The vocabulary of wine tasting has, perhaps rightly, come in for a bit of stick. In pubs and over dinner tables you will frequently hear people parodying the often over-the-top language used to describe wine. "Taste's like my grandmother's petticoat dipped in honey". This sketch is a perfect send up of the matter:
I guess this is part of the British psyche. If we see that someone or something is taking itself too seriously we seek to bring the matter back down to earth, and at its core this gentle mocking makes an important point. What use are long and complicated tasting notes if only a handful of the world's best tasters can appreciate them? Do they serve the rest of us who just want to drink enjoyable wines or whiskies? Are they really anything more than a marketing tool used by producers as a way to differentiate their product in an increasingly dense market, or are they tools of snobbery which make products seem inaccessible to the uninitiated?
The subject of tasting is undoubtedly vast, complex and a matter of some debate. Many far more qualified than I have written on the subject and Charles MacLean's Nosing Course, first published in Whisky Magazine, is a great introduction. The full article can be read here and is well worth taking the time to study.
Several attempts have been made to simplify whisky by presenting its huge number of aromas and flavours in an easy to assimilate, visual way. The most recent is by whisky expert Dave Broom who concentrates on Diageo's whiskies.
Back in 1979, the first serious attempt to systematically map the complexity of whisky flavours resulted in a flavour wheel aimed at whisky blenders. It was useful to the industry as it covered off-notes such as 'stale' and 'defective wood� (whiskies displaying these characteristics wouldn't be selected for sale) but wasn't really aimed at the people drinking the stuff.
More recently, Charles MacLean updated the original wheel so that it could be more easily used by whisky drinkers rather than whisky makers. It remains an indispensable tool for anyone serious about whisky appreciation.
I'm not going to tell you which whiskies you should like, even if I wanted to I couldn't. Everyone is different and there are as many palates as there are people. "Detecting an aroma is only part of a complex internal process; different individuals react differently to the same aroma based on their gender and age and will have their own unique way of describing familiar scents based on their own unique experiences." You and I could drink the same whisky and describe it totally differently.
You may find the subjective element of tasting liberating and empowering or a little daunting depending on your point of view. Thankfully whisky tasting is relatively free of baggage and, whichever camp you fall into, developing your whisky knowledge and confidence will be stimulating, rewarding and fun.
The 'best' single malts out there simply won't appeal to everyone's palate. A whisky may be beautifully put together and use the best casks, but who's to say that it will press the relevant buttons on each and every drinker? There are some very affordable whiskies which deserve to be re-evaluated. The truth is you don�t need to spend thousands of pounds on a bottle of whisky to have something fantastic to drink.
Whisky is an egalitarian kind of drink. Useful as the charts and tasting wheels are in whisky appreciation, the most important point to grasp is a simple one - you bought the whisky, it's in your glass and it's your palate that will judge whether it's good or bad. If you like and get pleasure from a whisky the main purpose of whisky appreciation has been achieved. Affordable or expensive, old or young, mass produced or rare and whether you can't (or can) make head nor tail of the flavours described on the back of the bottle: if you enjoy a whisky whatever anyone else thinks is essentially moot.
Trying to identify flavours and aromas is rewarding and challenging, but don't get too hung up on the nitty-gritty of flavour classification. Where knowing a little more about whisky aromas, flavours and types can really help is in finding other whiskies that you will enjoy drinking.
What follows next is a guide to help you find more whiskies that you will like. You can do this without having to acquire an in depth knowledge of olfactory science or being able to identify hundreds of aromas. Whisky after all is about drinking and the more you try the more you will know. Not to put those of you off who are keen on becoming the world's next great whisky nose, but the rest of us will be waiting for you in the bar!