WHISKY TRACKING SYSTEMS
Track & trace
Marks out of 10? Sophisticated spreadsheet? Treasured notebook? Or simply stored away in the recesses of our memory? How we choose to record our whisky journey is as personal as our reaction to what’s in the glass. And you won’t be surprised to find out that when it comes to tracking and scoring whiskies, our members take every possible approach
WORDS: RICHARD GOSLAN
For me, any record of what you’ve tasted and when is better than having nothing at all.
I’m one of those weirdos who keeps a list of every book I’ve read (since the summer of 1990, if you must know). I’d seen a display dedicated to the Scottish poet (and our first official ‘Makar’) Edwin Morgan in Glasgow’s Mitchell Library, which included a notebook that Morgan kept with a list of everything he’d been reading.
The idea took hold, and now when I look back at my own list of book titles and authors I can picture exactly where I was when I was reading it – even if I couldn’t tell you exactly what it was about.
If only I’d had the foresight to do the same thing when I started my whisky-drinking journey. Even a simple note of a bottle name, Society cask number, where I was drinking it or who I was with could be enough to spark a flood of memories. So whatever record you choose to keep – the first lesson might be that it’s never too late to start.
Member Sarah Lim’s hand-bound notebook: a gift that keeps on giving
Member Sarah Lim takes a straightforward approach, thanks to a thoughtful gift. “My husband made me a handbound book for Christmas a couple of years ago, with room for info about the bottle, tasting notes and stars out of five,” she says. Fellow member Ann Bingham was inspired by Sarah’s example and created her own ‘whisky tasting’ insert for her personal organiser (pictured above). Others take photos of bottle labels along with their notes, or use apps or websites to store their information.
Our dedicated members, of course, are way ahead of me in terms of the amount of detail they keep track of, and how they maintain it. Philip Storry, for example, has a personal database of more than 750 whiskies, kept in an ever-expanding spreadsheet.
“I’ve tried various bits of software and keep meaning to build my own solution – once you get past the first 300 bottles, most tools are pretty poor,” he says. “The spreadsheet is simply the least-worst one!” Phil says he wants two simple things from his own ratings system – that it’s easy and useful. He rates out of five, using half points, giving him a clear appraisal but without the ‘granularity’ of a score out of 100.
“I’ve tried various bits of software and keep meaning to build my own solution – once you get past the first 300 bottles, most tools are pretty poor”
TASTING PANEL INSIGHTS
Others, including our own Tasting Panel, go for a score out of 10, although there is also room for manoeuvre by using fractions of a quarter between points. As well as assessing a whisky’s colour, the Tasting Panel scores each dram out of 10 for its unreduced nose, unreduced palate, reduced nose and reduced palate, working out an overall average score. The app the Panel uses also collates each panellist’s comments for the four stages of the process, along with an overall impression at the end. And the tasting is done in silence, with no discussion of scores until each panellist is finished with their sample.
“When we taste a whisky on the Panel, we always try to put ourselves in the position of the members and ask: ‘If I sat down with a dram of this at home, would I find it delicious, comforting, fascinating?’” says SMWS spirits manager Euan Campbell. “It’s first and foremost an enjoyment-based assessment as it’s all about the experience for us, backed up of course by sensory training and technical knowledge. We have a pass mark, but everything needs to be viewed in the context of the panellists’ feedback, as well as things like the age and style of a whisky. Does it taste like you expected, and if not is that necessarily a bad thing? “Having detailed records on the assessment of our casks is also incredibly important. Since designing and launching our Panel web app in 2019 we’ve amassed almost 7,000 assessment records!”
“It’s first and foremost an enjoyment-based assessment as it’s all about the experience for us, backed up of course by sensory training and technical knowledge”
MARKS AND MINDFULNESS
For many, though, a mark out of 100 has become the standard. That could go back to Michael Jackson’s seminal Malt Whisky Companion, published in 1989 before the advent of the internet, whisky blogs and the opportunity for anyone and everyone to publish their own whisky reviews and scores. Jackson set the bar by scoring out of 100, although his starting point was actually 50 to the whisky simply for turning up.
Scoring out of 100 gives more scope for that ‘granularity’ but is it any more useful than a score out of 10 with decimal points? And can any score we give a whisky mean anything beyond reminding us of a particular moment in time?
“We love to quantify things,” says member Joseph Even-Hen. “I understand the concept behind rating whisky (or any other spirit), but we too often rely on such ratings to make our decisions. More often than not, it can be misguiding and a system based on a particular person’s perception that is not necessarily in line with our sensory settings.
“That being said, I rate a whisky based solely on description. What I taste, what I feel, what I perceive the whisky to be. I avoid quantifying a whisky by assigning a number to it.
“Can anyone tell me what does a distillery need to do to make its whisky move up the rating from an 8.9 to 9? Only when one establishes various measuring criteria can a proper ‘system’ be set and a number be meaningful and comparisons can be made. For example, measuring viscosity, ease of drink (smoothness), volume of flavour, volume of aroma and alike.”
“I could not in all honesty apply a 90 to one dram and an 85 to something else,” says member Mike Lord. “A memory of a taste is so transitory, how can one compare them day-to-day? Were I to open every bottle I have, and taste them back and forth all at one sitting, I suppose I could eventually come up with a ranking, by which point most of what I own would be gone! Could one put a score of 95 to Etta Fitzgerald and 97 to Sara Vaughan? I wouldn’t dare.”
“The problem I see with a ranking system is that you’re pitting whiskies against one another whereby they should and need to stand on their own”
Fets Whisky Kitchen’s leather-bound anthology of SMWS bottling tasting notes
Eric Fergie, from Fets Whisky Kitchen in Vancouver, also avoids ratings or ranking, preferring to keep track of his whiskies by flavour over anything else.
“The problem I see with a ranking system is that you’re pitting whiskies against one another whereby they should and need to stand on their own,” he says. “Each whisky has its own qualities, a time and place to enjoy it best – how am I feeling today? Does the bottle need to open up for a while and be revisited?”
Perhaps member Richard Lee in Canada has a message for us all with how he re-evaluated his need to save information.
“I used to keep track of my whiskies in a journal, noting each one I ever tasted, where, with whom, tasting notes and then a score out of 100,” he says. “I found, however, that I was missing out on the moments. When my journal was stolen, I made the decision simply to drink and enjoy. I tweet a short blurb about whiskies when I try a new one, but otherwise, I cast aside formality and quantification for pure mindful and extemporaneous joy.”
Many thanks to all our members who contributed their own examples and thoughts. Check out the 'Whisky passport' example created by The Barrel Thief, Seattle in our partner bar feature