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Kahnversation #1: Blind Whiskey Tasting

Posted 5:17 PM by

The words blind and tasting, when uttered together, have been known to strike fear in the hearts of so-called wine, beer or spirits ‘experts.’ Friends, it is not the ‘tasting’ part of ‘blind tasting’ that causes their knees to knock.  It is the fear of public humiliation, of being thought a phony or worse, of being labeled ‘all talk; no palate.’ Gasp.

Last Tuesday, Beer Manager Shilpa Rao poured three whiskies and said “let’s see if you can guess what these are.” My heart leapt as a realized what was happening. I was certain I would blow it. I could almost hear her whisper: “all talk, no palate” as she reviewed my bone-headed responses.  She’d tell everyone. Would my coworkers, customers and friends chant the words in unison? Would they invite my family as well?  

But the glasses remained, and I’ve never shied away from a challenge.I decided to give it a shot. Pun intended.

My goal:Use my sense of sight, smell and taste to…

  1. Identify each whisky’s style
  2. Identify each whiskey’s country of origin
  3. Identify each whiskey by product name, if possible.

I’ll be honest; this isn’t my first sock hop. I’m not saying I’m a blind tasting pro, but I’ve done it enough to know that I (and you) need a plan.  So, here’s the simple method I use when I blind taste. This is not THE way, but it’s my way. 

Todd’s Blind Tasting Survival Guide:

I take extensive notes, writing down every flavor and aroma that I encounter. This is particularly useful when I’ve narrowed down my guess to two similar styles.  For example, Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey have a lot in common, but there might be a particular flavor descriptor that helps me to pick one over the other.

Color.  I look for visual cues and identify the color.  Is it light, dark, or somewhere in the middle? Is the color consistent from the middle to the edge of the glass?

Aroma and Taste. Here’s the fun part. First, I take a big whiff because sometimes an answer will just pop into my head. For example, I drink more than my fair share of Gewurztraminer and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, and I can usually identify them in blind tastings. Even if I’m pretty sure I know the answer from the first whiff, I try not to get cocky. It’s difficult.  I continue to work my way through my process, because more evidence can transform good guesses into great guesses.  

After the initial sniff, I smell again (and then taste) and I look for the following:

  1. FFH: Fruit, Floral, Herb (and Spice) 
  2. E: Earth
  3. W: Wood
  4. A: Acid

I spend lots of time evaluating aroma and taste, especially if it’s good. I might as well enjoy it, right?  If there’s an unfamiliar flavor or aroma, I take extra time to try and figure it out. More often than not, those unfamiliar flavors are the key.

Finish. I pay close attention to finish because it is a great indicator of overall product quality.  World-class products usually reveal additional complexity on the finish.

Conclusion. After I’ve taken it all in, I compare my observations with what I know and I ask myself questions like: “Of the whiskies I know, which whiskey has flavor descriptions and aromatics most similar to this whiskey?” Sometimes, the answer is easy, but more often I’ll be able to narrow it down to two or three choices. Then, I narrow it down further based on the ‘tricky’ and distinctive flavors/aromas and finally, I make an educated guess.

So here’s how I applied my method to the three challenges before me.

Product

Initial Guess?

Color

FFH

Earth

Wood

Acid

Finish

Final Guess

1

Bourbon

Gold amber

Rye! Spice, pepper, Black tea? Something sweet?

Fresh cut grass, spiced grass

Woodsy, Vanilla, Caramel

Low

Crisp, light

Basil Hayden

2

Islay Single Malt, Absolutely delicious

Deep, Rich amber

Rich cereal notes, barley, Complex

Smoky, Lots of peat

Cinnamon?, Hard to tell…

Medium

Long, complex

Maybe, not an Islay…Jura Prophecy Single Malt

3

Bourbon or Rye

Amber

Spice again, not as spicy as #1 though, Lots of apple

Not a lot of earthy notes here

Vanilla, Caramel, nutty

Low

Nuts, not too complex

Jim Beam Bourbon or maybe Jim Beam Rye

What was Really in the Glass...

1.Basil Hayden Bourbon.  Nailed it, but every dog has his day, right?  All of that rye on the nose was what tipped me off.  Basil Hayden has a lot of rye in it, so that’s why I guessed it.

2.Johnnie Walker Swing Blended Scotch. Had the right country here, but my guess was a Single Malt instead of a blend. Booo!  I guessed Jura Prophecy (from the Island of Jura), because it has rich cereal notes, peat and lots of complexity.  Johnnie Walker’s Swing is a blend that contains whiskies from Speyside, Highlands, and Islay. I have to admit, I didn’t even consider a blend, and that’s bad. I have to tell you though…Johnnie Walker Swing is an absolute rockstar.   You have to try it!

3.Knob Creek Bourbon. Knob Creek is made by Jim Beam, so I’m OK with my guess.  Knob Creek is known for its fruitiness (the apple I identified).  I would say Knob Creek showed the worst of the three whiskies, so that’s why I guessed Jim Beam, a whiskey of lesser quality.  I should have been able to tie the fruity quality to Knob Creek, and I should have paid more attention to the length of the finish as Jim Beam finishes shorter than Knob Creek.  I also think Knob Creek wasn’t given a fair shot because I couldn’t stop thinking about how delicious the Johnnie Walker Swing was.  Sorry, Knob Creek. 

What I Learned

From Johnnie Walker Swing. I need to spend some time with blended Scotch whiskies.  What makes Johnnie Walker Swing different from Johnnie Blue, Chivas Regal and Dewars?  I know that they taste different, but I need to know why…. When I taste, I need to get more detailed and don’t assume I have the answer when I taste something familiar. Familiarity mixed with ego is a trap in blind tasting.  Don’t fall for it!  When I know it’s a Scotch, I need to make sure that the regional descriptors are loud and clear, and if not, keep working through it, because it might be a blend.

From Knob Creek. I need to pay attention to finish!  The finish on the bourbon I tasted was not that of an entry-level bourbon like Jim Beam.  I also need to pay particular attention to those unique flavor descriptors (apple), it would have helped me here.

Want to test your skills?

Have a friend brown bag a couple of bottles of wine, beer or spirits and then try to identify a. style or varietal, b. country of origin, c. vintage (if applicable) and d. product name if possible. 

Better yet, have Kahn’s help!  Come in, give us your budget and the number of bottles you want to purchase and we’ll pick your wine, beer or spirits for you.  We’ll even brown bag the bottles and open them if you would like (so you aren’t tipped off by the foil)!

No matter what, make sure to have fun with it! Invite friends over, have prizes, and try new products.  You’ll have a blast and you’ll learn a lot.

Want help planning your next tasting? Email me: todd@kahnsfinewines.com

 

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