Friday, 31 July 2009

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

40 whiskies in a row: The good, the bad and the horrible

Now THAT was a truly bizarre, and enlightening experience.

I'd been asked ages ago to be one of the judges for the Independent Bottlers' Challenge, a competition in which the top indie bottlers of malt whisky submit their goods to be rated, blind, by a team of entirely sober people. No need for faffing about with colourful descriptions, just simple points out of ten, down to 0.1 and up to 9.9.

But I wasn't really expecting the box of 40 (yes, forty)single malt whiskies that arrived in the post at the weekend. Thirty, no less, Islay malts, the rest 'Island (non-Islay)' Miniatures, I hasten to add. But still.

How to go about it? Tempting as it was to be sociable and invite others to participate, I decided this would be a mistake. I had to go it alone and take it seriously. But how to set baseline parameters? What IS a 'ten' in whisky terms?

First of all, I decided to model my approach on that of John Ramsay, recently retired master blender for the Edrington Group. That meant no swallowing, a reduction with water (though John likes to go for 20 per cent alcohol, I prefer it marginally stronger), sniffing both without and with H2O, a spitoon, a teaspoon, tasting glass and a careful regard for colour. I also decided to tackle all 40 in one day, as I didn't trust my tastebuds to remain constant in their perceptiveness. This was all about comparisons, after all.

The bottles had numbers, not names, though alcoholic strength and age was indicated. To begin with, I went through the sniffing/tasting/sitting ritual with a bottling I have of Bruichladdich Infinity, which I both like and have suspicions of in equal measure. I made that a five, and got stuck in.

I don't want in any way to affect the outcome of the competition if other judges are reading this, so I'll restrict myself to generalities. First, considering there were 30 Islay malts, the variation, even in style, was astonishing. There were drams so heavily sherried their trademark peat was all but masked. There were mild, creamy, American-oak lightweights. There were horrible aberrations tasting of diesel or reeking of ( and I never thought I would actually say this,as I thought this was joke taste)burning tyres. The thought that somebody liked them enough to bottle them was awe-inspiring.

But there were some gems. Unexpected ones too, given the indicated ages. The truth about whisky that dare not speak its name is this: some casks are crap. Always were, always will be. Every year, aged, bad whisky that can't salvaged by decanting and ageing in different wood is recycled into the wash for re-distilling.

The question I'm asking is this: are my faculties completely awry, or are some independent bottlings so bad they ought never to have left the distillery?

And the observation I'm making is, that if I'd swallowed (even the two-teaspoon measure I was using) the alcohol would have unbalanced my opinion after maybe four whiskies, increasing affection and robbing me of objectivity. As it was, when finished, despite the inevitable absorption through the mouth, I felt as if I'd consumed maybe a pint of shandy.