Think You Know How To Taste Whisky? Think Again ...
Posted on HuffPostUK on 23/9/15 - click here to view the original article.
As a London-based whisky commentator I get regularly invited to whisky tastings and brand launches. Most follow tried and trusted routines. Nothing wrong with that, but they can seem formulaic sometimes. Sometimes something changes your thoughts, opening both eyes and mind. For me, this came at the recent launch of a new Chivas Regal whisky.
The words 'Experimental Chef' and 'Exploration Lab' on the invitation filled me with a slight sense of dread. I pictured a gimmicky tasting, albeit in a cool venue, that would push food and whisky pairing. Quickly I discovered just how wrong those initial feelings would be ...
The 'Experimental Chef' in question was Jozef Youssef, founder of Kitchen Theory. His multi-sensual food experiences have brought him many plaudits and his impressive CV shows time in top UK kitchens, including The Fat Duck with Heston Blumenthal.
The 'Lab' presented each guest with a rack of test tubes, all containing the new Chivas Regal. "Open your minds" we were told before instruction to dilute three tubes with differing quantities of water - two, four and eight drops respectively. Adding water to whisky is a divisive topic - many insist they never do it, others swear by it. I have had many conversations with all levels of whisky drinker about it.
This experiment showed the 'I never add water' brigade are missing out - increased dilution brought forward sets of aromas from the whisky that were not present before. The next experiment involved the inhalation of four odours, each one a characteristic identified in the whisky by Youssef- vanilla, toffee, orange, peat smoke. Each odour enhanced its associated characteristic in the whisky.
Then we were hit with the first 'out there' moment - the concept that all aromas and flavours can be represented by one of two shapes (one spiky, one blobby). The idea that softer, gentler, fruity notes took the blob-like form while spicier, bitter notes took the spiky form made my sceptical brain struggle. Surely this was just power of suggestion?
The presentation of metal beakers at different temperatures - room temperature (15°C), chilled (5°C) and borderline frozen (-5°C) - was next. The room temperature sample clearly exhibited greater aroma and flavour. The chilled sample seemed flat and the near-frozen one had a lovely viscous mouth feel but lacked depth. This mirrored the debate about adding ice to whisky and inhibiting characteristics by doing so.
Sipping whisky from metal beakers is not ideal. Next we were given three glasses - one light and crystal cut, one heavy, one smaller. We were asked which the whisky tasted better from - the unanimous result was from the heaviest. Who knew it made a difference? Subconsciously we possibly did but to have it presented gave a definitive answer. Increased weight has a perceived luxury and opulence.
The idea that touch and texture can enhance feeling and flavour was new to me. In hindsight, was it really though? Much like the heavier glass, certain textures portray this idea. Why else does premium whisky packaging come with embossed labels and polished boxes lined with velvet? It's the idea of perceived luxury again.
Cubes with rough Velcro-like surfaces on two sides, velvet on two and wood on two were presented. After nosing and tasting the whisky with eyes closed and touching each surface it surprisingly tasted smokier and spicier when combined with the Velcro, while softer and rounder with velvet. Again - power of suggestion or something more concrete?
If that made the audience think, next we were made to think even harder. Presented with headphones playing two pieces of music - one Enya-like and relaxing, one dark and sinister - we were asked if our experience of the whisky changed. Did I really taste more sweet and fruity notes with happier music, yet smokier and spicier ones with the other? It made me think of sampling whisky in distillery warehouses where a whisky always seems to taste its best. Time and place play a huge part, so why not music?
How Youssef presented the new Chivas Regal left me and the other guests wondering how we had continually missed so much when previously tasting whisky. To present the same whisky but with different stimuli to enhance your mood, senses and elements within the whisky is truly innovative and clever. I will certainly never drink in the same one-dimensional way again.
The experience altered my perception of how to get the most our of whisky, or any other spirit for that matter. If you believe old stereotypes then let go, 'open your mind' and experience the full glory of the whisky you are drinking. Take your time. Consider all of your senses. You will discover something new. They say you should learn one new thing everyday. At that event, I learnt enough for a couple of weeks.