A tasting range - the tasting notes of Whisky

The Tasting Notes of Whisky

In this article, we try to approach the topic of rational taste reviews of Whisky. We talk about experts like Michael Jackson, who sampled Whiskies and documented their reviews in a book. We also look at our own Database where Whisky lovers can leave their personal experience and taste notes in the form of stars and reviews for each bottle. Which approach is the most helpful for the connoisseur at home? We explain the perks and the problems for both.

The Ratings of Experts

The taste of Whisky – a very individual, difficult and emotional topic. Therefore, there is not a 100% right answer. But what gives someone the best requirements for a rational review is experience and knowledge. Most of the time, people seek advice from those with expertise and backgrounds in the branch. So the first approach is to look at experts, or how some like to call them ‘the Whisky popes’. The first one is Michael Jackson, a journalist who was the first to taste and record reviews of Whiskies in a book (‘Malt Whisky Companion’) and somewhat paved the way for following review books. Today the most famous one is Jim Murray with his work ‘Whisky Bible’. In this, he writes down his personal reviews for more than 4500 Whiskies. Each one is rated with points for different criteria. The points are added to an overall score, which is the end result.

If we look at the average end score, it is most of the times between 78-95 points (out of 100). Whiskies with 95 or more points are extraordinary special and those below 78 points basically ‘fails’. The scale from 0-100 is not fully used. A reason for this could be, that experts like him are often paid for their review. While this is not something bad on its own, it can become a conflict of interest: A review should be the honest opinion of the taster, but he/she also likes to get requested again in the future. An honest, but also bad review may lead to not being commissioned again. The middle path is to tone down the average of the ratings, so it is not seen as an overall good or bad review.

If we look at the average end score, it is most of the times between 78-95 points (out of 100). Whiskies with 95 or more points are extraordinary special and those below 78 points basically ‘fails’. The scale from 0-100 is not fully used. A reason for this could be, that experts like him are often paid for their review. While this is not something bad on its own, it can become a conflict of interest: A review should be the honest opinion of the taster, but he/she also likes to get requested again in the future. An honest, but also bad review may lead to not being commissioned again. The middle path is to tone down the average of the ratings, so it is not seen as an overall good or bad review.

The Customers' Review & the Average of Opinions

The internet was always a medium in which users had a voice because everybody could give his opinion. This can be seen on many review sites and especially in reviews for products. In our shop on Whisky.de, it is also possible for customers to leave a review in text, stars and parameters. While this can be helpful for many other customers, this could also influence them in the wrong way. If the first few comments are very positive it is more likely that we buy the bottle. But this also goes the other way, like when the first few reviews are bad, we tend to stay away. Never knowing, if this Whisky would taste good. Additionally, some persons are not really honest in their rating. Some praise the bottles because they are from their favourite distillery and others think that better reviews will increase the price of their personal collection.

To get an average of the opinions, we offer the users of our website to leave their review in the Database. Each bottle can be rated with one to five stars, a description in taste for nosing, taste and finish with given icons, as well as text comments. With this a mean value is created, which of course has also no spikes in ratings, but therefore is more on the rational side.

The Rating of the Aberfeldy 12 in our Database
The average rating of the Aberfeldy 12 in our Database

The Problem with Mirroring Neurons

Humans influence each other – nothing new. But how far this can go, is shown with this example: A group of friends was at a tasting in the Bowmore distillery many years ago. At the end of the tasting, the friends were disappointed by the small amount of Whisky they were given. As a revenge for their ‘mistreatment’, they started to distribute false, bad opinions and reviews. Bowmore would smell like “cheap perfume”, “lavender” or “violets”. People who read this in forums did smell their bottles of Bowmore again, and suddenly also found those notes. Just by mentioning a certain sensation, we are likely to believe that we also experience that. This is set in our evolutional history as social beings. If a group ate something and one would discover something bad about the food, he will warn the others for the survival of the group. Not only in food, but in many aspects of life this can be found. The reason for this are mirroring neurons in our brains. We subconsciously mimic the expressions and the behaviour of those around us. This applies to Whisky as well. If you are given a very detailed description of a taste before you sample it, you are very likely to experience a similar one.

Bowmore distillery
Bowmore distillery

In Conclusion:

It is a slippery slope: If we just believe the ratings of experts or the majority we can be lead in the wrong direction (by the reviews and our own brain). But if we started to just randomly buy Whiskies with the hope it would taste good, we would also be very disappointed with the addition of an empty wallet. The middle path is to look through ratings, but try to distance ourselves a little bit and taste the Whisky independently from other reviews. At the end of the day, the only important thing is that you like the taste of the bought Whisky.