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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!