I don’t know about you, but it’s a long while since I actually read a tasting note.
Oh, I might have skimmed through them, or flicked back up when a colleague awarded an especially beneficent or draconian score, but on the whole, I’m not really that bothered. Partially because I’ve reached the stage at which I’ll make my own mind up about a whisky, thank you very much, and I’m mainly just curious about how closely my approximations align with those of my co-writers. And partially because tasting notes aren’t really why I come to Malt anyway. I became a fan back in the days when it was just Mark, trundling his once-or-twice-weekly way through Bruichladdich’s liquid corpus, with occasional guest appearances from Chichibu and Glendronach, and I stayed because I liked the long-form writing. I liked the arguments, the opinions, the eloquently elucidated points of view. I liked the humour, the approach, the style. I liked that it wasn’t just about the whisky in the glass. Tasting notes? Sure. But I could get those anywhere.
These days I can count the whisky and cider blogs I’m a regular (at least weekly) reader of without running out of fingers. And what they all have in common is that they are long-form, in-depth and well-written. They’re my boozy answer to broadsheet opinion columns (which I also read far more often than I’d like). If a blog’s only about tasting notes, I tend to switch off. With the exception of Whiskyfun, which is effectively an albeit-entertaining liquid encyclopaedia; a reference point.
I found myself pondering tasting notes the other day when comparing my own to those on an unusually well-written back label. As you’d expect, the back label’s were far more perfunctory; bottle label copy is a distinct and challenging discipline, and one that is often rushed or found badly wanting. But it made me wonder what the real point of tasting notes is; what the motivation is for them, and whether they’re actually any use.
The oft-repeated get-out with many a blogger is “my tasting notes are only for me … they’re only a record of what I’d tried”, but I think we can dismiss this with a slight curled lip. Nobody puts anything on the internet “just for them”. Everything that I’ve ever posted has gone online because I want people to read what I’ve written and am arrogant enough to think that some people will appreciate it. We can respond in kind to the “oh, but I just love writing” set. Loving to write doesn’t necessitate loving to be read. A colleague of mine writes poetry and, to the best of my knowledge, doesn’t share them with anyone. If you put something into a public forum you are making a statement. You are asking, perhaps, for validation.
Tasting notes are one of the most nerve-wracking things to publish. They are so, so intensely personal and they are what many of your readers, if you write about food and drink, will (wrongly, in my opinion) evaluate your competence on entirely. If you think that’s an exaggeration I suggest you look at some of the comments that followed Phil’s assessment of the Springbank 15-year-old. There are some deeply unsettling people out there, as Tiger King has recently so vividly confirmed.
Perhaps because of the weight and importance placed upon tasting notes, there’s a tendency for writers to do what is often described as “going off on one”. To plumb the unlikeliest depths of aroma descriptors and emerge with the likes of parboiled gardenias, carbonated bryll-cream and freshly-ground Rolexes, all top-noted by an overwhelming whiff of bullshit. Then there are the tasting notes that go on longer than a self-isolated weekend. Jim Murray once wrote in a note for William Larue Weller “I have detected eight different sugars with a reasonable degree of certainty”. Really? Certainty? Had all eight been poured into his glass on the sly when Jim wasn’t looking? There used to be a blogger – I’ve no idea if he’s still going – who would occasionally come up with a grand total of over one hundred descriptors for aromas, flavour and finish when they were all totted up … for a single whisky.
I think it’s fair to say that the worst excesses of tasting notes stem from a combination of chest-thumping and insecurity. So, really, just from insecurity. But what should a tasting note be? Jancis Robinson MW is on record as being sceptical of any tasting note with more than four flavours in it, a number my own are almost invariably guilty of exceeding. Certainly long lists of seemingly unconnected flavours and aromas do nothing to paint a mental picture of the experience of drinking a whisky, cider or wine – they’re just a jumbled mess. Far too often, when I do bother reading them, I find vital aspects; texture, alcohol intensity, acidity, tannin, sweetness near-completely overlooked.
The Wine and Spirits Education Trust’s answer is what they call a Systematic Approach to Tasting, which you’ll find here. If you take their level three ‘Advanced’ qualification in wine or spirits, or the two-year level four Diploma, it is what you’re expected to use for your blind tasting exams. Essentially they comprise a twenty-five point roster of all the conceivable characteristics of a drink, beginning with appearance, working through nose and palate and finally reaching your conclusions based on all of the above. The eagle-eyed among you will notice that “aroma characteristics” and “flavour characteristics” make up only a small part of the full assessment; of the 25 marks, five are for aroma characteristics and four for flavours; just over a third of the total available. And with those four or five characteristics you are expected to indicate the primary fruit of the grape, the secondary flavours from fermentation and possibly oak, and the tertiary flavours of maturation where possible. In short, you have to be pretty succinct. Not least because, for the final diploma tasting exam, you have just two hours to make 12 of these 25-point notes.
The Systematic Approach to Tasting has been a bane upon almost half of my twenties. It’s tedious and boxy and it tears all the joy out of a drink, but as a discipliner of comprehensive tasting note writing I don’t think it has ever been bettered. It requires you to, quite literally, tick every box; to consider, as objectively as humanly possible, every aspect of a drink and to evaluate its quality accordingly. If your sole object is to compile a liquid record I would heartily advocate it as the approach you should take.
But to my mind, a tasting note should be something more. I don’t want my tasting notes to seem like dull and dusty liquid fact-files; I want them, like any other writing, to stir some sort of emotion. Provoke some sort of reaction. If a cider, wine or whisky has filled me with dizzy, gushing joy at first sip, I want you to feel that. I want you to be swept along, and to want to drink it for yourself. If a drink has been a plodding, trudging slog, I want that to clump and slump its stodgy way out of the note. That doesn’t mean launching an armada of individual descriptors and it doesn’t mean anally detailing the exact amount of titratable acidity, either. I suspect, as most good writing does, it means telling a story whilst cleaving as close to the truth as is achievable.
Tasting notes should be the purest, fullest possible verbalised expression of the drinking experience. They should engage, sweep you along, make you want to pick up a glass. Far too often I think they’re boring, sterile, confusing, or a waste of words. I dare say mine have often fallen into any and all of those five categories, and that’s a shame.
So, as a bit of an experiment, and perhaps as a brush-up on self-discipline, today’s “perry pair” features just one expression, the West Milton Dorset Perry, but two tasting notes. In the first instance I’ve gritted my teeth and knuckled down to a WSET-style Systematic Approach tasting note, and in the second instance I’ve just gone for the usual Malt style. So you may freely choose which style suits you best. Or ignore both, as the case may be.
It seems only fair to devote at least a few words to the drink we’re so rigorously examining. West Milton are a Dorset-based cidery who have been operating since the turn of the Millennium. They’ve done tremendous work in promoting Dorset cider and particularly in identifying and propagating rare Dorset apple varieties, detailed in cidermaker Nick’s collaborative book with Liz Copas “The Search for Dorset’s Lost Cider Apples”. I’ve had, and enjoyed, a few of their ciders before (never on Malt duty) but this is my first experience of one of their perries. It’s made from “traditional perry pears” – unspecified – and is described as naturally sparkling on the bottle; whether it’s bottle-conditioned or made in the pet-nat style I’ve no idea. Answers on a postcard please. (A reminder that I must write an article on the styles of sparkling cider and perry one day.)
I bought my 750 ml from Scrattings, who seem to have since sold out. But you can still find bottles here for the reasonable rate of £6.50 a pop.
West Milton Dorset Perry – WSET Systematic Approach to Tasting note
Appearance: Pale lemon-green.
Nose: Medium intensity. Aroma characteristics of green apple, pear, elderflower, lime and grapefruit. There is some volatile acidity (acetic).
Palate: The perry is off-dry, with medium (+) acidity, low alcohol and medium (-) body. It has medium (+) flavour intensity with flavour characteristics of green fruit (apple and pear), citrus (lemon, grapefruit), grass and secondary flavours of yeast. Other observations are that it has pétillance and low levels of volatile acidity (acetic). The finish is medium.
Quality assessment: This is a good perry that demonstrates fresh primary fruit with pleasing intensity. It lacks the complexity, development and depth to be considered “outstanding”, and is “good” rather than “very good” owing to the volatile acidity (acetic) which, whilst not excessive, hides some elements of the riper fruit character.
West Milton Dorset Perry – Malt-style note
Colour: Let’s stick with the WSET or we’ll confuse ourselves. Pale lemon-green.
On the nose: It’s a really zingy, green nose this – all about high notes and freshness, green apples, pears and lemons. It’s not super complex though, admittedly, and there’s just a little acetic hiding what could be the rounder, riper fruits and honeys. Definitely not enough to be off-putting though, unless you live in Peterstow.
In the mouth: More of the same, really. On the dry side – just off-dry – and sticking to those sharp green fruits and grasses. It’s a very outside-on-a-hot-day sort of drink, and one for fans of Sauvignon Blanc, given all that snappy citrus. Mild fizz very much bolsters its lifting, refreshing theme. My only grumble is that acetic element. It’s not huge, just sufficient to obscure a little of the clean, round fruit and add a slightly sour component.
There’s plenty to like here, very good fruit was clearly used, it’s just a shame about that acetic tinge. Of course some people like a bit of acetic, and those people will find a very great deal to enjoy. But it’s just a shade too much for me to be a repeat buyer of this batch.
As to the tasting notes, whilst returning to the auld enemy of the Systematic Approach was an interesting exercise, it was far too much like exercise for me to want to do it again. They’re tasting notes for bores and Excel-fanciers and the sort of people who tell you about their car’s torque. If nothing else, drinks writing should be about deep and fierce joy. And that doesn’t pair easily with something labelled “systematic”.
Thanks for sharing the WSET method of tasting, it really seems like a very sterile way of reviewing a drink. It’s put me off pursuing any of the courses(not for any other reason than I love a drink) although that wasn’t high up on my list anyway.
Loving the cider reviews, I’m really going to have to pick a few up. I’ve had more sake this year than cider for God’s sake!
I must admit, grumble as I may about the WSET’s SAT approach, taking the diploma is probably the best thing I’ve done in my time in the drinks industry. For depth, rigour, learning potential and the way it makes you investigate any given drink, it really doesn’t have an equal either in academic or practical terms. (Other than the MW, the next level, but that’s a whole other board game!) I’m not sure I’d recommend it to anyone who doesn’t need the qualification, as it’s two years of your life and a lot of money, but I’d warmly recommend the Level 3 Advanced course to anyone interested in drinks. I have repeatedly found it to have outstanding cross-category ramifications.
Really glad to hear you’re enjoying the cider pieces. Plenty more to come I hope!
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