Each of the whiskies lined up on the tasting mat, one through five, was a light gold color. Each was the shade of spring, youth, nectar-like, really. You wouldn’t know by looking that each was 37 years old.
The smell though, that was something special. The rest of my group — a handful of journalists of varying degrees of whisky knowledge, one Christie’s wine expert, two Glenfiddich brand ambassadors, one Glenfiddich master cooper, and a friendly conservative Jewish whisky savant and collector named Akiva — settled into chairs positioned in front of a glass wall facing two enormous copper wash stills two stories below and watched the last of the whiskies being poured. We were not yet allowed to smell any of the individual whiskies, because Glenfiddich had brought us here to not just drink them, but to choose one, and that requires careful process. The five glasses before us bore the fruit of five barrels aged 37 years, 185 years of whisky hand selected by Master Distiller Brian Kinsman as worthy selections for Glenfiddich’s 2015 Vintage Single Cask offering in the US. The bottles would retail for around $3,500 each.
We didn’t need to stick our noses in them yet. For now we basked in their wafting vapors, sucking in the boozehound’s dream smell-scape. The room was pungent with whisky, but not like a cowboy bar, where sweet cheap bourbon’s breath mixes with sour beer and sawdust and piss. This was pure, sweet and light, like a flowering fruit orchard on the banks of a strong-flowing river of potent alcohol. It was fermented, distilled bliss.
It helps, when seeking out great booze, to be in Scotland, where the people are kind and whisky is both a national treasure and a passionate pastime. Maybe it’s best if you’re in Speyside country, where we were, in Dufftown, a winding three-hour drive north of Edinburgh. This is the whisky heartland beating inside the big whisky-making beast. You don’t need to be an expert to know this; you need only drive twenty or so miles along the windy main road, every two minutes passing another distillery with a name you know: Aberlour, Glenfarclas, Glenlivet, Macallan. The farmland rolls easily, all earthy palette and, in the early spring, the mottled white of snowfall melting away its final days in icy form. The whisky is all the things you might want from something that gets you drunk. Honey and caramel and a bouquet of fruit; if you want to smoke your drink, look to Islay. Otherwise, this is the place.
This was pure, sweet and light, like a flowering fruit orchard on the banks of a strong-flowing river of potent alcohol. It was fermented, distilled bliss.
Light blue sky poured into the tasting room, turning our glasses and their wizened liquids into a shimmering glass menagerie. Five minutes ago it had poured fat Scottish raindrops, sending us sprinting for cover on the distillery’s grounds. Now the woolly clouds had scurried on their way; soon they’d be replaced by new ones, but for the time the sun warmed the grounds and the forested campus was awash in birdsong. This was Glenfiddich distillery, producer of the world’s best-selling single malt whisky, and cited as the first distillery to market single malt whisky — as opposed to blended — to individual drinkers in the modern sense. Today, single malt is the whisky drinker’s demand rather than their preference; that all started in the 1960s here in Dufftown. Glenfiddich is still owned by the family company William Grant & Sons and proud of it, and they make a hell of a lot of good Scotch. The Balvenie is right next door, also owned by WG&S.
But amid the sweet alcohol of the room, I smelled something else: a bait and switch. There were experts in our group — one or two journalists were quiet whisky addicts, and I had made the mistake of asking Akiva whether he liked bourbon or Scotch better and had gotten a 20-minute lecture so packed with information that at times I felt like a teetotaling Tom Cruise to his Rain Man — but the rest of us were whisky-sipping schmos with far less expertise than the people who would buy these bottles. I was less than 10 years out from sipping my first of the brown stuff, a pour of Maker’s Mark that my best friend and I stole from atop my family’s fridge when my parents were away. (We poured it down the sink after each trying a horrid-tasting sip.) As a bit of a spirits writer, I’d gained experience fast, but I still struggled along with my colleagues at group tastings, wracking my brain in search of where in the hell some professional had found “bright fruits” or “single-estate chocolate” among the hot, albeit very good, flavors of bourbon, Scotch and other drinks.
So sure, we’d try the whiskies, and Glenfiddich would absolutely listen with open ears to our input, before scoffing behind closed doors and ultimately making the pick themselves. Who puts themselves on the hook for something so important as 120 to 140 bottles of $3,500 booze, especially when the final decision usually goes almost exclusively to the highest level of Glenfiddich’s whisky makers, the master blenders, distillers and global brand managers, or, as they’ve done with past single-year vintages, actual whisky experts?
I was less than 10 years out from sipping my first of the brown stuff, a pour of Maker’s Mark that my best friend and I stole from atop my family’s fridge when my parents were away. We poured it down the sink after each trying a horrid-tasting sip.
But here we were, the glasses now filled, all of us amateurs seated in front of our tasting mats, flanked by pitchers of water at room temperature. Glenfiddich’s employees seemed earnest. Ian Millar, the global brand ambassador, prepped us for the tasting. We didn’t need to be intimidated or nervous, he had told us in the cozy bar downstairs, so long as we took the tasting seriously. He was a hearty laugher, bantering with the bar staff. “Scottish humor is all about taking the mick”, he slanged at us. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but he seemed good at it. Ian McDonald, the master cooper for 46 years, was a very different Ian; he was a surprisingly small man with a weathered face, kind blue eyes, and a quiet country openness. Within a few minutes of meeting him he showed us his finger with a “mushy” tip, where he’d smashed it with a hammer some years ago. Later, he regaled us with the Robin Hood-esque tradition of warehouse employees stealing whisky using copper “dogs”, replete with cool terminology (“walking the dog”, or slipping home with the dog in your pant leg, and “the devil’s share”, what employees took, as opposed to the “angel’s share” of evaporation) and managers, who didn’t want to catch anyone, signaling their arrival with a whistle. Michael Giardina, Glenfiddich’s senior American brand manager, was younger, without the Scottish accent, and had come up with the idea of using the media to pick the cask. He looked nervous.
It made me a little nervous, too. It’s hard to fathom 37 years in terms of time spent pooling quietly inside a barrel in some dark Scottish warehouse until you’ve walked through one and seen barrels as far as the eye can see, aging. And even then, it’s a strange prospect: a time capsule that you drink. These barrel warehouses smell like the past, moldering wood and the sweet alcohol so strong in the air that guides carry meters to measure the vapor content, lest a tourist flash a picture and turn the whole place to very good-smelling ash. The barrels, American oak previously used to hold bourbon as well as larger ones made of European oak that previously held sherry and port, laze atop each other on their sides, low walls in corridors, many weeping dried, sticky booze concentrate, all bearing painted ends marked by stenciled years. It all seems a lot like a very dusty library, or a very delectable-smelling crypt.
The barrel warehouses are not temperature regulated. In fact, it is temperature and pressure fluctuations throughout the years that drive the whisky into and back out of the barrel wood and lend flavors of wood and bourbon. Whisky experts say barrel aging gives a whisky over 50 percent of its flavor. In the American South, dry, hot weather along with virgin oak barrels impart loads of barrel flavor in bourbon in a relatively short amount of time. Hence younger whiskey, and very few age statements above 20 years, which is about the agreed-upon age at which bourbon’s flavor begins to be wholly taken over and (some say) ruined by oakiness. (See, for example, the much-worshiped Pappy Van Winkle line’s 23-year-old, which many pass up for the younger 15-year-old.) Not so in Scotland. Here, the right whisky, picked young for its unique flavor profile and kept aside in a previously used bourbon barrel, can age for up to 30, 40 or even 50 years without becoming overwhelmed by barrel flavors or a heavy loss through evaporation, which distillers call the angels taking their share.
“No one can taste what you’re tasting, specifically. So what happens is you use words or vocabulary to describe a flavor by linking it to an experience that you’ve had in the past.” – Dave McCabe
Hence what whisky fans call “super-aged” offerings. Though higher age doesn’t always mean better whisky, these ancient bottles have worked in the world’s more affluent markets because both sides win: superfans and collectors get to try strange, rare liquids that exhibit singular flavor profiles, and distilleries get to show off their best and brightest whiskies — and make heaps of money. Glenfiddich’s 50-year-old Rare collection sells for close to $35,000 a bottle, and Suntory’s 50-year-old, released in 2011 in 700mm bottles, sold for almost $13,000 a pop.
All we knew about the five whiskies on the paper mats before us was that since their distillation in 1978 they’d been stored in bourbon barrel oak casks. “Probably second use”, Akiva announced a few minutes into our nosing, implying that Scotch had been stored in them once before, dulling the oak’s bright flavors. The Glenfiddich employees agreed. This guy was good.
Learning to walk starts with a step; learning to swim starts with a stroke; learning to drink whisky starts with a sniff. From my first tasting, the refrain had always been the same: the tongue follows the nose. “For me, 90 percent of the whole process is in the smell”, Christine Wright, a sommelier at NYC restaurants Hearth and Fifty Paces, explained to me later, when I sought to understand all that had happened at Glenfiddich. “Our taste buds as humans are, like, not that awesome. And our sense of taste is largely based on what we smell.”
Unfortunately, we don’t all have clear sinuses, or even a strong ability to recognize or explain the olfactory. A New Yorker story about the difficulty of scent cognition recently cited a study in which participants were given the task of identifying the smell of lemon. Many of their answers were pathetic, ranging from “air freshener” to “magic marker,” “candy,” and “some kind of fruit.” And that’s just lemon. Whisky, especially at this age, can smell pretty odd thanks to the personalized nature of the barrel they inhabit, and even outside factors; professional noser Nancy Fraley claims in an article published in The Atlantic that she once identified curry flavors in a whisky imparted by a nearby staff break room where employees were eating their lunches. This means that what is already a nasal struggle can, at the 37-year-old level, become a Sphynx’s riddle for the nostrils.
I swirled the first snifter, then stuck my nose inside its tight glass rim and drew in a noseful of alcohol and sweetness. It was pleasant, but also impossible; discerning its individual parts felt like reading an eye chart through a fogbank.
The subjectivity of taste and smell turn that riddle into a Rorschach test. I had heard this recently from Dave McCabe, Head of the Irish Whisky Academy at Jameson, a school where enthusiasts go to learn the science and art behind their love of whisky. What we actually taste and smell comes from personal experience, not concrete flavors, said McCabe. “No one can taste what you’re tasting, specifically. So what happens is you use words or vocabulary to describe a flavor by linking it to an experience that you’ve had in the past. So if you think you’re getting something that reminds you of green apples… there are no green apples in Jameson. It’s the same kind of flavor molecules that you would associate with the taste of a fruit. You’re just relating to what you would have had in the past to use as a descriptor as what you’re tasting now.”
The example he used was a common tasting note with whiskies aged in sherry casks: Christmas cake. It’s fun to imagine master blenders stealing their wives’ cakes and dumping them into barrels of whisky, but the reality of the sensation is a little different. Instead, tasters are having a bit of a flashback.
“People always think of when their mother was making Christmas cake, they would let their raisins soak in brandy or whisky”, McCabe said, “which gives a dried fruit and alcohol sensation.” The pairing of the two is a visceral memory, one that just so happens to match the flavors imparted in Jameson’s whisky by sherry aging. It’s just one of the many odd-sounding tasting notes you’ll hear around a table full of whisky drinkers, along with pencil shavings, leather, tobacco and stone fruit.
Drinking lots of craft beer had ingrained the practice of smelling before sipping, often at inappropriate times. My girlfriend liked to point this out, especially when I nosed Natty Light while getting hammered at a football tailgate. But the smell problem loomed for me. To paraphrase the old saying: you can bring a drinker to a smell, but you can’t make him recognize what the hell that smell is.
Proper nosing form is to cover the glass with your hand and agitate the liquid, then uncover the glass and stick your nose right in. I swirled the first snifter, then stuck my nose inside its tight glass rim and drew in a noseful of alcohol and sweetness. It was pleasant, but also impossible; discerning its individual parts felt like reading an eye chart through a fogbank. I realized for the first time how hard picking an individual whisky, collectively, was going to be.
Not knowing where to start is a common feeling among tasters. It even happens to the pros, like Wright, the sommelier. “Several years ago I was at a beer tasting. I was an absolute novice”, she told me. When the man running the event asked her what she got on the nose of a beer, expecting a wise answer from a trained somm, she blanked. “I told him, ‘Honestly, I don’t even know the categories of things that I’m looking for.’ So it’s really hard if you haven’t done it before and you don’t even know the categories of flavors that you might be looking for.”
This would have been helpful knowledge — but at Glenfiddich, all I knew was that I had to come up with something, anything. Everyone else around the table had gone quiet, smelling away. I tried again on glass one. It was less pungent than I expected. This I noted on the paper tasting placemat under “sample 1”, with a connoisseur flourish I couldn’t avoid — “more timid bouquet”. That felt good, and I nodded, swirled, sniffed again, and noted “orange peel”. I was feeling pleased all of a sudden. It’s empowering pulling a smell out of the ether, whether you’re stretching for it or not.
Scent and taste are hugely subjective. A whisky is transcendental to one person and disappointing — or disgusting, like rubbing alcohol — to another.
On to glass two. Its alcohol burned my nostrils like steam from a kettle. The note went down: “spicier, hotter”. I thought of my 10th-grade AP US History teacher’s advice before the big test: Study hard, and if you haven’t a clue, fake it ’til you make it, baby.
The biggest difference that revealed itself while I nosed each of the five glasses was what you might call “heat”. Some of the whiskies seemed more noticeably alcoholic, with a big spicy burn that cleared the sinuses that I describe in writing as “pungent; whiskies number one and five were “cooler” to smell, giving off less eye-watering burn, and less smell in general. (I would later find out that the whiskies ranged between 47.1% ABV and 56.4% ABV, and that my sense of “hot” versus “cooler” smells was mostly correct.) All five gave off bakery-strong notes of vanilla and caramel, flavors often associated with oak bourbon casks. I called number three, “pungently fruity”, though that was less a direct translation and more some bright notes that awoke the thought “alcoholic Capri Sun”. Number two, I wrote, smelled of “floral, orange, lemon”, number four of “caramel and honey”. My eloquence fell short on number five: “less hot”, I wrote.
If we were pensive in our sniffing, our sipping was riotous. Tongues loosed for tasting stayed unhinged for flapping. One writer set about describing number three and four using different types of apples. Next to her, another, a non-whisky drinker, said number five tasted like rubbing alcohol. At my side, Akiva popped off thoughts like a hyperactive machine gun. Millar, strong brogue in play, kept order over the buzzed buzz. Stay calm, in so many words. Let the whisky sit on your tongue. Compare number one to each of the others, then move on to number two. Which finishes longest? Which is most complex?
Which is all well and good — but what the hell was I tasting? The most I could discern at first is that 37 years had made the whisky nuanced, though maybe quiet is the better word. It was deep; there were a lot of flavors going on at once, but they seemed more distinct than a younger whisky. Once my tongue settled into the steady burn, more individual flavors appeared like visages on the edge of my memory. They were not orderly wraiths, though. It was an odd zoo of recognitions and sensations: here an organized parade of fruit, spice, and sweetness; in the next whisky or just the next sip, a chaotic brouhaha of caramel and crushed black pepper and butter thrown into my mouth like it were a mixing bowl. Between the confidence and the booze, soon my notes overflowed their boxes. We added water to dilute the alcohol’s bruising burn and kept going. And we were all chatting again, naturally now and more ordered, each of us offering our opinions, whether that was a breed of fruit or just that the fruit taste existed. It was a strange overlay of surgeon-like specificity and a machete killer’s broad hacking slashes. But it worked.
Millar asked us to each silently select our first and second choices of the five whiskies. Number one and number five were out, for me. But between number two (“buttery finish, ginger and spice”), number three (“sugar, caramel, leather” — though I’d never tasted leather before — and “juciest”), and number four (“lighter, slightly watery start, citrus bright, some greenness, spicy finish, black pepper”), I was stuck.
Was it a really good whisky, did he think? “It’s very good”, he said, “but it’s not quite superlative. Superlative whiskies must be bursting.”
Hyperbole zinged and caromed through my synapses. But it wasn’t made up. “Fake it ’til you make it” didn’t cut it, anymore; rather than “faking it”, I was allowing my gut, my memory, to lead my pen. Did number one actually taste like ginger? No, but it was close enough to stir the comparison.
Scent and taste are hugely subjective. A whisky is transcendental to one person and disappointing — or disgusting, like rubbing alcohol — to another. Normal humans can’t recognize the common smell of lemon. What the hell was I writing in my notes anymore? I couldn’t focus. Akiva was grating my nerves with his endless diatribes.
I took a final sip and, somewhere, the part of me that’s decided what tasted good my whole life made the decision.
When Ian slowly ticked through the numbers on our first choice, no one raised a hand for number one. None for two. McDonald alone voted for whisky three. “Number four”, Millar said. Without hesitation, seven hands out of nine shot up, including mine. Akiva voted for whisky five.
That did it: we selected cask 28121. The number meant nothing to us. We only knew it was put in a barrel 37 years ago, and selected by the noses and tongues of about 10 folks, experts and novices, coopers and editors, in a room in Dufftown, Scotland, in about 45 minutes. Afterward, Kinsman confirmed it was one of the two bottles he would have picked himself.
Later, I asked Akiva if he’d buy any bottles. He would, he said: one for himself to drink; one to keep, because he didn’t have any “memento” bottles; and one “for a friend”. Was it a really good whisky, did he think? “It’s very good”, he said, “but it’s not quite superlative. Superlative whiskies must be bursting.”
I had no idea what he meant. But I realized that I’d never stopped to enjoy, to think: this is some of the most expensive, worried-over, mature anything I’d ever have. Was it the best whisky I’d ever tasted? I’m not sure. But I don’t think I’ll ever have a hand in creating the final product of a $3,500 whisky ever again. I’m still unsure why I got to do it in the first place; and given a second chance, I might look at my one-for-one record and decide to quit while I’m ahead.
As we drove to the airport on the morning of our departure, I thought through it all — how we each made our own sensations, in a way, out of our pasts and who we were, and how what I’d just done would shape the way I tasted and experienced whisky for the rest of my life. I made another connection, too, to all those whisky employees “walking the dog” and taking their devil’s share out after a long day of work. I didn’t have a dog to use. But I did steal a moment, still mine I think, or at least some version of it that I’ve molded as I often do with memories. It is the color of spring, of youthfulness, and smelling of a beautiful orchard and an alcoholic river. It’s all of those whiskies, 185 years’ worth, and it’s as close to whisky nirvana as I’ll ever be.