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And The Blind Shall See

by Oliver Klimek on May 17, 2012

It’s been taking a while, but now the results of the Scotch single malt blind tasting competition are ready to be announced!

18 tasters from three continents have volunteered to try their tasting skills on five drams which were colour coded in order not to suggest any kind of order or even ranking. Points were rewarded to measure the tasting success.

Here is a short round-up of the rules:

  • All whiskies are legal Scotch single malts stating this on their label.
  • All are recent bottlings from working distilleries
  • All have an age statement or vintage/bottling information
  • All are official bottlings (no independent bottlers)
  • 25 points for naming an exact expression – otherwise:
  • 5 points for naming the distillery
  • 5 points for correct alcohol content (ABV) in percent minus 0.5 points per percent of difference but not into negative territory
  • 5 points for correct age minus 0.5 points per year of difference but not into negative territory

No pricing information was given other than the total being less than 500 euro for the five bottles. The competitors were asked to rank the drams according to their preferences, they were also encouraged to submit tasting notes and comments about the drams. For the overall ranking, drams were awarded points from 5 down to 1 according to each taster’s personal ranking. Unfortunately only 15 tasters returned their result in time. One submission was incomplete, so it was not included for the overall dram ranking.

And The Winners Are…

The maximum of points achievable was 125 when you managed to guess all five expressions correctly. Here are the three most successful competitors:

  1. Joshua Feldman (USA) – 31.85
  2. Billy Abbott (UK) – 28.00
  3. Rob Borghmans (Belgium) – 27.80

The winner will get his payment refunded! All competitors will receive emails with their personal scores and rankings.

Nobody was able to identify a correct expression, only two tasters managed to guess one distillery correctly. Interestingly enough, the winner was not among them. But as he was very good at guessing ages and ABVs he managed to take the lead anyway. An interesting tidbit is that five expressions were guessed by two competitors each, but always for different and wrong drams. Apart from one bottle, the total of collected points per bottle was fairly homogeneous.

The overall ranking of the drams showed a very close match on the first three places and a clear loser.

And now it is time to reveal the competition drams! As there was no given order, the whiskies are listed ordered by their age.

Black – Auchentoshan 1999 11 yo Bordeaux Matured – 58%

“Concealed Distillery Character” – Price: EUR 55 -  Overall Rank: 2 (49 points)

I would have expected that at least some tasters should be able recognize the Auchentoshan triple distillation here, even though it is covered by a rather strong wine cask influence here. For me Auchentoshan has that typical mouthfeel where the alcohol does not hit you with a punch but creeps onto your tongue rather sneakily. But nobody managed to name the distillery correctly.

An interesting result is that many tasters were convinced of a proper sherry maturation here. Also a certain tingle on the tongue was noticed by quite a few.

  • Distillieries named: Balvenie, Benriach, Bruichladdich, Dalmore, Edradour, Glendronach, Glenfarclas, Glen Garioch, Glenrothes, Glen Scotia, Macallan
  • Ages guessed: 12 to 33 years
  • ABV guessed: 43% to 57.8%

Selected notes and comments:

  • “Classic powerful ex-sherried whisky”
  • “Any of Jim’s wine cask „enhancements?”
  • “Sparkles the tongue”
  • “Causes the tongue to tingle … like a cream soda”
  • “Very closed whisky with nice marzipan aroma”
  • “Sherry or port vinous aromas … Possibly quite old”
  • “Also some meaty aromas and maybe new shoe smell”
  • “Obvious sherry notes”
  • “Almost lightly sherried but more candy floss than dark fruits … Lots of tingle”
  • “Nose: Mud, pine compost … green rhubarb, some sherry fruit underneath everything”

Green – Caol Ila Unpeated 12 yo – 57.6%

“Wolf In Sheep Skin” – Price: EUR 55 – Overall Rank: 3 (48 points)

Now this is probably the most interesting dram in the competition. Even though it is labelled as unpeated, 10 tasters guessed a peated expression here. And also I myself have to admit that I found a light smokiness in this whisky when I tasted it. It seems that decades of distilling peated malt leave their traces on the equipment, so an unpeated distillation run is likely to be slightly ‘contaminated’ by phenols. Tasters were relatively united in their tasting notes, especially a peppery character was often noted. But the distillery guesses were differing quite a bit. But this is one of the two bottles that were attributed correctly.

  • Distillieries named: Balblair, Benriach, Benromach, Bowmore, Caol Ila, Highland Park, Kilchoman, Longrow, Talisker, Tobermory
  • Ages guessed: 3 to 25 years
  • ABV guessed: 40% to 58%

Selected notes and comments:

  • “Nose: Peaty, spicy, light sweetness, kitchen spices. Somme sherry influence?”
  • Very fruity with some light pepperiness”
  • “Powerful, young, sharp, pepper, spices”
  • “Kippers & smoke … the peppery finish lingers in a very pleasant manner”
  • “Quite light peat-profile combined with marine feel and pepperiness”
  • “Light peat, gentle nose! Flowery and some pear, rosewater and winegum”
  • “Hint of vegetal flavor … This is big richly flavored lightly peated Spey”
  • “All inside me is shouting Ardbeg but again it can’t be… so Kilchoman seems a good guess”
  • “Palate: Piney smoke, bracken, pungent earth…”

Red – Glenfarclas Premium Edition Oloroso Sherry Casks 1993/2011 – 46%

“Big Name, Special Bottling” – Price: EUR 60 – Overall Rank: 5 (26 points)

Most tasters were united in their ranking votes, placing this malt either at 4th or 5th place. Many tasting notes point out a sour character regarded as unpleasant. Only one taster marked this dram as a personal favourite. Even though this bottle received the second correct distillery hit, there was a wide range of guesses for the distillery. But on the other hand it received the best guesses for age and ABV overall, making this the bottle with the best overall guess results by far.

  • Distillieries named: Arran, Auchentoshan, Blair Athol, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Clynelish, Highland Park, Glendronach, Glenfarclas, Glen Garioch, Glenmorangie, Scapa, Springbank, Tomatin
  • Ages guessed: 12 to 21 years
  • ABV guessed: 40% to 60%

Selected notes and comments:

  • “Some chemical notes and something sour that reminds of a wine finish”
  • “Lovely biscuits nose on this sweet wine finished whisky”
  • “Strange. Sour, bitter …Not a good cask or simply too long in it”
  • Not sure why but this just shouts Arran at me. If it wasn’t distilled there it should have been
  • “I found this sample cider-ish and waxy and right away thought of Scapa”
  • “Malty and slightly toffeed but not really anything to grab on … no actual flaws, just a bit boring”
  • “Surprisingly dry, a bit sour … Very medicinal, and the finish is quite acrid”
  • “Fake butter, damp wood, spiced cream …”

Blue – Benrinnes 23 yo Friends Of Classic Malts – 58.8%

“Hard To Find” – Price – EUR 100 – Overall Rank: 1 (50 points)

The 15 yo Flora and Fauna bottling of Benrinnes is fairly well known. The FOCM release is much harder to come by. Tasted next to each other, the similarities are striking with the higher age manifesting itself in a stronger wood influence.

This was the only dram where a significant number of tasters named the same distillery. Unfortunatley it was not Benrinnes, but Glendronach. Being the only real sherry bomb in the competition, the submitted tasting notes did not feature big surprises.

  • Distillieries named: Aberlour, Benriach, Bunnahabhain, Bruichladdich, Glendronach, Inchgower, Macallan, Mortlach, Springbank
  • Ages guessed: 10 to 25 years
  • ABV guessed: 43% to 60%

Selected notes and comments:

  • Superb nose, almonds, ripe bananas, frangipane cake”
  • “Swept ash tray … It reminds me somehow of a’bunadh, but the Aberlour is much better and where the hell does the smoke come from?“
  • “Super whisky! My mind shouts Aberlour Abunadh… but seems it can’t be…”
  • “Leather strips holding together wood & raisins”
  • “Very heavy and oily. Meaty feel … With high alcohol and strong sherry influence, the whole can easily appear more mature than what it actually is”
  • “I’m getting Glendronach again in a big way, but the Spey-like fruits and curry flavors are also bringing to mind Clynelish”
  • “Nose: Pine cone infused butter, beaten too long curdled vanilla cream, wood ash…”

Yellow – Loch Lomond 1966/2011 – 40%

“Below The Radar” – Price: EUR 125 – Overall Rank: 4 (38 points)

When I saw this bottle I just had to have it for the competition. Loch Lomond probably has the worst reputation of all Scottish distilleries, and this reputaion is backed by many young bottlings of utterly mediocre quality. Now here is the rare chance to taste the oldest possible Loch Lomonond, distilled in the first year of production.

As could almost be expected, distillery guesses were varying widely. Interestingly, most age guesses were on the young side, below 18 years.

  • Distillieries named: anCnoc, Auchentoshan, Benriach, Bladnoch, Cardhu, Glen Elgin, Glen Grant, Glenlivet, Glenmorangie, Hazelburn, Springbank
  • Ages guessed: 6 to 32 years
  • ABV guessed: 40% to 58.5%

Selected notes and comments:

  • “My favourite was the yellow!! I hope it’s cheap, I am gonna get a bottle in that case – or maybe a case”
  • Floral wood, very slightly leafy ….Bloody ‘ell, I’m sure I’ve had this before, or something very similar, but what the hell is it?
  • „Perfect summer dram“
  • “Big, classic Speyside … I’m agonized I can’t pinpoint the distillery – but the flavor profiles are all within a hair’s breadth. “
  • “Clear notes of fresh cucumber … Citrus-coconut profile kind of takes me to Campbeltown but lack of smoke raises questions”
  • “Saltwater taffy and freshly-cut grass. warm, light spice and apples. Overall a bright, sweet, and slightly buttery dram”

Summary

Of course I selected some bottles which had the potential to send the tasters onto a wrong track, most notably the Caol Ila and the Loch Lomond. But I had never tasted any of these drams before, so this was not guaranteed to work. I didn’t want to be too mean though and chose some pretty well known distilleries. But simply to pick standard middle of the road bottlings would have been a bit uninspired…

To make it a little more difficult, I stayed clear of peated expressions. If you can rule out all distilleries that make unpeated whisky only, the number of candidates for a guess narrows down significantly.

Just a few days after I had mailed the samples, one of the tasters showed a tasting lineup on Facebook that included one of the blind drams. “Oops – this could be our winner”, I thought by myself. Much to my amazement, the taster – who was one of the first to submit – guessed a different expression.

This little incident clearly points out just how difficult blind tasting is. Out of 74 guesses in total, only two distillery guesses were correct, also most guesses ages and ABV were varying rather wildly. And the tasting panel didn’t just consist of newbies. Some very experienced drammers with malt mileages running into the four figures were included as well as professoinals in the whisky trade.

If there is one message that this competition delivers, then it is this question: “Is there really such a thing as a distillery character?” There are different whisky styles for sure, peated, unpeated, sherried, floral, fruity, meaty and so on. But a well-defined and consistently recognizable house style is pretty much an illusion, even for original bottlings. There may be a few special ‘distillery tangs’ like ‘medicinal’ for Laphroaig, ‘heather honey’ for Highland Park or ‘briny citrus’ for Springbank that might have a better chance of being recognized than other more generic drams. But the simple fact that some of these peculiar profiles were mentioned in guesses for all different whiskies in this competition shows that this concept is rather diffuse after all.

Another observation I made was that some of the tasters worked with regions in mind when guessing the distilleries. “Classic Speyside, coastal, Highland, Campbeltown”. More often than not, these conclusions turned out to be wrong. It really is time to say goodbye to this outdated regions concept for anything beyond mere grouping purposes.

Trademark distillery characters and regional whisky styles may have been a reality in the past, but the whisky world has been changing dramatically in the past decades with lots of experimentation going on and more and more emphasis on casks than on spirit. Sad? I can’t really say. But very interesting for sure.

And now let’s move on to Freestyle!

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Gal Granov גל גרנוב (@galg) May 17, 2012 at 8:46 am

very nice Joshua Billy & Rob.

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Marc (WhiskyBrother) May 17, 2012 at 9:24 am

Excellent exercise Oliver! It is so very true how “eye-opening” a blind tasting can be. As you say, although a distillery may have a general house profile, it is possible that that same profile can be detected in whiskies from other distilleries. We all have our biases, no matter how hard we try not to, and it has such a great impact on our we taste our drinks. Makes you really wonder about the professional writers that score whiskies…

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Jason JY May 17, 2012 at 9:31 am

A great idea, Oli, and very well executed. Looks like everyone had fun even if blind tasting is just that. I already know that I’m terrible at guessing distilleries and often struggle with regions, as you mention above. Good work, sir!

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Pieter May 17, 2012 at 9:41 am

Congrats to the winners!

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Miguel May 17, 2012 at 10:35 am

Haha. Awesome! Congratulations to the winners.
I even got wrong the color code… seems it is red instead of orange :D

Looking forward to the next one.

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Miguel May 17, 2012 at 12:25 pm

Just wrote on A Wardrobe of Whisky the post about the tasting. Great experience.
Oliver, I am not sure if it is OK to post a link, so please do it if it please you.

Regards,
Miguel

Reply

Oliver Klimek May 17, 2012 at 12:29 pm
Josh Feldman May 17, 2012 at 2:29 pm

Oh my my! I got every identification wrong. On top of that I got every DISTILLERY wrong. Yet, incredibly, I’m the winner because I guessed abv % and ages well. I’m elated, shocked, and mystified. I will not be crowing too much! I have to say, the blind tasting (my first) was a fabulous and thought provoking experience. I learned a lot – while getting so much wrong – simply by tasting a wide range of whiskies very critically trying to get my bearings. The selections were wonderful – simultaneously deceptive and delicious. What a wonderful time.

Very excited about the next one: Freestyle!

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Richard May 17, 2012 at 5:12 pm

Excellent!
Did the contestants rate their own perceived level of expertise? And if so was there any correlation ?

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Oliver Klimek May 17, 2012 at 5:24 pm

No, I didn’t take it that far. But I think any of them stated something like “I’m sure I’ll never be able to win this” ;)

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-J. May 17, 2012 at 5:26 pm

Unexpected lesson from this tasting: the characteristics of whisky really do change once a bottle is opened. To whit:

The green dot reminded me of Caol Ila 12-yr unpeated. I have a quarter bottle left of that exact expression. I even compared them side-by-side: the dram from bottle (which has been open for about a year and a half) had a more pronounced sour note than the taste sample. (I ended up guessing Bowmore.)

Not that this isn’t a known phenomenon, but it’s crazy to experience the difference.

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Oliver Klimek May 17, 2012 at 5:32 pm

I think there are several vintages. This was the 2010 bottling. But a quarter bottle open for more than a year can indeed change due to oxidation. This is really an interesting comparison, if it is the same bottling.

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Richard Toll May 17, 2012 at 7:03 pm

Thanks Oliver for the amazing experience. I am rather new to this so it was a great opportunity to see where I am at. Being a huge Auchentoshan fan I am kicking myself as I changed my feelings on that whisky. I learned to trust my instincts. LOL! Thank you again and I look forward to the freestyle! Keep it coming and more will come from Canada!

Thanks again,

Richard

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Jörg Bechtold May 17, 2012 at 7:55 pm

I’m quite content with my tasting notes, but I was more or less completely wrong with my conclusions regarding the distilleries. Interestingly I was also wrong with most ABV. Seems the “shake and watch the bubbles” method isn’t accurate enough … and it depends a lot on the dram if you can feel a high ABV or not. I didn’t have any of the bottlings before but probably I should go and buy the Caol Ila unpeated, that’s a really good dram! Congrats to Joshua, at least a Josh in the lead, if not me :)

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Oliver Klimek May 17, 2012 at 8:04 pm

Sadly the third Josh in the contest didn’t get his samples in time. ;) Luckily I just received notice they are soon to arrive ;)

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Bigwxxl May 17, 2012 at 8:01 pm

Loved it was great fun and that is the most important thing. And yes I am flabbergasted reasing the results with a big smile on my face.

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Arttu Taponen May 18, 2012 at 8:02 am

That was a great fun! Thanks a lot Oliver for organizing this. Blind ones have always been very hard for me to pick, but that’s where you learn best to trust your own senses. Looking forward to Freestyle!

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Joshua Feldman May 18, 2012 at 7:16 pm

FYI – I posted my tasting notes and experiences about this blind tasting at: http://www.cooperedtot.com/2012/05/beginner-luck-winning-drammingcom-blind.html

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Keith May 20, 2012 at 7:41 pm

Thanks for doing this Oliver it was indeed great fun although I think you forgot to include scores for correctly guessing the colour of socks the master distiller wore when filling the original casks :-)

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