “at” and “dot” with symbols, of course).

Read on if you’re interested in how our tasting group works:

There are 14 of us in the tasting group, of whom 8-12 make it to each monthly tasting. We mostly drink single malt whisky, but have also done one night of American whiskies (recorded in one of the sketches in the slideshow). The tastings are conducted blind (for everyone but me)–over the course of three hours we taste an ounce of each of four whiskies, discuss and compare notes and score them out of 40 points (10 each for the nose, palate, finish, and 10 wildcard points). Once the scores have been tabulated I reveal the identity/age/cask type etc. of each whisky. Despite all this these are really social gatherings with whisky involved. For each component of the total score, 5 points is the “happily drink again” point and 8 points tends to be the “man, this is great stuff” point.

Usually, the highest scoring whisky at a tasting will be in the neighbourhood of 30 points, and the median is around 26. The highest aggregate score we’ve ever given is 32 points to the Tomatin 30, 1976 (49.3%), which I guess I should review soon. And the lowest aggregate score we’ve ever given is 10 points to the Balcones Brimstone, which I am going to review as soon as I can screw up the courage to have another pour. These scores don’t map exactly onto the 100 point scale I use here: 32/40 at our tastings would be 80% but would get 90 points on my 100 point scale, and 20/40 would get 80 points. Yes, this doesn’t make any sense.

Our scores tend to vary quite widely, and on any night most whiskies have at least one person award it the highest aggregate score. And as we track the nose, palate and finish separately, it’s also interesting (to me anyway) to see how the different aspects of a whisky fare in the scoring. The wildcard score is exactly that: a wildcard. Some people use it to reward consistency, others to reward dramatic changes–pretty much anything that isn’t covered obviously by the first three categories: for instance, I gave the Balcones Brimstone 3 points on the nose, and 1 point each on the palate and finish, but 5 points for the wildcard to salute the chutzpah of the distillers who nosed and tasted this foul whisky and said, “fuck it, we’re going to release it anyway!”*.

If you are a resident of our town and you’re interested in participating, I am sorry to say that “membership” in the group is currently closed. Each tasting is restricted to 12 people, and we’re already over-subscribed. If you know someone in the group (or recognize them from the sketches) you can let them know of your interest and if anyone drops out of the group we might get in touch.

*Yes, I know that a lot of people (including people I respect) have said very positive things about this whisky, but our entire group thought it was vile all the way around (and we rarely achieve anything close to unanimity on any whisky)–perhaps our bottle was from a particularly terrible batch.

8 thoughts on “Scenes from Some Whisky Tastings

  1. Great sketches…I’m guessing mongo is the grumpy looking bearded dude. I’m not in a whisky club. I’m envious. I wish I was, but then again I may not fit in. I get together with bpbleus every now and again to taste/trade whisky but that is about it. We live in a relatively unpopulated part of the California coast so it is hard to find fellow whisky (especially scotch) anoraks. I was in Silver Lake for a tasting a few weeks ago with a friend from Burbank, but the whisky was lame so we bailed.

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    • Actually, I’m one of the few men in our group that does not sport facial hair of any kind. And, yes, we’re very lucky to have so many people in our little southern Minnesota hamlet who’re interested in whisky. Those of us who’ve been doing the tastings since the beginning (October 2010) have tasted more than 120 whiskies together.

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  2. Great stuff, mongo. Really nice sketches too. I’m curious: what is the limiting factor that holds the group to 12 (14)?

    We belong to a whisky club in NW Wyoming: 28 members but usually about 20 attend, once-a-month meetings (Sept – May), all things whisk(e)y but we focus on single malt Scotch. Geyser Brewing Co., the brew pub where we meet, provides the snacks so many of us have dinner there before the gathering. Tons of fun.

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    • Why the 12 person limit? Two reasons:

      1) It gets harder above that number to discuss the various elements of the whiskies to any serious degree. In fact it’s quite difficult with 12 too–as I noted, only about 10% of our conversation ends up being about the whisky (which is a good thing, but less than 10% and we might as well remove the whisky from the equation). In fact, our most focused sessions are smaller 6-person tastings we do once every 6-8 weeks (in addition to the regular ones)–these are the ones where we are actually able to do more rigorous evaluations. I should add that these are not tastings “led” by me. I am not very interested in telling people what they “should find” in a whisky or what I think its characteristics are. I’m more interested in hearing what everyone else finds in the whisky–and the more people there are the harder it becomes to do that.

      2) As all the whisky comes from my collection I don’t want to either finish a bottle at a tasting or have to finish it very soon after a tasting because it is down way past the halfway mark–I’d prefer to have the option to drink a whisky at least 4-5 times over a longer period of time. Twelve one-ounce pours gets us to the halfway mark–I don’t want to do smaller pours because I find one ounce (30 ml) to be the bare minimum for being able to evaluate a whisky (and I don’t find attractive at all the idea of the gonzo sessions that some people describe online, where they taste small amounts of tens of malts). Basically, it’s a compromise between wanting to share whisky with a lot of friends and not wanting to let what gets opened at the tastings determine too much what I am drinking away from the tastings, or how fast.

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  3. I don’t recall signing any release waivers for the use of my likeness! Prepared to be sued for an unreasonable portion of your advertising revenue. Settlement offers in whisky will be considered — but none of that Brimstone stuff.

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    • You obviously did not read the fine print of the waiver you signed before the first tasting. What’s that you say, you don’t remember signing a waiver? Well, it’s like this….

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