Going Blind

Originally published 24/07/2020

Today, I’ll delve into the murky world of blind tasting. This is an avenue of tasting that I don’t actually partake in much. Not through choice per se, more lack of opportunity. You see not many people run blind tastings here in Ireland. Even if you attend a whiskey club in all likelihood, you’ll get to see what you are consuming beforehand.

So, what’s the big difference between knowing what you are tasting and not knowing what you are tasting? Well, it removes prejudice and bias. That’s the theory anyway. It seems that we as a species are drawn to shiny things and are a sucker for packaging. I suppose that why brands invest huge amounts in branding (unless you’re Benromach... what’s with that new look?) because we can judge quality superficially... fancy branding, check. That’s a solid 2 out of 10 already!

Then, of course, if we have had a good experience with a brand previously, we may already be giving its new release an immediate head start because ‘we know’ it’s going to be quality.... just like the last one. Alternatively, if we have had a bad experience, we may go off a brand for life, unwilling to revisit it in case we suffer again at its hands.

Then, there’s the price. It’s a proven phenomenon that when the same product is placed before us but given two different prices, we often pick the more expensive of the two... this is known as the ‘snob effect’. Basically, when something is more expensive, we expect the quality to increase... 'You get what you pay for, you know?' In fact, as many of us don’t get to taste really, really expensive stuff on a regular basis, unless you're Noortje, then we may fall back on the ‘price is a good indicator of quality’ logic.

Now we do have history here on Malt with blind tastings. Justine and myself blind-reviewed Glenfiddich’s new collaboration with Imperial Leather soap, the Fire & Cane. Then there was the doozy of a piece on the Springbank 15. Please read the comments section on that one... it’s really entertaining. I’m not sure what got more pitchforks raised and torches lit in anger... that or my Proper Twelve review.

Some highlights we’re being told that my palate was ‘objectively bad’, that someone had ‘made a mental note not to bother with Phil’s reviews’ and that I had revealed myself as an amateur and had diminished my other reviews.

Such comments could lead you into thinking that tasting blind is to be avoided for fear of embarrassment. Well, let me tell you a little story.

As you are probably aware from previous reviews on the same weekend of the Glasgow Old & Rare show in 2019, Malt co-hosted a blind tasting with San Francisco Whisky Club. All the drams were to be tasted blind. Now around that table were a few Malt team members, prominent IG’ers, vloggers and bottlers... but most importantly massive whisky fans and to a man, they had more experience than I did, especially with scotch. How many people were able to guess what they were drinking or where it came from?

One, single solitary person. Roy Duff aka Aqvavitae. Roy managed to pick out a Clynelish, or was the closest with the bottle possibly being from Brora as we know it today.

Did we all point fingers at each other, scoff and sneer because none of us was not much kop at actually correctly picking out distilleries? Of course not. The day was brilliant craic and importantly another day of whisky education and of broadening one’s palate.

If you think that blind tasting is only about being able to score brownie points for correctly guessing where the liquid came from you are far wide of the mark. It also doesn’t demean your palate if you can’t figure out where the liquid came from. It’s simply about judging the quality of a liquid stripped of all its extraneous parts... the brand, the labelling, the age statement, the abv and so on.

I mean if you prefer Jura Origin over a North Star Vega 40-year-old that’s entirely up to you.

Any blind tastings that I have attended have been great craic and I would recommend you try it sometime. However, I would disagree that it’s the only way to properly consider whisky.

I think that all of us on Malt have proved that you can be objective about whiskey even if you know all the details including price....in fact because value comes into our scoring then the price is useful to know. I mean on a personal level if I subscribed to the ‘higher the price the higher the quality’ mantra then I wouldn’t have scored a Redbreast Dream Cask a 5 out of 10, or a Green Spot 26-year-old a 4 out of 10 (€380 and £500 a bottle respectively). If anything, then a whiskey that comes with a high price tag means it has to work that much harder to elicit a good or great score.

The whiskies I’m reviewing today were given to me by Alex from San Francisco Whisky Club who do all their tastings blind and INSIST that it’s the only way to taste whisky properly and to be truly objective.

So, I’ll give you my notes, scores and guesses of what the samples were and then do the big reveal at the end.

SFWC Blind Sample #1 - review

Colour: Bright Gold.

On the nose: biscuity malt, caramelised sugar, dried orange peel, spice - fresh ginger and allspice. Menthol, fresh lime juice, liquorice and sandalwood.

In the mouth: a nice, creamy mouthfeel. Praline, lemon oil, coffee grounds and cocoa. Fresh tobacco and draft. Pencil shavings, raisins, milk chocolate and a fino-esque sherry character with some herbal notes too. The finish is of medium length with silky chocolate, dry sherry notes and cinnamon spice.

Score: 7/10

Educated guess: a 1980’s Glenfarclas 8 - 10 years old.

SFWC Blind Sample #2 - review

Colour: Copper.

On the nose: Very funky - farm yardy & dunnage. Soot, engine oil, chalky and then loads of dried fruit. Dates, sultanas and fruit cake. Old Leather, walnuts and furniture polish.

In the mouth: A nice oily, mouth-coating character here. Buttercream & pastry, fig, raisin & date with subdued cinnamon lozenges. Clove rock, aniseed & peppermint. Cocoa powder. Then coal tar and a chalky minerality. The finish was of good length retaining some industrial heft with a sooty finish that was minty too.

Score: 9/10

Educated guess: A sherry matured Clynelish or Glen Scotia - around 18 years old.

SFWC Blind Sample #3 - review

Colour: Umber.

On the nose: Unmistakable pot still spice - lovely warm, woody spice notes of cinnamon, nutmeg & anise. Fresh orange peel, fudge and crushed almonds. Dusty oak, leather & cocoa. Peach, ripe red apples, furniture polish and dried dark fruit - raisins, golden sultanas and dates.

In the mouth: A really oily mouthfeel again - a sweet, sherried arrival. Muscovado sugar, California raisins, medjool dates and roasted hazelnuts. Then mouth-puckering pot still spice grips the palate with vibrant oak and woody spices of cinnamon, dried ginger and nutmeg. Dark chocolate, rolling tobacco and espresso too. The finish is long with coffee, anise and orange peel.

Score: 9/10

Educated guess: An All Sherry Redbreast Single Cask 18 to 20 years old.


Time for the big reveal. Drum roll, please...

#1. Whiskybase 85628 - John Power & Son Single Pot Still bottled at 43% confirmed as a 1940's distillate and probably bottled in the early 1950’s (around 7 years old)

#2. Whiskybase 108665 - Redbreast 12-year-old bottled at 43% and a 1965 US import

#3. Whiskybase 86761 - La Maison Du Whisky Redbreast 25-year-old First Fill Sherry Cask bottled at 53% and one of 576 bottles.

Well, that was an education. What surprised me most was that these were all Irish whiskies. I was confident about sample #3 but samples #1 & #2 are totally unlike there modern namesakes. Especially with the Redbreast 12-year-old I could see why Dublin Pot Still was so celebrated and sought after at the time.

Starting with the Powers - this was a lovely drop and a great historical journey back in time. There was a good depth of flavour but what struck me most was the dry sherry notes. The closest a modern Powers would come to this is John’s Lane but certainly, I think this was a more robust spirit whose only shortcoming was a rather short finish and compared to samples #2 & #3 just seemed a little timid.

The Redbreast 12 was super stuff. Quite a challenging whiskey to spend time with but one that certainly got you thinking. It bears absolutely no resemblance to modern-day Redbreast 12 displaying an industrial heft and oiliness that at present no modern Irish whiskey displays. Certainly, that industrial character is what led me down the Clynelish & Glen Scotia path. It was robust, characterful and forceful in its delivery and a joy to have tried.

Finally, the Redbreast 25-year-old from La Maison Du Whisky. Certainly, it showed how much modern Pot Still has changed from the days of Dublin lore. While still with a spicy, oily texture of its own it definitely lacked that dirty, industrial feel of the 60’s Redbreast. Saying that what a depth of aromas and flavours it displayed and I can see why it is often cited as one of the best Redbreast expressions out there.

In summary, then... don’t fear going blind. Embrace it, share samples with mates and don’t let them know what they are for the fun of it... who knows you may get a few surprises!

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Comments from original post

  1. Smiffy

    An interesting piece Phil and certainly adds to the credence amongst some whisk(e)y buffs that whisk(e)y was better in the old days. I will have to give blind tasting a go.

    1. TheWhiskySleuth

      Great piece Phil! And have gone back and read through the springbank piece again for a giggle. Blind tastings are something I’ve started doing a lot more with friends during lockdown and I’m loving it. So refreshing to do away with all the subconscious biases. Where people trip up, I think, is introducing ego into the equation, and it’s something that came up time and again in the springer comments, what if you score a supermarket blend highly, or score down something you previously scored highly. Well, so what? The whole point is that you are judging something at a singular point in time with absolutely no reference points. Its only people’s egos that get in the way of enjoying a whisky for what it truly is. As I’m not usually a fan I was pleasantly surprised putting the Balvenie Caribbean cask second in last year’s TWE whisky of the year, and I maintain it’s one of the best balvenies I’ve tasted. I was equally surprised to put laga 16 in last place, even though I usually rate it quite highly and have enjoyed many drams of it since. If you leave your ego at the door then it just becomes a bit of fun, possibly educational, and definitely enlightening. We should all be doing more blind tastings.

      And that redbreast 12 sounds absolutely incredible!

  2. Dan W

    Hi Phil

    Going back to the blind tastings. You’re a brave man!

    As the author of the ‘conscious decision to ignore Phil’s reviews’ comment I’ve purposely avoided going back to look at the further comments on your Springbank 15 review. Until today.

    So I have an apology to make. Firstly, having read my initial comment I cringed and realised I’d been a bit of a p***k frankly.

    Secondly, ironically about 6 months ago I opened a Springbank 15 from my stash and was less than impressed with it. Defintely not as good as previous Springbank 15s I’d had. Furthermore on a Springbank Facebook group I’m a member of they were discussing batch variation in the Springbank 15 and how it seems to vary a lot in quality. Turns out the bottle I was unimpressed with was from a batch that several other members were saying wasn’t as good as previous batches and had a bit of an off note to it. Turns out it’s from the same 2018 bottle you reviewed. Would I have scored it 3/10? No. But I’d have probably only have given it 5/10 as opposed to other batches which I would score more around 7/10 or so.

    To also reply to Whisky sleuths comment. I find the point about ego interesting. I’d agree that it is important to remove your ego when reading a review. And to keep in mind that if someone you view as an ‘expert’ dislikes something you like. That is not a criticism of your taste.

    But I also think that it is quite important for a reviewer to remove their ego from the reviewing process. Many people seem to think a review is entirely subjective. When really whilst it is difficult to be 100% objective a good review should try to remove their subjective opinion as much as possible and view the thing they are reviewing objectively.

    To clarify. I really don’t like Talisker. It’s bemusing to me because I feel I should. I like peat. I like coastal whiskies. Talisker should be right up my street. But I just can’t take to it. I’ve had several tries of the 10 and 18 and like neither. The only Talisker I’ve ever enjoyed was a sample of the 8 year old cask strength I was given last year. If I were a reviewer apraising Talisker subjectively I’d give them all (barring the 8) 2/10. But if I were righting a review I’d have to try and put my subjective thoughts about Talisker aside and think ‘does this do what a Talisker is supposed to? Is this a good example of a Talisker?’ And try to score accordingly.

    This is where a blind review can become a ‘hospital pass’ to a reviewer. The idea is that without knowing what is being reviewed the reviewer will appraise the subject entirely objectively. But it is also true that without points of reference it can be harder to review objectively and it becomes entirely about the reviewers subjective opinions.

    1. Hi Dan,
      It is very noble to be able to self reflect and and grow from past digressions. Also, rare that to admit to others and its really normal in our experience and with our group that people have strong emotions towards certain whiskies and distilleries. I think this is good. It can be like have a sports team or a favourite musician. Its something you identify with and admire for its differences from others. Having said that, the reason we like to taste blind is that it is indeed a lot of fun because you challenge yourself and that bias is somewhat removed. Doing so in a group allows you to share your flavour experiences and learn from others too. People screaming about which distillery or vintage a dram is in our sessions get shut down pretty quickly. We only care about the flavour and quality of the liquid and its always fun to reveal the whiskies after each session. With regard to Talisker, in my own experience it was a distillery that took some time for me to understand and warm up to. If you get the chance to taste some older vintages such as the cask strength 25y bottlings they are brilliant and a little easier to get in to. Everyone is on their own whisky journey and how we all experience the same whisky will pretty much always differ. It can be fun to find a good drinking companion to share the journey with or join a group of nerds like us! Slange!


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