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Taste Whisky Like a Pro (Part 2): What's the Point of Tasting Notes?

Note: This is part of our series on how to Taste Whisky Like a Pro. To really look like an expert and impress your dates, please also read Part 1Part 3Part 4 and Part 5.


You enter a liquor store. You happen to wander by the whisky section. The store assistant would love to help. He eagerly recommends a 21-year-old Glen-grodus-dingleboop. Surely a person of discernment like you would appreciate.  

The attached tasting notes describe the colour of Lapsang souchong. On the nose, it supposedly smells of fresh fruits, Band-Aids, a garden bonfire and a wet dog. On the palate: sweet and chewy, somewhat resinousmelted plastic, burnt toast and old leather shoes that have taken a walk through an autumn forest. 

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You continue to read with feigned interest the brochure which might as well be written in Greek because it does nothing to assist you in understanding the whisky better.

You continue patronising the passionate store assistant who was absolutely geeking out while you slowly back away without him noticing. And when he speaks to another customer you quietly slip way with the intention to never see this man again.

What are tasting notes for?

Tasting notes serve 2 functions. They help you in selecting and drinking whisky.

1. Selection

While you shop for whiskies, tasting notes come in handy in selecting the right bottles. They give you a sense of the general smells and flavour profiles of a bottle, and help you pick out subtle differences between different bottles.

Ultimately, they assist you in deciding whether you would like a particular bottle enough to buy it. Unlike ice cream shops, most liquor stores won’t allow you to try 10 different flavours before deciding to buy one. Reading 10 bottles’ tasting notes also won’t hurt your liver.

2. Tasting

Tasting notes are equally useful when you have decided to open a bottle. While you drink a whisky, tasting notes provide a friendly route map that might help you identify all its flavour dimensions.

The subtleties of the flavours in a whisky sometimes require some searching and thinking. Knowing what to expect helps to prime your senses to pick out the full details of a good whisky.

They suggest to you the vocabulary to concretise your tasting experiences. Ever smelt a distinctive scent that you are extremely certain you have smelt before, but have no idea where you did? Ever eaten food with a particular flavour that you have once experienced in your childhood, but you cannot quite pin down where you had that experience?

Sometimes, reading the tasting notes might help you find exactly what you were looking for. “Aha! This does remind me of overripe bananas!”

You know that bit in Ratatouille, where the food critic takes one bite of a dish and is transported back to a childhood memory of his mother’s cooking? 

I acknowledge there are limitations to tasting notes: how do you fully get in the writer’s head and understand his subjective experiences? How do you understand descriptions for which you have no reference to (How does a wet dog smell like? More concerningly, DO I WANT to taste a wet dog in my drink)?


What’s next

If you would humour me and put aside some cynicism, the next few articles would discuss how to understand tasting notes, why Asians have difficulties using some of them. Of course, first learning how to taste whisky comfortably helps a lot. Feel free to refer to our little Whisky Tasting Guide.