Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Spinning the Spice Rack

Warning: this blog pokes a little fun at those conducting whiskey reviews.

I'll caveat my comments by saying I do have a lot of respect for those that conduct whiskey reviews for a living. Training one's palate over the long term to pick out nuances of whiskey is a deft skill and one that is informative and interesting most of the time.

But…..for those of us not used to licking wet stone or chomping on sea spray scones, when was the last time you tasted or smelled any of the following:

Fig Paste, mossy river stone, bracken (look it up), sea tangle, rose hips, ozone, wet sheep, smoked seaweed……and I could go on (actually wet sheep wrapped in smoked seaweed sounds very appetizing).

Seriously, when nosing or tasting a whiskey, and in this case, bourbon does anyone really pick up these very obscure features, assuming they exists at all? The reality is I could write anything about any whiskey and have people agree with me. Don't believe me? Well, I have a couple folks that conducted a little experiment and wrote reviews using the spinning spice rack routine. The idea was born from a friend of mine who provides reviews on cigars. His contention was that most folks writing elaborate cigar reviews were full of their own doo doo, and I quote "The best written cigar reviews are composed by experts with god like palates who don't smoke so to insure that flavor and fact won't get in the way of a well crafted review that we mere mortals will salivate over......... I suspect the same of those who review alcoholic beverages". He noticed the bandwagon effect with others agreeing with these god-like reviews. So, in order to test his theory, he went into the kitchen, sat down and wrote his review while spinning the spice rack. Wherever the rack stopped, he would use the item that was visible to describe the smell and taste of the stogie; cream of tar tar, caraway, bay leaf, crisco? So, using various descriptions, he posted his review and not surprising, had respondents agreeing with his review.

After hearing this story, and after we stopped laughing, we got to thinking. Are folks swayed by the power of suggestion just because it's in review format, or because they respect the reviewer's opinion or because they just don't know any better? When I first started drinking whiskey (both scotch and bourbon), I would read the reviews and see the responses and in all honesty, felt intimidated to offer my own thoughts. I thought here are folks picking out all these smells and flavors and all I get is bourbon, and maybe some vanilla. Over time though, my palate began to mature and I did indeed pick out other features like bubble gum, corn flakes, hay, maple syrup, brown sugar, green apple, caramel, toasted nuts, cherry's, etc. I can honestly say that I have never nosed a bourbon or scotch and picked out something as obscure as wet sheep or fig paste.

As I mentioned, some bourbon reviews were created using this spinning technique and sure enough, people agreed with the appraisals. Is that mean? Maybe. Is it informative? Sure. Is it important that you pick out obscure smells and tastes in a bourbon? To me, not really. The real question is, do you enjoy what you are drinking and if so, then tasting wet dog or moldy stick doesn't really matter and in reality, tasting either of those would be pretty gross.

I can't argue that it's fun when you can pick out a smell or flavor but I would just say, don't work so hard at it. Enjoy the experience and if aged hairball pops up as a taste, stop drinking, dump the bourbon and get a new bottle.

There are techniques the everyday consumer can use to begin the process of training the palate to recognize various flavor qualities in bourbon. Just as high end athletes in the process of rigorous training begin to acquire muscle memory, so too the palate can be trained to "remember" specific tastes. There is actually a kit you can purchase with respect to Scotch to train your smeller to pick out various odors. It's an interesting idea and one that can be used for bourbon also. Keep in mind that when you nose a bourbon, what you taste should confirm what you smell. If, when nosing the bourbon, you pick up maple syrup and wood, those same qualities should arrive on the palate at some point. Simple, low cost practices you can employ right at home are taking a look at your spice rack, pantry and refrigerator and within those cabinets you hopefully have any of the following:

Maple Syrup, nuts, cinnamon, brown sugar, oatmeal, vanilla, butter, custard powder, toffee, coffee, tea, grain cereal like Corn Flakes or Wheaties, apples, cocoa, dark chocolate, maraschino cherries, oranges, etc. I could make a long list but you get the idea. Start by nosing some of these various items just to reinforce your memory, especially items that you wouldn't normally come into contact with on a regular basis. Another practice is to purchase a bag of dried fruit and munch on those over the course of a week. Going through the exercise of smelling and tasting these various food items will help introduce and train your palate to recognize these flavor components found in bourbon or rye whiskey. I still remember years ago I was drinking an Eagle Rare 10 year 101 and kept commenting on a specific smell and flavor that was very appealing yet I couldn't put my finger on what it was (ever have that happen?). All of a sudden a light bulb went off and malted milk balls sprang to mind. While it may seem goofy, I was pretty pleased with that revelation as that was the beginning of going beyond just smelling or tasting wood and vanilla in my bourbon.

There are two primary areas where the aroma and flavor in whiskey is generated; production (yellow) and maturation (orange). Here's how they break down as described by ScotchWhiskey.com:

While the tasting wheel speaks specifically about Scotch, these various smells and flavors do appear in bourbon also.

While I've poked a little fun at the whole tasting and review scene, I did so just to point out that taste is purely subjective and just because an expert smells and taste Atlantic sea spray and wilted violet, doesn't mean you will. The next time you pour yourself a bourbon (or Scotch), enjoy it for what it is and if you can pick out apple pie or cocoa, good for you. If not, don't sweat it, it'll come eventually for the important part is just enjoying the dram.


  1. Hilarious Greg! I love it. What does it mean when you smell old gym socks with a splash of honey roasted walnuts? Just Kidding. That was a great post, and one I struggle with too on my blog, because as you know I review whiskey on occasion. I am training my palate to find the flavors and nose to smell the nuance of good whiskey and bourbon, but it is a process. I don't much care for scotch, so maybe I can avoid the Celtic Rain Forest, and mossy stick smells and flavors!


  2. Thanks Don, I had fun writing this one. I have to thank my good friend RB for inspiring this blog, we had a couple good laughs last night discussing the content while sipping on some great bourbon and smoking some fine stogies.

  3. Greg... as always on point and well written!!! I think you missed your real calling in life.... or should I say you have just found it. Keep up the great work as you are producing some of the best Whiskey "work" on the web!!

  4. Greg, as a professional spirit salesman for 20 years, I applaud your common sense approach to tasting whiskey. When I first started tasting wine and spirits I didn’t get hardly any of the nuiances the professionals were talking about. I did however learn by using a tasting wheel every time I could when I was tasting a new product, and it helped immensely . Now those taste synapses are engrained in that part of my nose and brain, turning me into quite a experienced taster. I am giving a bourbon seminar at our local JUCO to the bartending class and I will try to start their journey down the road of knowledgeable whiskey tasting a better one.

  5. Thaynes

    Thanks very much for stopping by. When it comes to tasting whiskey, I don't force it and just enjoy the nuances I do experience while drinking. For your bourbon class, one thing your students may not understand is whiskey is as diverse as wine. Cheers.

  6. I just happened upon this today. It's like you stole the words right out of my mouth.

    I especially understand what you mean about being intimidated at first. I was too until I realized I'd only be lying to myself if I said bourbon smells like honey soaked boysenberries with a side of winter truffle, topped with shavings of leather and pine needles.

    And since the purpose of my site is to capture my experience for future reference (and amuse my friends), there would be no point to that nonsense.

    Call it as you see it, and if other people agree, then that's just super.