Whiskey aficionados spend a lot of time tasting and reviewing whiskey. We search for new and exciting releases, hoping the next one will be the best we’ve ever had. Many of us, myself included, are quick to share our opinions in blogs and social media circles. We try to be impartial and unbiased when tasting; to observe the color, viscosity, aromas and flavors, and judge the whiskey solely on its merits, not its provenance or pedigree. However, despite our best intentions, we rarely judge a whiskey by its physical or sensory characteristics alone.
As devotees to the refined enjoyment of our beloved intoxicants, we must appreciate that tasting is a subjective exercise, and our judgement is often influenced by any number of factors. How much did the bottle cost? Has it received good (or bad) reviews? Did it come recommended by a friend? Is it a “limited” edition? Was it some mysterious lost barrel that might be from Stitzel-Weller (don’t worry, it’s not!)? All of these things come into play when we’re tasting, whether we realize it or not. Even the most experienced whiskey drinkers are influenced by these factors. It’s human nature. Our expectations often influence our perception. So how do we eliminate these factors from the equation? It’s easy! Taste blind.
It wasn’t until a couple of months ago that I had my first blind tasting, when my Instagram buddy @bourbonhunter88 was kind enough to surprise me with a mystery sample. Knowing that I was going to share my notes on Instagram for all to see was both scary and fun. I was nervous that I’d say it was a high-rye bourbon when it was a wheater, or say it was an older bourbon, when in fact it was young. Despite my self-doubt, the tasting was an absolute blast and I didn’t embarrass myself in the end. By the way, the generous sample was George T. Stagg, and I lucked out and successfully identified it as such before the reveal. Woo hoo!!!
I couldn’t wait to do more blind tastings after this, so I asked my wife if she would start setting some up for me. I have at least 40 open bottles of bourbon on my shelf at any given time, so I figured there was enough variety there to challenge me. It was time to put my new nosing kit to work!! Each of the tastings she set up were so much fun and challenging. If I had my way I’d do several blind tastings a week, but I think Cassie (my wife) might object.
Being that I was having so much fun on the tasting end, I thought it’d be fun to host my own blind tasting and watch the fun unfold as an outside observer. Unfortunately, I don’t have any local whiskey friends, at least no one that cares enough about whiskey to partake in tastings. I do, however, have lots of Instagram friends that love to nerd-out about whiskey, share notes about our pours, and swap samples. I decided that I would host an Instagram blind bourbon tasting. I selected five tasters and sent them three samples each. We arranged a date and time for the tasting, and I asked them to post their notes at the same time, after which I would follow up with the big reveal. It went off without a hitch and it was an absolute blast, and the results were revealing.
I had such a good time with the first community tasting that I decided I would host an initial series of three blind tastings in total, and then write this blog post. The subsequent tastings went very well, and both, like the first, were quite revealing.
Before I discuss the details of each blind tasting, I’d like to mention some studies that I came across while doing research for this post. I found these to be very interesting and it got me thinking more about tasting in general and how expectations really can skew our perception and judgement. I’ll reference these in anecdotal fashion to avoid having to cite the exact sources and the parameters of each study. Keep in mind that with these studies, the tasting panels were comprised of industry experts, such as sommeliers, winemakers and critics; people that have immersed themselves in the world of producing, tasting and judging wines. These were not average Joe’s off the street.
One of the notable tasting studies, held by Robert Hodgson, a statistician and wine-lover, presented a blind-folded panel of wine experts with the same wine three times in succession and asked them to rate each one. The ratings often varied by ±4 points on the standard 80-100 rating scale, with only 1 in 10 tasters rating them within a range of ±2 points. Tasters would often rate the three identical wines with as much variance as 87, 91, 95. Crazy!! That’s a wine expert, rating the same glass of wine as “good” in one pour, “exceptional” in another pour and “classic” in a third pour. Some tasters did even worse, apparently.
Another study that surprised me involved presenting the tasters with two glasses of the same white wine, however, one had red food coloring in it to give it the appearance of red wine. Not one taster out the 54 included in the study detected that they were the same wine or that the red wasn’t really a red. They described the red with characteristics typical of red wines. This one blew my mind, and I’m sure the panel of experts were shocked and disappointed by that reveal!
A third study that I read about involved serving the same wine to the tasters, but served from different bottles. One bottle had the label of a grand cru, and the other bottle had the label of an ordinary table wine. Same wine, two different bottles. I’m sure you can guess what the results were. The “expert” tasters gave positive reviews of the pour that they believed to be the grand cru, and negative reviews of the table wine.
The conclusion that I draw from all of these studies is that expectations and preconceived notions can easily outweigh our sensory perception and cloud our judgement, and this is why tasting blind is the best way to taste!! So, with that in mind, let’s look at the results of the blind tastings that I hosted, shall we?
- #1 – Poor Man’s Pappy (50% OWA 107, 25% Weller 12 and 25% VW 12 “Lot B”)
- #2 – 2015 Michter’s 10-year – Barrel #15J810
- #3 – Blanton’s Straight From the Barrel – Barrel #566
- 3 out of 5 identified #1 as something in the Weller lineup. Well done!
- 2 tasters thought #3 was a rye, but this was a bourbon tasting (no rye). In their defense, Blanton’s uses Buffalo Trace’s high-rye mash bill
- 1 taster guessed that #3 was a barrel proof Buffalo Trace expression. Spot on there!
- @barrelsandmash – Blanton’s SFTB, Poor Man’s Pappy, Michter’s 10
- @lbl43 – Poor Man’s Pappy, Blanton’s SFTB, Michter’s 10
- @jwbarleycorn – Poor Man’s Pappy, Blanton’s SFTB, Michter’s 10
- @bourbon_peacock – Blanton’s SFTB, Poor Man’s Pappy, Michter’s 10
- @bourbonboomed – Blanton’s SFTB, Poor Man’s Pappy, Michter’s 10
It wasn’t a landslide, but Blanton’s came out the winner, while Michter’s was unanimously voted the worst, which is what I was hoping for. I personally feel that Michter’s is way over-hyped, and I bought into that hype and dropped $120 on this bottle. I have $30 bottles that are better! I’m glad to see Blanton’s came out on top, because I love SFTB. It amazes me that Buffalo Trace would include Thomas H. Handy Sazerac (nothing more than barrel strength baby Saz) in the BTAC lineup, but not include Blanton’s SFTB.
- #1 – Willett Family Estate 11-year Barrel #6466
- #2 – Heaven Hill 6-Year Bottled-in-Bond
- #3 – 2015 Elijah Craig 18 – Barrel #4198
- @axisofwhisky – gave tasting notes but didn’t list order of preference
- @bourbonhunter88 – Willett, Heaven Hill 6, Elijah Craig 18
- @bourbonhunter – Willett, Heaven Hill 6, Elijah Craig 18
It wasn’t clear from @axisofwhisky’s notes where he ranked Elijah Craig 18, but the other two clearly put it on the bottom, which is what I was hoping for. I assumed the Willett would be on the top, but I was really hoping that the $15 Heaven Hill 6-Year BIB would come out on top of the $200 (gift shop price) Elijah Craig 18-year. Both from Heaven Hill, but separated by 12 years in age and $185 in price. Excellent!
- #1 – Russell’s Reserve 10-Year – Private Selection by The Wine & Cheese Place
- #2 – Old Grand-Dad 114
- #3 – 2015 Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch
- @losfl – Russell’s Reserve 10, Four Roses LE, Old Grand-Dad 114
- @kentuckyfirewater – Russell’s Reserve 10, Four Roses LE, Old Grand-Dad 114
- @kybourbonreview – Russell’s Reserve 10, Four Roses LE, Old Grand-Dad 114
All three tasters put Russell’s Reserve on top and over the 2015 Four Roses Limited Edition, which was my favorite bourbon of 2015. Even though the Four Roses LE is my favorite, I was hoping that the Russell’s Reserve store pick would give it a run for it’s money, and it did at that. Sorry to OGD 114 for being on the bottom, but I suppose he had no chance against the other two. I do love OGD, though.
If there’s one thing I took away from these three tastings, it’s that scarce, limited edition bottles don’t always live up to their hype. Seeing the Michter’s 10 and Elijah Craig 18 on the bottom brings a smile to my face. I bought into the hype and spent a lot of money on those damn bottles. I had huge expectations when I first cracked them open, but was let down by both of them in the end. I was so stoked when I saw that a Heaven Hill bottom shelfer beat out one of its flagship expressions. Classic!
I had so much fun hosting these tastings, and they certainly won’t be the last. Thanks to everyone that participated. I can’t wait to see what future tastings reveal. Be sure to do your own blind tastings at home and post the results to Instagram and tag me so I can see. 🙂 You’ll have a blast, trust me. Cheers y’all!
“In refining their senses and aesthetic judgement, blind tasters become much more conscious of the richness not only of wine but also of other potentially complex beverages such as tea, coffee, and spirits, and, by extension, the flavours in food, the scents in the air, and the play of light in the world. For life is consciousness, and consciousness is life.”
– Neel Burton, The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting