Tag Archives: whisky tasting

Tasting Experience

Since it is the Holiday season many of us will be cracking open bottles to share with friends and family. We will also be sharing our thoughts and ideas about the whiskies we are enjoying together. So I thought it would be appropriate to post up an article we wrote earlier about describing the flavors in whisky. Have a great Holiday Season and enjoy your whisky!

Have you ever read the back of a whisky bottle or the tasting notes from a blog or magazine? Exotic, unfamiliar fruits, greasy mechanical parts – even colors are used to describe the taste of whiskies. Sometimes I wonder if I am reading a flora and fauna guidebook to an industrial seascape or a connoisseur’s whisky tasting notes. One of my favorite retailer’s in-store whisky expert always seems to be able to roll out a litany of delectable berries and spices, flowers and baked goods. Sometimes his description of the flavors does little to provide me with any insight into the whisky, as I am not sure if I have ever actually tasted an elderberry. In the off chance that I did, I have no recollection of the experience. The lack of common reference points and the sheer variety of interpretation can often bedevil any attempt to effectively communicate the taste experience of a whisky to someone outside your own frame of reference. But there is a certain joy in attempting to bridge that barrier.

Why do we love whiskies so much? The wealth and complexity in this fine shades-of-copper-and-brown spirit offer a bounty of different flavors for us to enjoy. There is no right or wrong answer to how a whisky tastes and we all pick up different flavors even though we are enjoying whisky from the same bottle. But how are we able to identify the flavors that we taste in a whisky? Unlike a specific item of food we cannot simply say that whisky tastes like whisky. That is an over-broad generalization of the flavors of whisky and do not do it justice.

All of our collective experiences and memories are available for us to draw upon when tasting a whisky. Even from the start of our whisky journey we drew upon our experiences – you might remember the first time you tasted a whisky and instinctually exclaimed that it tasted of hospital and nail polish remover. But whisky takes time to taste and savor and once we get past the nail polish remover we find that there is so much more. Whisky is like a time machine, less the flux capacitor and the 1.21 jiggawatts. As we slowly savor the flavors of the whisky, it brings us back to the moment that we bit into that crisp, green apple or lingered in front of that fireplace on a cold winter evening. There are fond memories of egg nog and fresh baked bread along with thoughts of vibrant tropical fruits and freshly cut grass that enter your consciousness as the warming whisky moves across your palate.

Even random experiences that you wouldn’t think would have anything to do with the flavor of a whisky will strangely find themselves being drawn upon to express a particular note in the palate. I would never have thought that the time I opened up that transmission with the busted differential from a Honda, a combination of oils and other automotive effluviums, would years later spring to mind as the most accurate and curiously pleasing description of the one facet of a certain Ardbeg in its Islay glory. Similarly, that an aroma emanating from a compost pile I once had the ignoble duty to build would years later be revived to help distinctly delineate the parameters of a blessed pour of an 80’s-era Port Ellen. I have even found myself describing the often disregarded Ledaig as tasting like garbage but in a good way. Quite possibly why it is often disregarded…

As you might imagine, while the scents and tastes of a whisky may often draw upon a strange and surprising range of experiences, communicating these concepts to someone else is not always the easiest of tasks. Like our fingerprints and retinas, no doubt the particular distribution and alignment of our taste buds vary from person to person, and while we may be able to share an experience, the fine details will almost certainly differ. My experiences are more than likely different from yours. So my descriptions of a flavor might be totally lost on you – much like the retailer’s were lost on me. Or my memory of what a specific fruit or spice tastes like doesn’t comport with yours.

At a recent trip to a bar in Tokyo with a friend that isn’t a whisky drinker I found that his memory points of reference differed from mine. We were sampling a fine and very rare 70’s Talisker aged in a sherry cask. I was brought back to dark red cherries, raisins and chocolate. While my friend was transported to a very specific herbal pill for stomach pain. As he described it to me I slowly put it together and figured out what he we talking about…I commonly call it the “stink pill”. Not the most satisfying or appetizing of all flavor descriptions but that is what struck a chord with my friend. And curiously, in the world of whisky, such seemingly disparaging terms are not a negative reflection on the flavor, they are simply an attempt to fix in some expressible medium one aspect of a multifaceted beast. One of the real pleasures of tasting whisky, aside from the obvious consumption of it, is attempting to use concepts like burnt leather, soapy orange, sugared cigar smoke, and grassy biscuits. Flavors that we do not have a culinary reference for, but that we can construct from the vast experiences of our sometimes-mundane memories. And better still is witnessing the recognition on a fellow drinker’s face when they understand what you mean by dark red, salted marshmallow.

As you can see there really is no mystery to the flavors that one tastes in a whisky. It is what you taste and what the flavors in the whisky remind you of. Whisky is a social drink that should be enjoyed with others. So I encourage you to savor a glass of whisky and discuss with others what you are tasting. Much of the enjoyment of whisky comes from discussing what flavors you taste and understanding what others taste as well.

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Whisky Pairing Dinner in San Francisco

An interesting an unique whisky pairing here in San Francisco that we caught wind of.  It sounds like a tasty (both whisky and food wise) event.  I am not sure if I am going to make it but I am going to try.  – Chris

Thirsty Bear
Tuesday, Oct 16, 6:00pm
661 Howard St., San Francisco
$65 All inclusive

RSVP and pay


The ThirstyBear presents a contemporary and seasonal approach to traditional Spanish tapas. Utilizing local organic and seasonal products as much as possible and working with local farms causes frequent changes in the menu at ThirstyBear. Well known as a great place for beer, it is also a convenient place to enjoy a dram.

Chef Laurance Gorden has put together a delectable six course menu to pair with our exquisite whiskies for the evening.

The Whiskies:

Reception Cocktail

Isle of Skye 12yr
Arran 10yr
Arran 14yr
Arran Finish Sauternes
Arran Finish Amarone
Kilchoman Machir Bay
Miltonduff 22 yr Cask Strength 55.1%

The Menu:

Smoked oyster, celery root

Arugula, fennel, and cranberry salad

Red trout, peppers and garlic

House made Butifarra sausage, white beans, mustard greens

Selection of three cheeses, mixed nuts, spent grain bread

Dark chocolate espresso mousse

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Whiskies of the World – Right Around the Corner!

We have attended the last two years of the Whiskies of the World Expo and are happy to say that last year was a major improvement.  The management is dedicated to improving this event every year so we expect this year to be even better.  See you there!    

13th Annual Whiskies of the World Expo & Artisanal Spirits Fest

The Whiskies of the World Expo gathers the world’s most fascinating distilled spirits along with their makers and ambassadors to give its guests an opportunity to sample, learn and experience a night of delicious spirited fun. The grand tasting will take place aboard the San Francisco Belle Yacht (remains docked), with its three ballroom-size tasting decks, and an open roof Whisky & Cigar Pairing deck. Come on March, 31th to enjoy 100’s of Whiskies, a full buffet dinner, Whisky Masterclasses, a live Bushmills Pipe and Drum Concert, whisky mixology; artisanal food pairings, live jazz, cigars and more. Learn, celebrate, experience!

Details: http://www.WhiskiesOfTheWorld.com

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Whisky Tasting – Japanese Malts

April 21st marked the third Thursday of the month and that meant it was whisky tasting time again! In March we celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with some Irish malts. In April we decided to go in another direction with some Japanese malts. There wasn’t any particular reason for why we went with Japanese whiskies other than we didn’t have the self-control to leave these whiskies’ flavors a mystery to us. The whiskies we decided to pour were available here in the US only via check in baggage. Nate brought these bottles back in February and we couldn’t wait any longer to open them.

We were lucky to have a good turn out of enthusiastic whisky folks to enjoy the whisky with. We decided to start off the evening by doing a quick comparison between Japanese whisky and Scotch whisky: a Singleton of Glendullan 12 and Yamazaki 12.  It wasn’t the most scientific and there were probably better whiskies to use to compare, but hell it was what we had available to us.

After that we moved into the more serious whisky.  We started with the Suntory Hibiki 50.5.  Hibiki is a blended whisky – a mix of malt and grain – and as the name indicates it is bottled at 50.5% ABV.  The Hibiki 12 is probably familiar to those in the US but this particular Hibiki was aged for 17 years.  After the Hibiki we dove into the first single malt of the evening, a single cask Hakushu, distilled in 1996 and bottled in 2008 at 62%ABV.  Hakushu is Suntory’s other distillery located in Yamanashi Prefecture.  The last expression of the evening was one of Ichiro Akuto’s Card Series:  3 of Hearts.  The Card Series bottlings are whiskies that were originally distilled in the now closed Hanyu distillery.  This particular expression was first aged in a Hogshead and finished in a port pipe and ultimately bottled at 61.2%ABV.  It was a great whisky to finish on!

…or at least we thought.  For those that stuck around and got really comfortable in their seats, an additional two Japanese whiskies made their appearances.  White Oak/Eigashima is one of Japan’s lesser known distilleries.  The majority of their distilling efforts are spent on shochu and sake, but they do release a couple of expressions.  We decided to try their Akashi 5 and 12 year old whiskies.  Definitely different, bordering on funky was my impressions.  Of course this was after a couple of hours on sipping on the three previously mentioned whiskies.

Overall it appeared that everyone had a good time (which is the most important thing) and enjoyed some different whiskies.  We will post up more detailed tasting impressions of the whiskies shortly.  Till next tasting! – Chris      


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Whiskies of the World Expo

As always, full disclosure:  Both Whiskies of the World and ImpEx Beverages were gracious enough to provide us with tickets for this event.  Many thanks!  Since both of us attended we each gave our own impressions of the event.

Although I don’t like to bring up the past, I think doing so in this context is a useful exercise.  Last year’s Whiskies of the World (WoW) Expo was to be honest, a disappointment.  It was the first WoW event for the new owners and unfortunately it showed.  The biggest issue for me was the lack of space and crowds.  The venue, the Nikko Hotel in San Francisco, simply wasn’t large enough for the number of people.  However, over the course of the last year I was happy to hear about the owners’ commitment to learn from the mistakes made and to make the 2011 expo a great whisk(e)y event.

So I went into this year’s WoW with a cautious optimism that things were going to be better.  This year saw WoW return to familiar territory, the San Francisco Belle Hornblower Yacht.  I arrived with several of my friends at 4:45pm as the VIP ticket holders were going to be allowed in at 5:00pm.  There was no confusion in the line and we moved smoothly onto the yacht.  After boarding and picking up some of the free swag and tasting glass I headed out to find my predetermined targeted drams that I wanted to make sure that I tried.  The first floor was where the food was being served and the second and third floors is where all of the whiskies were being served.  The fourth floor was the deck of the yacht were you could enjoy a cigar and the fresh air.  There were also several master classes available to attend to learn even more about some of the whiskies.  Unfortunately, I didn’t make it to any of them this time.

As I have mentioned before in my coverage of large whisky events, I go for the experience.  I want to enjoy myself and not to have to worry about keeping track of each and every whisky I tired, let a lone take detailed tasting notes.  This event didn’t have a largest or greatest selection of whiskies, but the pours available were still quite plentiful and impressive.  With that being said, some of the new to me highlight whiskies that I tried:

Douglas 27 Year Port Ellen:  Dead-on-Port Ellen flavors. It was a treat to be able to taste some Port Ellen again after a long, mostly financial based, hiatus.  Nice to see a new line from the independent bottler Douglas Liang who also put out Old Malt Cask.

Douglas Fettercairn 9:  The first time I tried a Fettercairn – a bit of an odd fellow with some green vegetation notes.  Not what I would label a great whisky, more of an interesting, off the beaten path whisky.

Glenglassaugh:  I tried the 26 year old and it was a well rounded experience.  What was really interesting though was their new make spirit though.  Getting the opportunity to try what comes off of the still before it is aged in a cask is a great experience.

Chieftan’s Single Cask 15 Year Old Mortlach:  This yummy sherried whisky was graciously bottled at cask strength.  The nose was beautiful and the palate didn’t disappoint.  A strong candidate for my next splurge bottle of whisky.

Chieftan’s 1982 Teanninich:  Again, bottled at cask strength.  I have had a couple Teanninich expressions before, but the wonderful basket of fruits on the nose and the pallet really made this an enjoyable dram.


High West Silver Whiskey:  A clear whiskey that is made from oats.  I actually really enjoyed this whiskey and I didn’t think I was going to.  It is great when I am surprised like that.  The only thing was I felt like I was missing some raisins for my liquid oatmeal cookie.

St. George: our local distillery had a wide variety of expressions available to try.  From gins to their own single malt whiskey.  They also had, what I would say was the oddest tipple of the evening, a spirit that was derived from a wort composed of Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale and IPA.  It left me with an impression of an amped up hopped barley wine.  Limited batches of this are supposed to be available later this year.

I am happy to say that there was plenty of room on the yacht and it was easy to access the booths for a pour.  This provided ample opportunity to chat with the brand representatives as well as with some of the creators of the whiskies.  I was able to have several good and informative chats during the evening.  Good job WoW you redeemed yourself from last year and WoW 2011 was a success.  I was able to take my time and try several amazing whiskies, speak with some very knowledgeable folks, and share the experience with some great friends.  As always, the whisky you drink is only as good as the company you are sharing it with.  – Chris


I spend a decent portion of last Saturday on a boat drinking whisky.  Not a bad gig, all things considered.  As long as I didn’t look out the window I was seldom reminded of the fact I was not on dry land.  There was the occasional lurch, but that could have been the liquor kicking in.  I had planned on getting in and out early but only succeeded partially.  While I arrived early, was admitted early, and got down to tasting early, I ended up lingering for a respectable three hours.

I enjoyed more the a few good whiskies and conversations while avoiding more than a few questionable options.  It was at a point early in the evening when tasting Glenglassaugh’s elder offering that I noticed a set of smaller, attractively squat bottles.  These, it turned out, contained Glenglassaugh’s  Clearac, Blushes,Fledgling and Peated.  These are the underage expressions of Glenglassaugh’s fundamental spirit.  Being a fan of experimentally young spirits, this was a treat.  I am an inveterate imbiber of Ichiro’s New Born, Double Matured, and Heavily Peated, all of which never made it to the age of three.  Having recently enjoyed a little of Yamazaki’s new make, it delighted me to get at some fresh expressions from Scotland.  The Clearac, essentially Glenglassaugh without the pesky barrel maturing process, was appropriately colorless, with a bright nutty aspect and a clean, pear-sugar note.  Good, clean fun.  The Peated built upon this with a decent but not overly dramatic layer of its eponymously accurate name.  The Fledgling has a short pit stop in ex-Bourbon casks.  Unfortunately for me, my memory appears to have taken a brief pit stop as well when I tried this – as Mr. Reagan would say, “I don’t recall.”  The Blushes is what I enjoyed the most.  New spirit aged for a fleeting six months in red wine casks, this was an experiment that worked.  The smooth, simple spirit took on a slightly lush character borrowing some of the redder tinges of the wine cask along with a respectable touch of wine-sourced berry notes.  I hope other distilleries attempt this end run around the traditional concept of Scotch.  It could make for more exciting possibilities in the whisky-but-not-scotch category.

That aside, it was a great night for adding to the glass collection (yes, I have a thing for glasses as well as bottles).  In the glass swag-away category thanks go out to Crown Royal (useful tumbler), Maker’s Mark (sweet little patented-wax-dribble shot glass), and of course, the 2011 Whiskies of the World taster’s glass (pleasant stem affair).  Not a bad trip for a boat that didn’t actually go anywhere.  And yes, I did end up drinking a Maitai at some later point in the evening. – Nate


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Misery Loves Company

Or so they say. I argue dramming –  sipping on some whisky – loves company even more. This is a fairly obvious observation that most will agree with, however, I was reminded about how true this is recently. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to get together with some fellow whisky enthusiasts (it took me a little while to think of the best euphemistic term to insert here) to sit around and enjoy some whisky and more importantly each others’ company.

Most of the time taking down tasting notes on a whisky requires a certain amount of solitude. It can be pretty tough to really analyze and write down what flavors you recognize in a whisky when chatting with others. As treky as it seems, when taking down notes I like to be by myself and sit with a whisky for some time. To be honest though, in my opinion this is not enjoying whisky.

Whisky is a unifier, a social magnet that brings us together. There is a time and place for getting analytical and nerdy about the smallest details of the flavor profile of a whisky but ultimately whisky is not intended to banish us into seclusion so that we can break it down piece by piece.

I don’t know about you, but when I taste a good dram I want others to try it and get their impressions.  It is more fun to share the experience in the company of others…be warned though this can sometimes lead to drinking benders that you will regret the next morning.

So back to my recent get together…the whiskies that were in attendance were phenomenal.  There were expressions that I could never afford, never find, and never even knew about.  And as you can imagine, they tasted Amazing!  But the real enjoyment came from talking about and listening to others talk about the whiskies.  Yes, there was  a certain amount of analyzing going on, but it was a discussion, not a solitary scribe session.  We spoke about the nose and flavors of the whiskies, but we also shared stories about our travels, families, backgrounds and many other humorous experiences.  We shared stories and drams for several hours – it was a great time.  Eventually, though, the session did have to come to an end so we called it a night.

The whisky was amazing, but the company was even better.  So to Peter, Jason and Tim thank you, I enjoyed the company  and look forward to the next time we can share a couple of drams together again.  And to everyone: remember that dramming loves company too!

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Old Malt Cask Jura 15 Review

Another Douglas Laing Old Malt Cask expression.  This time from Jura.  I haven’t really decided what I think about Jura yet.  The OB’s have been

OMC Jura

overwhelmingly “ho-hum” for me.  So maybe this sherry finished independent will spice it up a little bit?

Stats – Distilled in 1990 and bottled in 2005 at 50% ABV.  This one spent most of its aging life in an oak cask before being transferred to a sherry cask for 6 months.

Color – Dark amber/orange, black tea.

Nose –  Sweet sherry, some spices, mint, hint of smoke.

Palate –  Big sherry influence, brine, oak in the background, middle tongue heat.

Finish – Tongue coating, medium viscosity.

With H20:

Nose – Brings out the alcohol, even stronger sherry, malty.

Palate – Sweeter, more sherry, wet cardboard.

This is definitely for those that like sherried whisky.  In fact, it might simply be for those that just plain like sherry.  The sherry totally took over and the distillery flavors were wiped out.  This one just didn’t do it for me – lacked balance.


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Whisky Tasting In San Francisco On June 17th

We are having our next tasting this week on Thursday June 17th.   The line-up has not been solidified yet, but there will definitely be interesting expressions that you won’t really see at a bar or you might not want to spring for on your own at a shop.  If you are interested please email Chris@whiskywall.com for further details.

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May’s 3rd Thursday Whisky Tasting

Line Up

May’s tasting came and went and, simply put, it looked like a good time was had by all.  While the turnout was respectable, it was by no means the largest crowd.  While the weather was fine on the deck, there was still a cooling in the air.  If there was one thing to be said about this 3rd Thursday, one unifying aspect that defined this particular evening, it was this: People were in the mood drink.

There did not seem to be any one reason to hang it on (not that you need one), but it seemed to be an unpublished plan that everyone was adhering to.  Those who walked in tired walked out with a spring in their step.   Probably in part due to the Springbank 12 Amontillado that kicked the evening off at 110.6 proof.  Its praise ranged from a solid good to a Frosted Flake’s ‘Great!’  No one seemed interested in my Edger Allan Poe lore and cryptic references to his short story ‘A Cask of Amontillado’.  But then people were there to drink and be merry, not to contemplate getting vengefully bricked up in a wall while still alive.  Fair enough.

Scapa’s 16 year from the Orkney Isles followed quickly.  Really quickly.  Considerably tempered compared to the Springbank, it gave attendees the opportunity for an alcohol-infused breather before moving on to the Lagavulin 12 which brought the evening back up to cask strength.  A complimentary bottle of the Lagavulin 16 was in residence purely for comparative references.  And people drank.  People engaged in pleasant conversation.  Apparently some people even stumbled upon a stash of cigars on the deck.  And people drank.  Somewhere along the line a rather large stack of Vietnamese sandwiches managed to disappear.

In the end, an arbitrary time meaning variously everything from ‘time to turn in’ to ‘time to move on’, it was unclear which whisky was the most adored.  The Springbank went over well and only an empty bottle remained.  The Lagavulin went over well as well and only an empty bottle remained.  The Scapa’s own showing wasn’t bad, with about ½ of an inch remaining.  Was it the right whiskies?  Was it the right crowd?  Were we all simply in the mood to get our collective drink on?  Personally, I’m going with ‘all of the above’.  N. Nicoll (Tasting notes to follow.)


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Signatory Vintage/Edradour Tasting in San Francisco

The Whisky Shop is co-hosting a tasting with Signtory/Edradour on June 17th  at 6:30 – 9:00 pm at the Presidio Golf Club.  Address:  8 Presidio Terrace, San Francisco, CA 94118.  Call (415) 989-1030 to reserve a space.  It is $45.00.

Tasting Line Up sounds pretty good: Auchentoshan 1999, Dalmore 1990, Dailuaine, Glen Grant 12, Clynelish 1997, Ledaig 16, Ben Nevis Cask Strength, Bunnahabhain 1997, Heavily Peated.

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