Interpretation – Understanding Flavour Commentaries
As explained on my Reviewer Selection page, I have focused on particularly active online reviewers when developing the Meta-Critic score analysis here. I select potential reviewers because they have a good number of publicly-available scores for whiskies in my dataset. I then verify that they have consistent overall scoring characteristics, allowing me to integrate them into the final Meta-Critic database.
But of course, a quality score is only one way that reviewers try to add value to your whisky selection process. Indeed, many reviewers choose not to explicitly score whiskies at all (as I avoid doing in my flashlight reviews). But they all try to help you understand the characteristics of different whiskies, by comparing their relative flavour components. It is these reviewer flavour descriptions that form the basis for the other analysis provided on this site – the proper flavour map based on cluster analysis and principal component analysis.
Flavour is complex subject, and one that is very subjective to an individual’s personal experience (and potentially, even genetic makeup). And just like how we find some reviewers are not so consistent in their scoring, not all reviewers are equally successful in describing what they smell/taste. So I thought I would add some general comments about understanding the relative flavour commentaries that whisky reviewers make.
Types of Reviews
In my experience, there seems to be three broad classes or styles of whisky review sites out there, providing:
- Short, pithy comments on the whisky that may be entertaining, but are generally not very informative. These are among the least valuable in helping you pick a whisky, as you can often only rely on the score (if present).
- A brief introduction to the whisky, followed by succinct descriptions of the main flavour elements – usually broken down by nose, palate, and finish – with some personal perspective and context at the end. These are particularly valuable, especially when they provide the sequence of main flavour/aroma experiences over time.
- Detailed discussions of the history of the distillery (often recycled from other reviews), followed by incredibly detailed tasting notes describing everything that popped into the reviewer’s head while sampling. Given how personal one’s taste/smell experience has been in life, this level of detail doesn’t really help us much (unless you are trying to psychoanalyze the reviewer’s childhood). Basically, there can be a real “forest for the trees” problem of picking out the key whisky flavours when reviewers get too detailed (or fanciful) in their descriptions. Even otherwise knowledgeable experts can all too easily fall into this trap.
There are many more variations of course, but I find a lot of sites fall into one of those three general categories. And again, how well (or consistently) a reviewer ranks their whiskies may not correlate with how well they can describe the flavours – or present the differences between whiskies in a clear and meaningful way.
Are All Those Smells and Tastes Really in the Whisky?
The short answer is not exactly.
What the reviewers are doing (well, the good ones anyway) is working from their extensive experience to provide you with a way of differentiating whiskies. This has typically involved considerable training of their palates, and they are therefore better at picking out subtle flavours and aromas than most people. They have also spent some time developing their vocabularies, to be able to qualify their experiences more fully.
When you first start trying whiskies, you are likely to only notice the most overwhelmingly obviously flavours and smells – which, as explained here, come mainly from an interaction of the spirit with the barrel(s) they were aged in. It is fairly easy to detect things like “vanilla” or “caramel” in bourbons and whiskies from ex-bourbon American oak barrels. Or “fig”, “raisins” and “chocolate” in whiskies from ex-sherry European oak barrels. It takes time and practice to begin to pull out more subtle notes that differentiate one whisky from the next.
Many of these more subtle flavours and aromas also come from the barrel aging – but experienced reviewers can begin to identify consistent characteristics of the base spirit, which largely reflect the fermentation and distillation processes at the distillery (e.g., specific esters that are produced and concentrated in the base spirit). Again, as explained on my Source of Whisky’s Flavour page, there is an incredibly diverse number of chemical flavour elements that give whisky both its general and bottle-specific taste.
So in that sense, yes – they are really picking up on things that are present in the bottle. But what they call these things is very much dependent on their experience (which gets back to that palate training again). A high presence of isoamyl acetate may smell to one reviewer like pears, to another like bananas. In contrast, ethyl butyrate could smell like a banana to the first reviewer – and strawberries to the second. It depends on your point of view.
As for the more complex descriptions, reviewers are not actually detecting “toasted marshmellows over a campfire”, or “slightly burnt apple crumble with vanilla ice cream and maple syrup”. They are instead detecting specific chemical molecules that they have learned to associate with those personal flavour experiences – and are trying to convey differences between whiskies using evocative imagery.
Some reviewers are more disciplined (and consistent) than others when it comes to describing whiskies, trying to guide you by starting with dominant notes and then drilling down to more subtle things. Other try to process whiskies flavours and aromas in the sequence they appear to them, to provide a description of how it changes over time. But fundamentally, you can think of this as a bit like a process of free association – they have repeatedly sampled the smell and the taste of the whisky, and wrote down what that evoked from their own experiences.
So, don’t expect to find all the flavours and smells these reviewers put down – focus on the bigger picture, and how different whiskies relate to each other within a given reviewer’s catalog of reviews. Many of the whisky sites I describe on the Meta-Critic Reviewer Selection page provide excellent tasting notes, and are a great starting place. The ScotchNoob, WhiskyWon, and WhiskySaga jump to mind in particular – but there are plenty more on the list there.
Other sites not listed that I think do a good job at providing succinct and useful flavour notes are Master of Malt and the Whisky Exchange (in that relative order). Again though, treat the user reviews on those two sites with healthy skepticism, for the reasons explained on my Review Biases and Limitations page. Scotchblog.ca is another good place to try for a Canadian perspective.
For my own whisky commentaries, I have begun providing flavour descriptors (broken down by nose, palate and finish). While I don’t claim to have as extensive experience as many of the reviewers linked to here, I am trying to provide both an assessment of the most dominant characteristics, and how they change over time. Hopefully you will find them useful as one additional piece of information as you search out whiskies to try.