Tasting Tips From Blenders and Distillers


Tasting Tips From Blenders and Distillers

February 8, 2023 –––––– Robin Robinson, , , ,

At this moment, in distilleries and blending labs around the world, a critical communication is underway. A blender or distiller is having a silent conversation with a glass that contains whisky. It could be the latest iteration of a blend in the course of developing a new product, or in the maintenance of a legacy brand. Either way, the process requires passion, methodology, and clinical precision.

We’ve asked some of the world’s top blenders and distillers to give us an extraordinary peek into their labs and workspaces to help us understand their work and their creative process—from sensory overload to how they deal with the more prosaic activities of driving a car or doing the same thing day after day; of taking their “work” home with them and what it all means to you.

While these artisans are much like you and me, they have to deal with everyday issues in a slightly different manner. The issue of sensory impact and overload was considered by the team at Michter’s, where master of maturation Andrea Wilson and head distiller Dan McKee oversee a team of 25 professionals. “Things like illness, lack of sleep, and medication can have an impact, but even if you chose pesto as a dinner item, it may disqualify you from the daily tasting,” says Wilson. There’s also the problem of having too much of a good thing. Ashok Chokalingam, head of distilling and international operations at Amrut Distillery in Bangalore, India, notes that after a day of sampling, “There are times when you feel nasty, with loads of tannins sitting on your tongue, and on those days dinner can be awkward.” When it came to the question of driving a car after a long day’s work, everyone made a point of the safety protocols in place and balancing the different effects of nosing versus tasting. But Shinji Fukuyo, chief blender for Suntory, nailed the best response regarding his 5-day work week in a very witty style: “I enjoy driving and cooking on weekends, not on weekdays.”

“Sensory perspective, from a consumer’s view, is sometimes late in the day, or in the evening in a La-Z-Boy watching the hockey game. Some late-night tastings have had me changing recipes in the middle of the third period!” —DON LIVERMORE,HIRAM WALKER


The number of samples that are approached each day vary largely based on individual roles, responsibilities, and size of the organization. Sandy Hyslop, Chivas Brothers director of blending and inventory who oversees Aberlour and Buchanan’s, says, “I nose over 1,500 samples per week, but taste about one.” Fukuyo leads a team that noses and samples around 30,000 samples each year. For Joe Beatrice, founder of Barrell Craft Spirits in Kentucky, between ten and forty per day. Billy Walker of Glenallachie does 250 to 300 per week and Chokalingam alone limits it to about 10 per day. In spite of this wide range, each reveals the commitment necessary in this line of work, as the numbing effects of ethanol have to be mitigated in order to judge each glass fairly.

Overall, the median proof in the glass for evaluation hovers between a surprisingly low 20% ABV up to 30%, with 40% as an outlier. However, Richard Paterson, master blender for Whyte and Mackay (makers of The Dalmore and Jura), takes a wider approach, “I always prefer to nose the sample straight, then add water depending on the age of the sample. If it is between 30 to 64 years old, then I try to avoid adding water. That just kills it!”

As for the best time of day to execute these activities, one thing is certain: Please don’t call them in the morning, because in the words of Walker, “[Then] the palate is clean and crisp and the connection between the sensory nerves and the brain are at their height.” Compass Box whisky maker James Saxon admits that, while he’s a morning person, “It’s more a question of temperature in the room and ensuring there’s a suitable gap between meals.” His boss and Compass Box founder John Glaser extends that thinking, stating, “While the palate is fresher in the morning, I feel that tasting a whisky in the real-life environment of being at home and enjoying a whisky before or after a meal is critical to fully understanding the whisky.”

While the lab is important from a technical perspective, “A more casual assessment, from a proper drinking glass, in the real environment of your home, provides a critically important and different type of analysis.” Hiram Walker master distiller Don Livermore hit the button on this angle, saying, “Production mandates early morning evaluation. But sensory perspective, from a consumer’s view, is sometimes late in the day, or in the evening in a La-Z-Boy watching the hockey game. Some late-night tastings have had me changing recipes in the middle of the third period!”

Spit or Swallow?

Along with nosing during evaluation comes tasting, and ultimately the question leads to, “Do you swallow what you’re tasting?” Most enthusiastic was Paterson’s colleague Gregg Glass, master blender at Whyte and Mackay. “Yes! We make whiskies to enjoy…we believe in full experiential enjoyment of our whiskies.” Paterson elaborates the nuances of the entire experience: “You must swallow the spirit to digest the full character. The aftertaste allows you to tease out those many hidden gems. At the end of the day the consumer is not buying a bottle to nose it—it’s all about the taste.” Fukuyo agrees, as “Some aromas and flavors require the entire palate in order to be found.” Four Roses master distiller Brent Elliott takes a different approach, with one condition: “Rarely [does he swallow]. But for final blend evaluations of certain products, it is important to evaluate the sample entirely, from aroma to finish.” That methodology is echoed by Joe Beatrice. “We smell more than we taste and have trained our palates to be able to decipher flavor profiles and nuance with the smallest tastes possible,” he says.


Types of Glassware

An area of wide agreement was on the type of glass used, with the stemmed sherry copita being the favorite, followed by the traditional Glencairn. The Michter’s team prefers “wide lip glassware,” which will deliver a different experience than the convergent (narrow lip) shape of the copita. Like Glaser, both Livermore and Glass say they experiment with a wide range of other glassware when in development mode, to mimic different consumer experiences. The lab setting, one in which there is a controlled environment that lessens the opportunity for stray smells to enter, is the overall preferred setting. But as with Glaser and Livermore’s home-like extensions, both Paterson and Glass allude to a number of unusual spaces where a sampling or nosing has occurred: in the back of a car on the way to a meeting, a hotel room, even during a honeymoon on the other side of the world. That’s the kind of dedication we’re looking for!

But what are they looking for in a whisky? Is it a flaw, or is it that sublime combination of aroma, flavor, and mouthfeel that stops these aroma trekkers in their tracks? The comments had a resoundingly upbeat rhythm: “beauty,” “a full dynamic experience,” “sweet spot,” “deliciousness.” “The whole experience,” says Joe Beatrice, “the color, the mouthfeel, complexity, balance, and depth.” Fukuyo describes it this way, “It’s like having Google Maps for flavor—you can zoom all the way in for the details, then zoom out to get a sense of the landscape.” Hyslop recommends using “your own words, your own life experiences” to relate to the whisky. Livermore keeps in mind the intended use— is this to be a cocktail ingredient or sipped neat? “While identifying flaws is important,” Elliott says, “I typically focus on the positive, defining attributes and try to bring them together to create desired flavors or to select the best barrels.” Paterson sees it as “the excitement of the story we can create [for the drinker] through the aromas and tastes.”

And what about us mere mortals? Are there tips on how we can mimic the pros in order to get the most out of the glass? Their most common answer is to take your time and experiment, especially with water. “Taste it neat first before adjusting with water or ice,” says Wilson. Hyslop reminds us, “It’s personal, so don’t let someone else tell you how to drink it.” “Don’t be intimidated by descriptive language for spirits,” advises Elliott, “Descriptors are only there for communication.” Fukuyo-san agrees. “Consumers can enjoy whisky without any technique,” he says. Walker and Chokalingam both advise keeping the palate fresh and not compromised by other flavors. Livermore reminds us to “refer to childhood memories” and to not discount “sessionability,” meaning that special connection between friends that makes everything taste better. “Taste whisky any way you like with those you love,” says Glass. And as far as maximizing the experience of drinking, he advises we follow “The rule of three: What is the sweet element, what is the fruit element, and what is the base/dark/earthy/spice element?” From a practical view, Hyslop advises, “Don’t throw away the old bottle. Keep it around and open a new bottle to compare the aroma notes.”

In the 21st century, our eyes and ears typically lead us through our daily reality. But our sense of taste and smell are our most primal, evoking our deepest memories; a link to our evolutionary ancestors who relied on them for survival in a hostile environment. In the world of whisky, these artisans act as field guides through the most remote parts of our brains, where every aroma and flavor are hashmarks on the trunks of trees along the path they’d like us to take. There is indeed a marvelous discovery in each glass if you follow them.

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