How to Analyze, Score, and Review Whiskey

The first time I watched Ralfy on his YouTube channel, it was a revelation. With the right glass and some experience you can learn to get so many different notes out of a whisky! Then you could score it, and share it, letting others know what you think.

Many believe that this dark art of reviewing is reserved for whisky professionals, bloggers and nerds. This simply isn’t true. Anyone can review whisky, and their opinion can be just as valid as anyone else’s.

There are two great examples of this. The first is quite well known among whisky people in Europe: Whiskybase.com. This is a database of whiskies that you can use to search for bottlings, build a collection, and review whiskies. Thousands of people use Whiskybase, and that gives it a huge advantage over one-man reviewers (like Ralfy or Jim Murray) because when loads of people review the same product you build more of a consensus.

Another is Reddit. Reddit tends to be bigger in America and Canada, and is more of a forum for discussion and reviews. It can be a little intimidating at first (always read the rules before posting!), but again, everyone contributes and adds to a database of reviews. I could be just a tad biased as a moderator of r/Scotch, but I think it’s a fantastic and friendly community, and a great place to start reviewing. The network consists of r/Whisky for discussions, r/Scotch for Scotch related reviews and posts, r/Bourbon for American Whiskey, and r/WorldWhisky for whisky from anywhere else. Not only that, but people also swap samples of whiskies they have on r/ScotchSwap, allowing you to try a lot of whiskies pretty quickly.

In either case, it doesn’t matter if you’ve only tasted a few whiskies — your experience can be shared and other people can get something from that.

* * *

So, how do you review a whisky?

  1. You need the right glass.

In a tumbler, all the aromas of the whisky are going to be able to spill all over the place. You want something that can concentrate those aromas towards your nose, so you can appreciate them. A Glencairn is probably the best option if you’re just starting out, then maybe try some other tasting glasses.

  1. Write what you think.

Don’t let anyone tell you what to smell and taste. That includes the back of the whisky box or label or a rep standing across the table from you. Don’t be afraid to write down lime, even though the box says lemon. That said, someone or something to guide you when you’re first starting is no bad thing. Have a look at other people’s reviews and see what they think — but don’t take it as gospel but rather inspiration.

  1. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

If there is someone else with you while you’re reviewing, just ask them, ‘What does this smell like?’ ‘What do you get?’ You might not get the same impressions as them, but it could give you inspiration or you might suddenly recognise a new note because of what they said.

  1. Experience and knowledge will help.

This part takes time. Tasting lots of different whiskies and knowing more about the distilleries they are made at is going to help massively. Eventually, you’ll know an Islay whisky just by smelling it or a Bourbon by tasting a sip. Even further on, you might learn to recognise a particular distillery, age, or cask type!

  1. Drink it your way (water can help).

Again, don’t let anyone dictate how you like your whisky. But for reviewing, to get the whisky to open up, avoid ice, as it can cause the whisky’s flavors to retreat. But don’t be scared of adding a drop of water (particularly to stronger whiskies). A small drop of water can help to develop the whisky’s flavors and reduce the alcohol level (which in itself offers no flavor). Usually I taste a whisky neat first, write some notes, and then add a drop off water to see if I get anything different from it afterwards.

  1. Comparison works!

This is something the famous Serge Valentin from whiskyfun.com advocates. It’s not something everyone can do, but if you have a few whiskies and a few glasses, you can set up a comparison of them together. This will bring out the differences all the more prominently.

  1. Think before you score.

Ah, the tricky business of scoring. As a beginner I would stay away from it, but it’s alluring in its simplicity: Summing up your experience of the whisky with a grade. If you feel that you can do it, go right ahead — but really think it through before you start scoring. There are many different methods and a host of pros and cons to each one. An exam style A-F grade like Drinkhacker uses or a numerical score ranging from 0-100, 0-10, or 0-5. One of my favourites is the ‘three questions’ scale: Would I buy this? Would I order it in a bar? Would I drink this if someone gave me a glass?

* * *

Some people genuinely don’t care about reviewing or reviews. They can taste a whisky and go “Yeah, I like that” or “No, I don’t like this one.” That’s absolutely fine. But personally, I feel that I’ve gotten so much more out of whisky from reviewing it, from just the fun of it, making better purchasing decisions, meeting friends online, and then starting to write here. It’s become a passion and something that has really added something to my life.

So give it a go!

Understanding Whiskey Marketing Terms

The other day I was asked what a ‘Double Malt’ was, and how it differed from a single malt. The problem was, I couldn’t answer the question because ‘Double Malt’ isn’t a legally defined term. It’s what I would call a marketing term. It suggests everything yet means nothing.

These terms can range from confusing to downright misleading and everything in between. They operate in that grey zone, where they sound like they mean something substantial and are suggestive enough to make you buy one product over another. Are you going to buy a single malt or a double malt? It sounds like you’re getting double the whisky with double the malt, so you might go for that! In reality, ‘Double Malt’ is more likely to mean a blend of two single malts, but could also mean a blended whisky with double the malt content.

I don’t single Glenrothes out with the photo above, because almost every distillery is guilty of using loose marketing terms on their bottles, but it serves as a good example. What is a ‘Vintage Reserve?’ In my opinion, it’s a marketing term to imply the whisky is old when in fact there is no age statement on the bottle.

So to try and dispel the confusion, I’ve tried to make a list of woolly marketing terms as well as terms that have real meaning — with explanations of both.

Woolly Marketing Terms (This list is not exhaustive)

Double/Triple/Quadruple

As we saw with Double Malt, double, triple, or even quadruple implies that you are getting more of something, or that there has been a more thorough process involved. Wood is quite common, as with Balvenie’s Doublewood or Triple Cask and Laphroaig’s Triple and Quadruple Woods. But, Balvenie and Laphroaig mean different things by these terms. For Laphroaig it’s the number of barrels the whisky has been through successively, one after the other. For Balvenie it’s the types of casks used for separate barrels of spirit which are then vatted together.

Reserve

I guarantee, if something is labelled as a ‘Reserve,’ it isn’t from any kind of reserve stock. That’s the funny thing about these terms, you can slap them on anything. So you get the highest priced whisky in huge wooden boxes and shiny decanters, labelled with the same word as stuff you get in the supermarket. This is also a great word to combine with some of the other terms here, like ‘special’ or ‘old.’

Hand Crafted

This is a term that used to have a bit of meaning, but has now been misused so much that I’ve become jaded with it. A certain whisky vlogger jokes that if a computer mouse is on the screen, then it’s ‘hand made!’ Whisky has become more and more automated over the years, to the point where lots of distilleries that claim to still be hand crafted are controlled by one person on a laptop… That’s not to say that there aren’t some distilleries that still hand make spirits, but you should still be suspicious of this particular term.

Double Aged

Another use of double or triple happens here when you mention age. Does it mean that it’s double the age it normally is or is the distillery using two different types of casks? Who knows, it could be either. Jim Beam Black is the classic culprit, being double the age it legally needs to be.

Small Batch

This is another term that can mean different things from different producers. A small batch generally means the whisky was produced from a smaller number of barrels than usual, but it could be a few casks or fifty, depending on what they consider small. Bowmore Small Batch was one of the distillery’s biggest, and most basic, releases!

Very

A classic adverb for the descriptors like ‘Old’ or ‘Rare.’ Does very old or very rare mean that the whisky is rarer or older than it would be normally? No.

Extra

You may have also seen ‘Extra Old’ or ‘Xtra Old.’ These phrases are also meaningless.

Special

As with ‘Reserve,’ something labelled ‘Special’ could be a bottle costing $10 or $1000. Again, making it completely worthless.

Old

I would suggest avoiding anything that says it is ‘Old’ that doesn’t have a statement of age attached to it, as it’s likely it’s the opposite.

Rare

As with ‘Old,’ ‘Rare’ probably means that the stuff is about as rare as Pappy van Winkle is cheap.

Distiller’s

This is a term that makes it sound like the distiller was more involved than normal. Distiller’s Choice or Distiller’s Edition is quite common to see, but these whiskies have the same level of involvement from the distiller as any other whisky.

Limited Edition

Unless there’s a specific number of released bottles mentioned, treat this claim with extreme suspicion. People often think that because something is limited they should buy it now, before it’s all gone. In fact the producers may have put Limited Edition on the label with no intention of limiting the production of the product.

You may have noticed a trend here, where products are the opposite of how they are described, almost like they are trying to compensate for not meeting the definition of that description. ‘Rare’ and ‘Old’ are often used for whiskies that are common and young, so be aware.

Terms That Actually Mean Something

(Blank) Years Old/ Aged (Blank) Years

The age of the whiskey, if stated in years, can only be the age of the youngest whiskey in the mix (in most countries). If the age is not stated, it must be at least the minimum age to legally be called whiskey (normally 2-3 years).

Non-Chill Filtered/Unchillfiltered

I won’t go into the whole description of what chill filtering is, but essentially these terms mean the whiskey hasn’t been excessively filtered to remove any natural oils or flavour chemicals that may cause haze in the glass.

Colouring Free/No Artificial Colouring

Self explanatory. No artificial colouring, normally in the form of E150a, aka caramel color, has been added to make the whiskey look darker or control the colour from batch to batch. Of course, this doesn’t apply to Bourbon, as no colouring can legally be added anyway.

Protected Designations (Bourbon, Scotch, etc.)

Many traditional types of whisky have laws regarding what can be called that type of whisky and the rules they have to stick to. Scotch and Bourbon in particular are covered by extensive laws regarding what qualifies as those things, and sub-laws for Kentucky Bourbon or Single Malt Scotch offer more specific rules.

Single Cask/Barrel

Again, pretty self explanatory. A whisky from one barrel or cask, likely having very few bottles from that barrel.

Cask Strength/Barrel Proof

A whisky that has not been cut with any water after coming out of the barrel; it’s bottled at the natural strength that the angels have left it at. Often this can be in the range of 55 to 60% abv.

The above terms are defined and often have laws stipulating requirements for using them. They are meaningful and give us, as consumers, information about the products we are spending our well earned money on.

But remain vigilant of marketing terms, and try not to get suckered in by vague expressions that suggest very much… but mean very little.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Whisky Festivals

Having been to and worked at quite a few whisky festivals now, I’ve seen the length and breadth of the behaviour spectrum — from upmarket jaunts to paramedics arriving on scene. A whisky festival is a scene of merriment (it’s not apple juice), but there’s a line that can get crossed when people are trying to “get their money’s worth” towards the end.

So, to help you make the most of your festival, here’s our list of whisky festival Do’s and Don’ts.

Do’s

  1. Pace yourself

This is to make sure you avoid the big Don’t. (Spoiler alert: Don’t get drunk.) Take your time with each whisky. Whisky is a strong drink and it’s easy to get overwhelmed early and have to leave because you’re completely out of it. Then you definitely aren’t getting the most out of the festival. Whisky is also an amazingly complex drink and needs time to be fully appreciated.

  1. Take notes/photos

This is a great tactic. Not only are you going to remember each whisky better but it really helps you with pacing yourself. Personally, I’m a note taker. By writing down something, anything, about the whisky at hand, you slow the drinking process down a bit. It’s fun to read (or try and decipher) what notes you made the next day too.

  1. Drink water

This should be obvious but is easy to forget when you’re in the moment and having a great time — until you’ve got a splitting headache and realize you haven’t had any water all day. Water is normally provided at events and for good reason. It’s important to stay hydrated as alcohol dehydrates you. Try to have a glass of water after every whisky or two.

  1. Use palate cleansers

Bread is good and it’s going to help your body counteract the effects of the alcohol, but any palate cleanser is going to help you clear your palate from the previous whiskies and reset before the next one. My personal favourite is dark chocolate, as it cleanses the palate of sugars and the bitterness can bring out sweeter flavours in the whiskies.

  1. Talk to people

People at whisky festivals are always hugely friendly, and whether it’s the producers, ambassadors, or fellow festival goers they can give you an insight into what they’re drinking, why, and what’s next. Asking people what they would recommend next is a great tactic that can unearth some fantastic whiskies. This also splits up constant drinking and keeps you paced.

  1. Have special whiskies early

One of the best things about these festivals is the ability to try some whiskies you normally wouldn’t be able to access. Some festivals give you tokens to spend on rare whiskies. My recommendation is to try these early while the alcohol hasn’t affected you too much yet. You don’t want to go straight to the Port Ellen though, remember to warm up with a lighter whisky or two to get your palate in gear.

  1. Carb up/Eat plenty

Again, this is obvious, but it’s easy to rush on the day of the festival and forget to eat breakfast and find that there’s nothing to eat at the festival. Big mistake. Normally festivals do provide some sort of meal, but a big breakfast is a must for anyone looking to have some whiskies later in the day without getting smashed.

  1. Have fun!

Whisky festivals are amazing places. Great whisky is flowing, friendly people are everywhere and, as long as no one is too wasted, everyone is having a great time. Enjoy yourself!

Don’ts

  1. Don’t get drunk

Really there’s only one big negative to whisky festivals. But it happens at every one. If you aren’t extremely careful, at some point, it’s going to hit you that you’ve had too many. I see it at every show, around an hour before the end, people suddenly realize that the show is going to end soon and they want more. There’s normally a big rush at this point to get a few last drams in before the end. These whiskies are not really appreciated, because most drinkers are focused on getting the stuff down their necks. When the show does end, the producers and ambassadors then have to deal with the drunken behaviour. Most of it is harmless, but it can be aggressive, rude, and even dangerous.

Bottom line. Don’t be that person. Be the person that has paced themselves and had a great time.

Have you been to a whisky festival? Had a great time or want to add any tips I’ve missed? Let us know!

The Whiskey Hype Train: Expectations vs. Quality

Working at a whisky festival the other day, I was very fortunate to be able to try Pappy Van Winkle 20 and 23 year old for the first time. I think it’s reasonable to say that these bottles are pretty “hyped,” with tales of huge sums of money being exchanged, second mortgages being taken out, fights breaking out at auctions, and thousands of people on the hunt for the magical Pappy. It’s got a reputation. My understanding of this hype was that this is pretty much the best bourbon you can possibly get your hands on.

Was it all it was cracked up to be? Did it live up to the hype?

Not quite. It was very good bourbon, don’t get me wrong. It was a little over-oaked. When I compared it to this year’s William Laurie Weller, I preferred the Weller. By quite a bit.

At the same festival, I was again very fortunate to try an old release of Laphroaig 30 year old. It was on my list of my top whiskies to try in my lifetime. Again, it was a fantastic whisky but not the best I tried that day.

The same could be said of Port Ellen, Brora, or Kariuzawa. These names are kind of mythical in an internet age of Instagram, online auctions and blogs, where everyone can rave about trying the latest, rarest thing even if they didn’t really think it was that great. There’s also the whole “Whisky of the Year” awards situation. Look at Yamazaki Sherry Cask or Craigellachie 31. These whiskies have become hugely hyped almost overnight by winning an award, sometimes only given by one person.

So, why are certain whiskies hyped up? And what can you do to avoid disappointment?

I believe hype comes from a few factors that come together in the right moment. The stuff has to taste good for one. The whisky itself has to be one of the best, but that’s not enough. A bigger factor is perhaps rarity. I’m not talking about Dalmore Trinitas, with only 3 bottles produced. No one cares about that because no one will ever taste it. There could be 100 or 10,000 bottles on the marketplace, but demand has to outstrip supply. Another factor then comes into play: collectability. The whisky has to be something that, perhaps ironically, is so good, no one wants to open it. It’s too good, rare, and/or valuable. You’ll notice that a lot of these whiskies I’ve mentioned above are from closed distilleries. They’ll never make any more after existing casks are bottled and released. That makes them hugely collectable, valuable, and rare. All of these factors drive the price up astronomically, which in turn, drives hype.

What then happens is interesting. These hyped whiskies are then only accessible to the rich few who can afford them. These people often buy up huge amounts of the stuff, making it much rarer and cornering the market. These same people then have a vested interest in driving the hype further and further skyward as they watch their collection’s value soar. There’s money to be made by then drip-feeding these bottles back through auctions and private sales to people only too happy to then spew the hype back up to impress their friends. It’s a vicious circle. And in the midst of it, the actual quality and value of the whisky is often lost.

When ordinary people come to try these whiskies they can be disappointed. It really sucks when you’ve paid a lot of money for that dream sample and reality doesn’t measure up to the hype. Remember: Closed distilleries were sometimes closed for good reason (think Pittyvaich). And sometimes people charge extortionate prices because they can, not because the whisky is worth it.

The message: Be careful. Do your research. To avoid the hype disappointment, try not to buy into it too much. Stay as objective as possible. It’s not always easy, because sometimes the hype is right. Some of the best whiskies I’ve tried have been Port Ellen’s, but there are bad casks from any distillery.

Stay vigilant, my friends!

Peat, Phenols, and ppm: Why Scotch Tastes Smoky

My first taste of peaty whisky was Talisker 10, and like they say with other things, you never forget your first. I wasn’t sure if I liked it, it was like someone had put a bonfire in my whisky. Now, I love it and feel like smoky notes give a complexity to many whiskies, especially at an older age. Actually, old peaty whisky is probably my favourite style, it’s just a shame it’s so damn expensive…

But what the hell is peat, and why does it make our whiskies smoky?

Essentially, peat is a naturally sourced fuel. Small plants and vegetation that have died in bogs or moors become part of the earth as it decomposes and a new layer of flora grows again. In the earth though, that decaying vegetation is compressed and pushed further underground by the following layers of the life and death cycle above. Peat is harvested by simply shoveling it out of the ground. Peat burns well and originally would have used as heating and cooking fuel before coal arrived in more remote parts of Scotland. The important thing for whisky though was that it was used to dry barley after it had been malted. Distillers found that the barley picked up the smoky flavour from the burning peat, and that intense smoky flavour came through into the whisky.

You do occasionally get people telling you that peaty flavour is coming from the water. It makes sense I guess, if you run a tap in the toilet at Kilchoman Distillery, it comes out brown with the peat sediment in it. Peat is in the water, water goes in the whisky. However, if you smell a piece of peat, without burning it, it barely smells of anything.

Understanding Phenol

Burnt peat smalls and tastes smoky because of the presence of Phenol? So what is this phenol that makes our whiskies smoky?

Phenol is a cyclic aromatic compound, but also describes a class of aromatic compounds. The main ones in whisky are Phenol, Cresols, Xylenol, and Guaiacol. There are a tonne of others, and not all are Phenols. Some don’t appear to have any effect on flavour but can affect the volatility of some of the other flavour chemicals. In essence: It’s complicated.

Phenol itself gives you carbolic and antiseptic flavours, Cresols give the whisky medicinal, bandage-like flavour that’s very distinctive in Laphroaig. Xylenol can be extracted from coal tar and has a similar note, while Guaiacol gives a wood smoke type of flavour.

Depending on where the peat is cut from can change the proportion of different Phenols that come through into the whisky too. Highland Park for instance is famous for having a more heathery style of smoke to its whisky and this is often attributed to there being much more heather decomposing and becoming part of the peat than on Islay or mainland Scotland.

You may have noticed that some peaty whiskies use a measurement to declare how peaty they are. The term ppm, which stands for parts per million, is the measurement, but perhaps should be written as Pppm: Phenolic parts per million. A whisky that is 40ppm would be made up of 0.004% phenols. Check my math on that, I’m rubbish at math. [It checks out. -Ed.]

The human nose can detect 1ppm of most Phenols normally, but that can depend on the person, some being more sensitive to the presence of Phenols than others. Also depends on the specific Phenol, because evolution-wise is it pretty advantageous to be able to detect wood smoke, so we are genetically more sensitive to Guaiacol.

Phenol Beyond Peat

Other things that can effect the amount of smoky flavour in a whisky are the production process and maturation, as Phenols are lost at almost every stage of the process. One important aspect though is the cut from spirit to feints, as the Phenols are more concentrated towards the end of the cut. The longer the cut, the more Phenols are going to get through into the spirit.

Note that a lot of Phenol is lost along the way. Laphroaig usually have its barley peated to 40ppm but only 25ppm comes through into the spirit. After 10 years of aging, this drops to 10ppm. This is because these phenolic compounds are only partially oxidised and within the barrel they are allowed to fully oxidise, becoming more complex aromatic compounds. Laphroaig is known for becoming more tropical and fruity at older ages.

So at what point do they measure ppm? Is it the spirit? The final whisky? Neither: It’s actually at the point the barley is malted. Most distilleries specify a ppm level for their barley and let the maltsters do the rest. They can then burn a specific amount of peat for a certain length of time to get it to that exact peating level, and it then gets to the distillery as a very consistent product.

How do they measure ppm? The usual way is High Pressure Liquid Chromatography which is a way of chemically analysing the components of whatever you’re considering. Maltsters and distillers split the category of peated whisky into a handful of sub-categories; lightly peated (2-10ppm), medium peated (11-29ppm) and heavily peated (30-55ppm). Recently another category has emerged: the super heavily peated whisky, which can be anything upwards of 55ppm. Bruichladdich’s Octomore is famous for creating this new category but Ardbeg’s Supernova whiskies (no longer produced) were also at 100ppm. The original Octomores were 80ppm but are now regularly 167ppm and up. Bruichladdich have been setting the bar higher and higher though, and a new record has been set with the Octomore 8.3 at an almost monstrous 310ppm.

Below is a small list of some of the whiskies using peat to give you an idea of the scale of ppm levels. (Numbers are approximate and can vary from release to release):

Bunnahabhain: 2ppm
Bruichladdich: 4ppm
Benromach: 10ppm
Ardmore: 15ppm
Springbank: 20ppm
Talisker: 22ppm
Bowmore: 25ppm
Caol Ila: 32ppm
Lagavulin: 37ppm
Port Charlotte: 40ppm
Laphroaig: 45ppm
Ardbeg: 55ppm
Benromach ‘Peat Smoke:’ 67ppm
Laphroaig Floor Malted: 80ppm
Ardbeg Supernova: 100ppm
Octomore 6.1: 167ppm
Octomore 6.3: 258ppm
Octomore 8.3: 309.8ppm

Tasting Peat and Phenol

Does this mean that Octomore 8.3 is going to taste 8 times peatier than Laphroaig? No, not really. Because nature likes to screw with you, human perception of phenols levels off at around 60ppm (remember, that’s in the barley; what winds up in the whisky is around 25ppm), and when a whisky goes well above this it can can actually taste less peaty than something much lower. The 10 year old cask strength Laphroaig, or some cask strength Ardmores taste peatier to me than some of the Octomores, which I find go beyond overt peat and into a new realm of minerality and meaty complexity. In the end, ppm is a reasonably useless marketing term, as there are a lot of other variables to how peaty your whisky is going to taste.

Peating whisky is a complex science and art. It’s going to bring smoky flavours into your whisky, which you might love or hate, but which you have to admit is distinctive either way. Whether it’s a lightly peated Benromach, floor malted Springbank, or a monster Octomore, peat brings character into a lot of different whiskies and really spreads out the spectrum of flavour you can experience from whisky. Remember that all peat is not created equal. My best friend thought he hated peaty whisky after having a Laphroaig, but now Ardmore is his favourite dram. Even if you think you don’t like peated whisky, I’d recommend picking up a few bottles, trying some different types, and seeing if it grows on you.