Love is blind
As we gaze longingly towards spring, February brings the opportunity to look at a new way of falling in love with flavour. Blind tastings offer the chance to hone your senses without any preconceived notions – depending of course on how you structure them. We asked our ambassadors around the world for their top tips on how to make the most of this style of tasting and what revelations it has inspired for them.
MARCEL PASCHILKE, GERMANY
Decide early on how much “blind tasting” you want – if you only want to keep the distillery unknown or if you don’t want to see anything of the whisky in the glass then coloured glasses are worthwhile. I prefer blind tastings where you can still see the distillate, as examining the colour as well as the legs in the glass is great fun and can give further clues to the age of a whisky.
I remember a blind tasting at a whisky regulars’ table where I had absolutely no hits due to exotic cask combinations. At other blind tastings (both bourbon and Scotch worldwide), you can tell exactly what you have in your glass and which region or distillery it might come from. Blind tastings, however, remain an insanely powerful task for the brain, as the senses are always working at their limits to perceive smell and taste.
KELLY CARPENTER, CANADA
The Canadian branch has been doing our monthly Outturn tastings blind for years. After doing it once just for fun, our members loved that their expectations and assumptions were turned on their head, so they asked us to continue the blind format. It’s been standard practice for almost 10 years and every single month brings a revelation.
HANS OFFRINGA, THE NETHERLANDS
My main message always is to go from “the big to the subtle” which in fact is similar to distillation. I always encourage members to connect a specific memory to a specific flavour or aroma, which makes it easier to reconnect and recognise when encountering a similar aroma another time.
JOHN McCHEYNE, UK
I held a blind tasting for a group of writers and bloggers in Greville Street, with six glasses to be tasted. All I told them was that although the SMWS bottles whisky from outside Scotland, the only clue I would give them tonight is that all the whiskies would be Scotch. What I didn’t tell them was that the fifth glass contained a Society rum. When we got to it there was much debate about possible Scotch region, distillery, maturing cask etc.
Only one member of the audience clearly realised it was a rum and we had a knowing look between us. When I told the audience there was some anguish and frustration, in a friendly sense. One member said forcibly “You said all the whiskies would be Scotch!” to which I replied that all the whiskies WERE Scotch. It was a fun evening and moment, but perhaps it demonstrated a flaw in the whole concept of blind tasting. How many people are able to ignore an idea put in their mind by another, in this case the interpretation that ‘all whiskies are Scotch’ to ‘all drinks are Scotch’? Or be completely independent of mind when it comes to that flavour in that glass and be able to ignore outside influences in the room by other tasters?
Within the SMWS we are supposed to be at the centre of the concept that we taste and think about the flavours in the glass, without the preconceived bias that might come from knowing which distillery is involved. So, at the very heart of SMWS membership enjoyment lies the tasting of a single cask single malt that will differ from any other single cask single malt from the same distillery. In fact, we are inviting members to blind tastings every time they raise a SMWS glass.
BOB WENTING, BENELUX
Hide what you have to hide! You’d be amazed how people can recognise bottles and brands with only a little information. Socks are excellent bottle hiding tools, although the shape of the bottle may give away some information!
Either have someone else make the line-up and pour the whiskies or have people bring their own bottle (blinded of course) if you want to have the blind tasting experience yourself too. The second tip I have would be to be bold and do something people do not expect. For instance, put in another spirit in between whiskies, put in six bottles of whisky from the same distillery or put one of the whiskies in twice. This is not to trick people but to have them experience how great blind tasting is in discovering your own taste, prejudice/preoccupations and learning to be fully open to what you experience instead of overthinking.
JUTTA UNTERGUGGENBERGER, AUSTRIA
Decide on a tasting order, note it down and then pour the samples without the guests knowing the whisky. When it comes to tasting notes, we hand them out at the end of the tasting to members who ask for them, but only after we have solved the mystery.
We sometimes like to switch up our tasting order a little. So usually we put the peated whiskies at the end, whereas with blind tastings we sometimes place them in the middle. We are aware there are some obvious signs that make it easy for the members to guess, for example something smoky on the nose, or the colour of a whisky matured in a sherry cask. But by mixing it up we can make it a little harder to guess.
OLAF MEIER, UK
Blind tastings are an interesting way to think only about the liquid in the glass, no distillery name, no age, no price and ideally as well no colour – if you use cobalt glasses. That is the theory, but in practice people taking part will start guessing which distillery, what age etc. which is very unhelpful and takes away the focus completely from the spirit. So one has to be very disciplined in the team.
As I suggested in a video on SMWS Silverscreen the best way for me is let people sniff, write down two or three descriptors, let them sniff again and let them write down another two or three descriptors which must be different to the first. Then let them all smell a third time and then discuss the aroma with the participants – but without using the descriptors they wrote down. Then taste and do something similar but not quite as rigorous as when nosing.
Do not discuss where the flavour is coming from, ie. possible distillery character or possible cask influence – just discuss what you nose and taste with each other. Right at the end of each I would then ask the question: what would you be happy to pay for a bottle of that, if indeed you would like a bottle of the one you just tasted? If possible, take samples which are not typical from the original bottlings from this distillery or indeed use samples from distilleries which do not offer a single malt on the market.
THOMAS KORSGAARD, DENMARK
I find blind tasting the best way to sample new whiskies. When I started as an ambassador, I had an experience with myself finding bourbon-matured whiskies from distilleries traditionally matured in sherry odd. This was simply my brain playing tricks with me, as I knew how these were supposed to taste. My colleague Terje then served these whiskies blind to me, and not being biased, I enjoyed them in a whole new way.
In Denmark we have Casual Days, where members can sample the new Outturns, and more and more members ask to try the Outturn in random order, not knowing what is in the glasses. In terms of organising it, it is simply me pouring the whiskies for the members to try. I have also often participated in private events, where everyone brings two whiskies, and then noses and tastes everyone’s whiskies blind. It is often very entertaining to hear people guessing for region, distillery, age and abv. The most expensive one is not by definition the best, and the cheapest one may not end up last. I can only encourage members to do more blind tastings!
JENNA ELIE, USA
When tasting single cask whisky, it is incredibly difficult to nail every single detail. The cask types may be the most obvious, but even that can fool you often. I just go into them without pressure of performing, and I almost always discover something new about a whisky I thought I knew a great deal about!
ANDREW DERBIDGE, AUSTRALIA
The interesting/challenging thing is to maintain the “blindness”. In some circles, you can wrap a bottle in paper to disguise its identity. However, you may have keen enthusiasts involved who can often identify the brand or bottler simply by the shape of the bottle! I’ve often resorted to transferring the contents into other “red herring” bottles. You can have fun pouring someone a heavily peated Islay whisky out of, say, a bottle of Glenfarclas or Glenfiddich!
The other fun aspect is to take colour out of the mix. When you serve whisky in dark or opaque glasses where the colour of the whisky cannot be seen or assessed, it has a big impact on each drinker’s perception. The pre-conceived bias of “It’s dark; it must be old or from a sherry cask” is taken out of the equation, and participants must rely more acutely on their nose and palate.
This video follows four members as they taste three whiskies completely blind and then ends with some tips and thoughts from each of them regarding blind tastings…