Surviving the Whiskey Tasting
A non-aficionado’s critical translations
Illustration by Eric Schock
During a rare, mid-week date night, the Beau recently invited me to accompany him to a whiskey tasting party. This, of course, was a mistake. While I now know the difference in their names, I don’t drink whisky, whiskey, bourbon, scotch or any of their cousins.
A whiskey expert (who by my estimate has been drinking whiskey since his mother soothed his teething gums) regaled the group from one pour to the next for a couple of hours, taking us through each label’s history and novelty, pointing out various subtleties between this glass and that, while offering tips for tasting and savoring.
Initially, I followed along, holding the glass up to the light at his suggestion to judge its coloring and clarity. Easy enough.
Next, the expert asked the audience to take in the fragrance, or the nose, and to call out any familiar notes we might perceive. Other guests – including the now-delusional Beau – eagerly asserted, “I smell vanilla!” or “I’m picking up on some nutmeg!”
The first whiff of my pour – which contained neither vanilla nor nutmeg – should have been the only warning I needed to take a hard pass on its consumption. “This is acetone and Hawaiian Tropic tanning oil,” I told the Beau in a hushed tone.
Still, because I cared about the childless widow who was somehow connected to the whiskey recipe, I sent it down the hatch. In less than a second, I clutched my neck, stuck out my tongue (now on fire), heaved and gasped for air. My olfactory was spot-on: It was nail polish remover with a jigger of Hawaiian Tropic.
As I frantically searched my phone to dial Poison Control, the others in the room seemed positively delighted, carrying on as if they’d just tasted a lovely dessert.
The featured whiskies became more exclusive as the flight progressed, a fact that I found difficult to appreciate fully, having sacrificed the top layer of my tongue to the first swill. The whiskey expert, who may very well have destroyed his taste buds decades earlier, continued to push every one of my buttons with his descriptors, hypnotizing me with words like butterscotch, caramel ice cream, toffee and honeysuckle.
It’s a hard, cold, sobering fact that, no matter the drink, experts and tasting notes never reveal the truth in relatable terms. Before you raise a glass on your next date night, keep these translations handy and make a toast to good wine.
The 12-Year-Old Single Malt
Nose: Distinctively fresh and fruity with a hint of pear
Taste: Sweet, fruity notes; develops into butterscotch, cream, malt and subtle oak flavors
Finish: A long, smooth and mellow finish
Color: Urine sample
Nose: Isopropyl, with hints of wet cardboard box
Taste: Isopropyl, with hints of wet cardboard box
Finish: A long, burning finish, mingled with regret
The Special Reserve Single Barrel
Nose: Oaky, dry; plenty of fruit, mostly dried; chewy peels, floral, spicy
Palate: Complex, enjoyable top notes, chewy oak, dark stone fruits, deep spices, peppy and rich
Finish: Long, toffee, drying
Color: Valvoline SynPower SAE 5W-30
Nose: Black permanent magic marker
Taste: Black permanent magic marker
Finish: Long, crippling finish of motor oil and a magic marker contact high; headache guaranteed
The 17-Year-Old Sherry Oak Scotch
Color: Brown with orange tint
Nose: Sherry, oak, cherry stones, tangerine, mint, vanilla, bananas, wet forest floor, resins, leather, hints of cinnamon
Taste: Sherry, nectarines, tangerines, malt, oak, blackberries, orange ice cream, cinnamon, strawberry marmalade
Finish: Soft, lingers
Color: Kip’s Big Boy’s hair
Nose: Cepacol Sore Throat Spray
Taste: Deionized water, flavor, neotame, PEG-40 hydrogenated castor oil, potassium acesulfame, PVP, SD alcohol 38B
Finish: Throat-numbing, lingers
The 10-Year-Old Scotch
Color: Full sparkling gold
Nose: Big, smoky muscular peat notes
Taste: Seaweed-led with a hint of vanilla ice cream
Finish: Big and drying, as the savory, tarry notes build up with an iodine complexity
Color: Coors Light
Nose: Medicated Band-Aid that’s been set on fire; strong notes of goldfish food
Taste: Medicated Band-Aid that’s been set on fire; strong notes of goldfish food
Finish: Peaty, with notes of dirty fishbowl
The 10-Year-Old Bourbon
Color: Rich copper
Nose: Sweet, spicy, caramel-nut-fudge
Taste: Fruity, medium-to full-bodied palate with intense dried fruit and toasted nut notes
Finish: A very long, bold wave of peppery brown spices, floral honey and charred barrel flavors
Color: Dirty penny
Taste: E10, dirty penny
Finish: Endless waves of tongue-stripping hot lava