Whisky Advocate

More validation that blenders should taste the whiskeys they select and not just nose them.

February 22nd, 2010

I just spent time nosing and tasting American whiskey samples. I am consulting for a company that will be releasing a new whiskey in the near future.

I can’t go into detail (yet) on the what the whiskey will be, but one thing is (once again) perfectly clear. Some whiskeys have great aromas and can have serious flaws on the palate.

Given that a lot of whiskey blending and cask selection is done by nosing and not by tasting (out of necessity for some blenders working through a hundred or more samples in a morning), I think this potential disparity is significant–especially given that most drinkers care far more about how a whiskey tastes than how it smells.

Maybe this explains why some whiskeys aren’t as good as they could be? And, looking at it from a different perspective, I wonder how many really wonderful tasting whiskeys are passed over because their aromas are only mediocre?

Food (or should I say “whiskey”) for thought.

32 Responses to “More validation that blenders should taste the whiskeys they select and not just nose them.”

  1. lawschooldrunk says:

    very interesting. hmm…

  2. lawschooldrunk says:

    any way to know if any master blenders taste and not just nose?

  3. JWC says:

    very disappointing to hear john. if it is going to be released soon but it has a serious flaw re: taste, my assumption is that it can’t be corrected in time? even though i am trying to get readjusted to scotch, i’m coming to the conclusion that i don’t have to – i enjoy bourbon (and other american and canadian whiskey) more and, relatively speaking, great bourbon is much more accessible (price wise) than great scotch. accordingly, any new whiskey releases are welcomed and looked forward to.

    • John Hansell says:

      The bad apple was a single cask. The owners are aware of the cask and I am pretty sure they won’t use that cask as part of their bottling.

      • Red_Arremer says:

        John, could you compare and contrast the nose and palate of this bad apple cask? What were the differences?

        • John Hansell says:

          Sure, Red. The nose was beautiful–which is why the noser/blender piced this cask to be on the “short list”. Problem is, from mid-palate onwards, there was this VERY unpleasant damp basement ,moldy, rotting wood flavor that was borderline repulsive. And the more water I added, the worse got. If the flavor was as good as the nose, it would probably have rated it around a “90”. But, because of the palate, I probably wouldn’t have scored it above the high 60s.

          • Eric says:

            Doesn’t that illustrate a bit of a problem with the 100-point rating scale, that a whisky that’s “borderline repulsive” still scores in the high 60’s?

            As an aside, what’s the lowest rating you’ve ever given?

          • John Hansell says:

            Not really Eric. My rating scheme is well-defined. I define anything rated 60-69 as “Major flaws. Avoid.” So, I don’t see where the problem is.

      • Alex says:

        I concur that blenders should taste as well as nose their cask samples but the we know that the reality of tasting every one is slim. Additionally, the fact that these casks are worth alot, especially older ones, ensure that if one blender deems them sub par that they will get sold on to another that will happily utilise them.

        The blender’s art is just that – and their bottlings will be their testament.

  4. Paul M says:

    I was at a tasting recently and a scotch that had a wonderful nose, but when I tasted if I was very disappointed. It was flat. On the other hand I can’t remember tasting anything good that didn’t have a nice nose.

  5. Louis says:

    This brings up another question. A batch of blended whisky, or a low end bourbon for that matter, is made up of at least hundreds of casks. So it really isn’t practical to taste or nose them all, and maybe that’s part of the reason why inexpensive whiskies arenot so great those times when they aren’t (I am using this wording so as not to cast aspersions on ALL inexpensive frams).

  6. sam k says:

    Any idea where and why the “nosing over tasting” concept took hold, and why it still has the influence it does? I understand why a blender wouldn’t have the ability (or stamina) to taste hundreds of samples in short order, but your experience shows that taste should be (and indeed is) a critical component of the finished product’s pedigree.

    Which leads me to the same question as LSD…

  7. two-bit cowboy says:

    Reminds me of a note I posted last Friday. The distilleries bombard us with new expressions to, what? Keep us interested? Ensure the obsessive – compulsive ones of us keep buying because we must have every expression? And, how many of those in the barrage we’re hit with are ones they failed to taste and are therefore outhouse awful? If we slow down our buying, will they (that’s somewhat of a catchall they) slow down on new expressions and make more time to ensure what they’re delivering is worth drinking?

    I know, I know: all questions and no answers. Maybe this is like Plato and Aristotle’s time.

    • JWC says:

      TBC, assuming that your reference to “slow down our buying” is with respect to the new expressions and we continue to buy the existing ones, what incentive (other than pride) would the distilleries have to expend more time ($$$) to improve on the existing ones – we are still buying those afterall.

      • two-bit cowboy says:

        JWC,

        I guess I’m taken aback by the thought that distilleries “need” to “improve on the existing” whiskies. To use The Glenlivet as an example: I’m a dear fan of The Glenlivet 18 year old. I would hate to see anyone at the distillery or further up the ownership chain try to fix it — it ain’t broken. For the money, though, they can keep their relatively new 25 year old. On my palate the 18’s better, and that’s not just a sour grapes view from not wanting to pay for the 25. (Wonder if they only nosed the 25?) The 18’s better! Makes me skeptical of any other “new” releases they might come up with. The only problem with the 18 is that it’s gone up in price about 45% in the last three years. That’s not an improvement, and it puts my “nose” out of joint.

        • Neil Fusillo says:

          It’s not specifically a need to improve per se, but the art of blending casks is something that is VERY important toward keeping that taste you love so dearly. Each cask the aging spirit sits in imparts different characteristics, and successive fillings of those casks change the characteristics over time, meaning a cask can’t be used indefinitely.

          Each wash is slightly different when finally distilled. And each distillate is made from cuts that are less a matter of science and more a matter of artful tasting experience.

          It’s a blender’s job to take all those different variables and create that whisky you know and love and maintain its consistency of character through each and every batch so that the Glenlivet 18 you had two years ago isn’t wholly different from the Glenlivet 18 you have today.

          I wouldn’t look upon the job of blending as strictly to create the new. It’s also to recreate the old.

          • two-bit cowboy says:

            Great points, Neil. Thanks. As I ponder your points, I think more about another favorite: The Balvenie 15. They openly don’t attempt to build in that consistency you’re talking about. Each cask is an attempt to offer something similar, but it must be somewhat easier and less laborious to put out each new offering of the Single Barrel as it is to produce a new batch of The Glenlivet 18. I would think, anyway. My current “batch” (If that’s the right word for The Balvenie 15) was distilled in 1990 and bottled in 2008. I have another in the wings that was distilled in 1992 and bottled in 2008. As my current open bottle nears the end of its life I will do a side-by-side comparison. Thanks again for your comment.

          • Red_Arremer says:

            Those balvenie 15’s vary a lot and the age does too. I’ve seen ones more than 18 yrs around. I guess they just wait for them to be ready.

  8. This is, for me, one reason why so many blends are strong on the nose, yet weaker on the palate.

    I can think of a few blends which have incredibly enticing noses, and then rather weak bodies. Fortunately, they don’t have any flaws in their body – no sulphurs or chemical note. Just a lack of presence when compared with the nose.

    But of course, stellar casks go into blends because their noses are merely mediocre. And some casks with ropey bodies probably end up in there because of excellent noses. That’s the nature of the beast.

    I’ve long taken the view that the blender’s art is about consistency from batch to batch. The reason I believe the Highland Park 25yo to be the best single malt scotch whisky going is that every batch is superb. Just like the last one.
    Which, when you have only 25yo barrels and older, is quite an accomplishment.
    (Their 30yo and 40yo are similarly stunning sensory experiences, and even more amazing when stock is considered, but the 25’s been going for longer so gets the laurels based on proven performance!)

    Whilst sampling of the individual casks would be nice, I suspect it’s impractical at most scales. The compensation claims for liver damage, even if they just had a few drops from each cask, would make it economically prohibitive! ;-)

    And would it really improve Highland Park 25? Or is it just that HP25 is designed very well? Does that mean that watery blends are badly designed?

    What I would like to see – and what would require tasting rather than nosing – is more focus on the mouth-feel of the end product.
    I like my whisky thick and viscous. I suspect it’s the thin, watery body after a full, luscious nose that really leaves me unimpressed with many blends. (And even some single malts.)

    Single malt, and single-cask cask-strength malt especially, has spoilt me in that regard.

    Sadly, chill-filtering and selling into markets where ice in the drink is the norm mean that there’s probably very little incentive to deliver my desires. Especially as it would make consistency harder to achieve…

  9. Red_Arremer says:

    It has to do with how a whisky making company is organized. A lot of the time, there’s just one guy who does the bulk of the blending work and who really has no one who can gainsay his work– He’s judge jury and (in the worste cases) executioner of the whisky. If he gets lazy about a product, who’s going to know or do anything about it? Product testing doesn’t really help because the point of it is to get the non-expert opinion so flaws may never be noticed– In fact depending on how the testing is done the people it’s tested on may never be given an easy way to report on certain kinds of flaws.

  10. Rick Duff says:

    Guess this proves the distilleries need to hire more taster so that every last cask is tasted and evaluated annually. I’m sure they could find some employees fairly easily and inexpensively. Probably 70% of the people on this blog.

  11. David Stewart says:

    Some very good points above. I would like to add that the companies also have the need to not take a loss on any cask if they can avoid it. Not that some or any part of the industry wants to pass off an inferior product (as far as I know) but each cask is quite an expense. John, maybe you could discuss some of the options a company has for a cask, such as you have described above?

  12. Joe M says:

    I’m wondering how far along distilleries are in the science of whisky tasting. Would it be possible test for the presence of substances that create the negative woody, bitter, modly flavors? Perhaps a combination of nosing and chemical analysis could produce better results.

    • Red_Arremer says:

      Some kinds of chemical analysis could be used to screen out bad casks. However, as David Stewart mentions, a hardworking blender might be as interested in figuring out how to incorporate bad casks as rooting them out.

  13. This would also explain why some whiskies have such a great nose, with a palate that just doesn’t follow through in complexity, distinction, or quality.

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  15. rjdinkel says:

    From my experience and having met and discussed blending with several top Scottish blenders, while most of the selections made for a blend and the major components are nosed, they normally do adjust their ‘blends’ by taste after the initial vattings to assure a consistent flavour. Don’t know about the US side.

  16. Patrrick says:

    Hi Jon,
    If you consider the number of casks used a “standard” whisk(e)y, blend or not, you can nose all the casks, but you would not be able to taste them all. At the end, what matters is the end result. If the final product is acceptable, the blender has done is job?

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