So in the middle of a bit of a dry spell on my finances (and therefore my ability to buy and review new whiskies), perhaps I should explain my ratings system to everyone. First off, my ratings are subjective – wholly and completely subjective. There is not a whit of hard “fact” about them – however they DO reflect what I taste and smell and perceive about a given whisky. In attempting to rate a whisky, I consider four separate characteristics: the presentation of the whisky, the nose (for newbies, what smells I perceive in the dram), the palate (what I taste as the whisky goes over my tongue), and the finish (effectively the after-taste).
People (and I have been told this directly by a couple of friends of mine) say that presentation of a bottle does not matter – it doesn’t affect the dram in question. They are both completely correct – and utterly and completely wrong. Obviously, I COULD fill a (brand new, clean, etc) 2L pop bottle with, for example, my three bottles of Bruichladdich Black Art, and it would still be Bruichladdich Black Art. (for the record, I would NEVER do such a thing, and anyone who DOES should be shot) From the perspective of pouring a drink, it makes no difference. However, I consider the creation of whisky to be an art form (and you may feel free to argue with me if you choose) – and the presentation of the whisky – the bottle, the colour of the dram, the box or tin the bottle comes in – to be a part of the artistic endeavour of the distiller in question. While the presentation does not affect the TASTE of the whisky, it does affect the experience of the tasting – for this reason, I rank the presentation. I place high importance on reflecting the nature of the distillery itself, and the specific product in the presentation of the dram, as well as colour, apparent viscosity, and overall artistic merit. A 5 means that the whisky is well presented for what it is, looks pleasing in the glass, and was presented artistically. A 1 would suggest that someone actually HAD decided to put a whisky in a 2L pop bottle (and assumes that I would purchase such a monstrosity).
The nose of a whisky is, to me, like a handshake between two strangers. It’s a meeting – a first impression – a sizing up. A drams nose needs to be approachable and honest – I look for a nose that reflects the nature of the whisky, and also one which will draw me into the whisky rather than push me away. I try to use several minutes – and several sniffs – to properly nose the whisky, ensuring that the complexity that’s there (if any) comes out. Ultimately, I’m looking for something I enjoy, and that gives me an idea what the whisky is going to be like. A 5 would be given for something that is exceptionally pleasing to the nose throughout, and is a true representative at least of the taste of the whisky. A 3 would be for something that smells pleasant and gives at least some representation of the whiskies taste. I have not, as yet, encountered anything so bad as to deserve a 1, and I hope never to do so. That said, a 1 in this category would pretty much smell like manure.
The palate of a whisky is ultimately the tastes that I perceive as it crosses my tongue. I look for something that tastes good, something that is complex, and that the taster can really get in to and turn into an experience – something that exemplifies the art of whisky production. For the record, I never take my whisky with water. I don’t think there’s anything WRONG with it specifically, but it’s not my preference. What I write is tasted exactly as it comes out of the bottle. I also do not judge the palate with respect to any other characteristic – it stands on its own. I consider taste (personal preference), complexity, balance, and universality in my ranking. I personally enjoy a very peaty dram, however many people do not and would be turned off of the experience by a heavily peated whisky, and I endeavour to reflect that. A 5 would be given to a truly beautiful, complex, and pretty universally enjoyable dram. A 3 would be something that is generally average – nothing spectacular about it, or something good, but very limited in its scope to the average drinker. A 1 would be Johnny Walker Red Label, or some other such thing I would have drunk in university in an attempt to look classy.
The finish is, to me, the most important part of the whisky – it’s the part that stays with you long after everything else is gone. A beautiful finish can salvage a below average dram, and a poor one can poison an otherwise fantastic experience. I look for pleasant aftertaste, and how long it lasts primarily. A 5 would generally be a complex, long-lasting, and truly wonderful finish. A 3 would be overall good, but generally lacking either complexity or longevity. A 1 would require a good tooth-brushing to remove the taste.
In my later posts, I attempt to give an overview of the dram as a whole – how it’s intended that you experience it – rather than as a sum of parts – again, entirely subjective. As with everything else in life, ratings are negotiable. I adjust the numbers a touch as I see fit – if I’m blown away, if I’m underwhelmed, if I really enjoy something, but I expect most people won’t (or visa versa) – I’ll adjust my rating accordingly. I do not claim to be an expert in the field (I’m not), nor do I claim to have the final word on what to taste in a dram (I don’t). This blog is just a guide – to my sense of taste, to my feel for a dram – to give you my impressions.
Kind regards, and happy drinking,