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Taste Whisky Like a Pro (Part 4): Troubleshooting Your Whisky Palate

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 2, Part 3 and Part 5.


Ever since the earlier posts on tasting notes, I have received genuine queries ranging from “are tasting notes lying”, “Is my tongue broken?” to “are some flavours too atas for my taste buds?”


Subjectiveness of palate 

Here is a word of caution with tasting notes: You might not necessarily taste everything written on tasting notes! No way?!

Mind. Freaking. Blown. Source: First We Feast- Hot Ones with Sean Evans

First, tell me, what colour is this dress below?

This photograph became a viral internet thing in 2015 when over millions on Twitter vehemently argued over whether the dress was (a) black and blue, or (b) white and gold. I was one of them. It was a great use of my time.

Everyone perceives the world in a slightly different way. We have slightly different palates. There are objective elements to tasting notes – everyone would sense the smokiness in a Lagavulin.

Beyond the obvious, other dimensions of a complex whisky can be subjective and impressionistic. The writer might describe notes of peaches and apricots.

If you actually drink the same whisky, you would get a sweet and fruity profile but not always the exact same things that the writer tastes. You might even discover notes of coconuts not mentioned by the writer.  

Despite this, tasting notes remain useful. In our experience, tasting notes for the same expression by different writers tend to be relatively consistent in describing key flavours.

I am also sure that your palate is fine even if the writer has slightly different taste buds from you.


Learning to recognise flavours

Patience and mindfulness are key. The many layers of aromas and flavours are subtle and take time to reveal themselves.

A whisky taster should always take a few minutes to mindfully nose and sample the whisky and think about it.

First-time whisky drinkers would not have as great a sense of flavours until they have tried at least 3 to 5 different expression.

Unless you have been exposed to different whiskies, you will find it difficult to immediately pick out the unique character of the current drink.

For this reason, whisky bars like to sell a set of 3 to 5 variants (or “flights” of whiskies) so drinkers can compare and contrast the flavours, rather than just tasting one in a vacuum

To get more out of your whisky, consider adding a small splash of room temperature water.

Introducing water forces flavour compounds locked within the alcohol to be released into the air, which amplifies the aroma of the whisky and by extension the flavour profile.


Difficulty with culture-specific references in tasting notes

Naturally, oddly specific references in an Englishman’s tasting notes are not always useful for everyone.

It is not your fault if you cannot make any sense of what Lapsang Souchong is (a tea from Fujian that Churchill loved, and that middle class Brits pretend to be familiar with). Here in Singapore, we don’t light bonfires in our backyards and wouldn’t be familiar with how that smells (smoky charcoal and burnt leaves).

The majority of us that don’t own a pet wouldn’t know what a wet dog smells like (mustiness).

My childhood was spent not sitting around a campfire toasting marsh mellows. Source: Family Handyman USA

Growing up in Asia gives us an entirely different set of reference scents from those used by European critics.

Yet, I would venture that Asians are not at all limited from dissecting the flavours in a whisky.

We have access to a more vibrant and diverse range of culinary references, like chrysanthemum, coconut, lychees, temple incense, sandal wood, saffron, soy sauce, coriander, wolfberries and ginseng just to toss a few.

Japanese whiskies are often described to have notes of incense smoke and sandal wood (due to the use of gentle peat and mizunara oak maturation).

Incense sticks in an old Buddhist pagoda- Hue, Vietnam. Source: Sens Asia Travel

Fermented soy sauce. Source: Salt Fat Acid Heat, Netflix

As interest in whiskies continue to grow in Asia, there is no doubt that some tasting notes would gradually begin to incorporate the nuances and flavour references that Asians are familiar with.

Here at 88 Bamboo, we want you to come with us on a journey to understand and appreciate whiskies from an Asian lens. Our tasting notes are written by people who (mostly) grew up in Asia. Our curation and selection of whiskies is geared towards an Asian taste preference. After all, we literally and figuratively cannot get away from using our mother’s tongue.