The Development of the Individual Taste and the Significance of Guided Whisky Tastings

The life of a whisky connoisseur or collector is a constant search for new bottles that promise a special taste experience. Some people look for taste experiences that they want to conserve in exquisite bottles for the future. Others may look for these taste experiences, too, but they don't want to treat themselves to these whiskies but make a profit in the far future by selling them to connoisseurs.

Highland Park 12 y.o. with square cardboard box
Highland Park 12 y.o. old bottling
Highland Park 12 y.o. with round cardboard box
Highland Park 12 y.o. new bottling

Many collectors buy bottles hoping for an increase in value. (link) But there are extraordinary taste qualities in original and independent bottlings of Scotch single malt whiskies that prompt other collectors to act. They judge bottles by their taste rather than by a possible increase in value. Does an 18-year-old Highland Park from 1997 not have a much higher value than one from 2014? After all, in 1997 there were still more 18-year-old Highland Park casks available for choosing and bottling better whisky than later when demand rose strongly and the whisky was even temporarily sold out. The same can be said about the highly popular single malts from Ardbeg, Bowmore, Lagavulin and Macallan.

Let's call these people the connoisseurs-collectors, in contrast to the value-collectors that aim for a maximum increase in value.

Both types of collectors have fundamentally different motivations to buy a bottle. While an increase in value can be expressed in euros or dollars, subjective taste is hard to quantify. The following questions illustrate the problem: What tastes good? What tastes bad? Is there a generally accepted taste? Can you rely on third party statements about the quality of a whisky?

The author of this article has also put aside a few bottles of the finest Scotch single malt whisky, which will be opened on very special occasions in the coming years.

Ardbeg Connoisseurs' Choice next to the old cardbox
Ardbeg Connoisseurs' Choice
Macallan Grand Reserva 1981 next to the wooden box
Macallan Grand Reserva 1981

But will we appreciate the taste of these bottles as much as today when we open them in the future?

1. Taste Memory

Our taste changes with each new taste experience. Once our nose and thus our brain have 'experienced' a new aroma, we, or our brain, have changed a little. With these constant small changes we become a totally different person in terms of taste within a few years.

By far the best whisky I've ever tried was a 15-year-old Strathisla in 1995. Some years later I had the chance to taste it again. However, the malt tasted completely different to how I remembered it. It was still a good whisky, but I had broadened my single malt whisky horizon, and a multitude of high-quality bottlings had taken the place of the Strathisla 15 y.o.: Royal Lochnagar Selected Reserve, Mortlach Flora and Fauna 16 y.o., Macallan 18 y.o. 1978 etc. The only thing about the Strathisla 15 y.o. that had stuck in my memory was the mental label 'best malt whisky'.

How easily we are deceived! But that's life. We constantly develop as a person and we're surprised when old certainties no longer hold true and unexpected changes occur.

2. Whisky Tastings

An even bigger problem can arise for connoisseurs-collectors when theytry a malt and decide to put a bottle aside for later. At first glance this is a safe bet. "I've tasted the whisky and it's awesome! - I can't do anything wrong." However, this is only true at first glance, because our perception is influenced by our mood.

For example, there are days when I only like certain whiskies. And then there are days when I also like malts that are less good. If you buy a whisky while you're in the second state of mind, there's a high probability that you'll have problems in the future although you've tasted it in advance.

Guided whisky tastings are highlights for connoisseurs-collectors. During an opulent tasting, 6, 8 or even 12 or more samples might be available to taste. Here lies the danger of misjudging.

3. An Old Trick

An old winemaker told me of a trick how to fine wines for a wine tasting without adulterating them. The whole trick is to influence the sense of taste between the individual rounds of the tasting. For a good wine tasting he generously offers cheese and white bread. After the second glass at the latest, the guests feel the alcohol in their blood and decide to eat a slice of white bread with cheese.

What happens in the mouth? To promote digestion, the body enriches the saliva with enzymes that split the starch of the flour into sugar. We quickly swallow the bread, but the remaining breadcrumbs in the mouth are digested by the enzymes in the way mentioned above. In order to enhance the slightly sweet taste, humans need a bit of fat and/or salt. Both taste enhancers come from the early stages of our evolution. Each type of food tastes better when a bit of fat and some salt is added. The fat and the salt from the cheese soon start to gear our taste to 'sweetish-pleasant' for the coming glass.

But that's not all: After the second or third glass the alcohol starts to numb the nerve ends on the tongue and in the mouth/throat. Alcohol is a neurotoxin at high doses. At medium doses it numbs our nerves, which affects not only our ability to respond in traffic. As the dose increases, also our sense of taste starts to deteriorate. Already after the third sample our sense of taste is massively impaired.

Should we therefore refrain from trying a whisky before buying it?  As nonsensical as this question might sound at first glance, there's a little truth to it. You should be aware of the circumstances under which you tasted a whisky. Was it the extraordinary 196x Glen XYZ, which was offered as sample nr. 8 during a tasting? Immediately after the intense cask strength whisky? Or did you try the whisky in pleasant company after a dinner in a Scottish restaurant, sitting in front of a peat fire while wonderful music was playing?

All tasting events aim for one thing: that you keep it in highly pleasant memory afterwards. That's what you paid for. You spent your money for a terrific, holistic experience that engages all your senses. The better it was, the more likely you are going to come back and maybe bring your friends - that's the motivation for you and for the host.

This great ambience can be bad for us afterwards, when we overrate a single malt whisky due to this kind of deliberate positive misperception. Typically the bottles sampled in the tasting are offered for sale afterwards. At home you then sit calmly in familiar surroundings and don't recognise the newly-bought whisky anymore.

There are several possible solutions. Use your experience and knowledge about the distillery and the bottler or get comprehensive information from the internet. It also helps to taste the malt at different points in time before you buy a whole bottle. The following article explains how you can rate a new bottle and how to find out if it will match your taste. (link)

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