In this blog I explain to myself how I should organise a proper whisky / wine tasting! What are the “do’s” and what are the “don’ts”? What environment should I be in? How can I prevent bias during a whisky / wine tasting? How should I log my findings? How to I grade my findings? What scales do I use? In short, how is a whisky / wine tasting done in a proper way?

Image by Yannig Van de Wouwer
Image by Yannig Van de Wouwer

Introduction

I write this blog so I can log what I have learned over the last years. I remind myself that I am not fully trained “ISO 5496:2006/Amd 1:2018” assessor. If you reading this are, then you know what that means.

A proper tasting of a “Foodstuff” like Whisky or Wine is done:

  • in a neutral environment (ISO 8589:2007),
  • using standardised tasting glasses (ISO 3591:1977),
  • without any knowhow of that is in the glasses,
  • using a standardised setup in which the glasses are presented to you,
  • using a standardised form to log your notes,
  • using a standardised quantitative response scale to log your appraisal,
  • using a standardised method of ranking the samples,
  • using a standardised vocabulary to log your notes,

In the sections below I will write down what I learned over time about these bullets.

A Neutral Environment.

To prevent any bias acting on the assessors a specialised tasting room should be used. The requirement for such a room are written down in ISO 8589:2007.

“The test rooms are designed to conduct sensory evaluations under known and controlled conditions with a minimum of distractions and to reduce the effects that psychological factors and physical conditions can have on human judgement.” 

~ ISO 8589:2007

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Image © http://thiemt.com/

You will notice that these kinds of environments can probably not be found in your living room, your study, your local pub, your whisky club.

What can you do to get close to the environment of a ISO 8589:2007 tasting room?

  • The temperature and relative humidity in the room should be comfortable for everyone present during the tasting. Try to prevent people from getting to warm and sweaty.
  • The noise level should be as low as possible so people do not get distracted from doing the tasting. This also means no discussing your notes with your friends during the tasting. When you do you will create bias in the persons hearing the notes. Yes this makes for very boring whiskytube video’s.
  • The odours in the room you are in should be kept to a minimum. That means you should ventilate your room to remove those smells of your dinner. No pets should be present in the room, nor your pets bones, toys, smelly benches, pillows. Do not put on aftershave or deodorant and ask you partner to leave the room if he/she is wearing perfume/aftershave. Any smells that are in the room will have effect on your smell receptors and therefor create a bias. And yes that also means covering up your glasses to prevent your room from smelling of every whisky you are wanting to smell on its own. Oh, no food during tasting and nosing too!
  • Remove any decoration that is related to the subject of your tasting. This means that you should remove all references to any whisky / wine at all from the room you are in. Remove all flowers, fruits, herbs etc from sight. Seeing marketing, bottles, posters, anything whisky /wine related will create a bias.
  • Use “daylight” lights in your room. This will limit the observational bias as much as possible.

You will notice that this kind of an environment is very inert, very boring, very much not like the one you want to be in with your friends when you do a tasting. You want to be in that pub-like environment, in a restaurant, with the candles, the low lighting, the music, the bread / bacon / salmon platter, the interaction with your friends right then and there. You want to be able to read the label, hold the bottle, read the ABV. You want to know what you are tasting, but by doing so you are creating a precondition and you will be biased. If you do, that is fine, but realise your tasting notes will be biased. Especially when you are invited to a tasting by your local brand-ambassador and bombarded with compliments, gifts, pretty people, marketing.

Standardised tasting glasses

The whisky / wine you are going to smell and taste during a tasting will be presented to you in a glass. This will come as no surprise to you since you can not be expected to drink it strait from the bottle.

The standardised glass that is used is a ISO 3591:1977 tasting glass. These contain a 50 ml sample and are originally used for wine tasting. Since 50 ml of wine is ok for most people to use during a tasting this is ok. 50 ml of premium whisky is rather a lot and therefor small tasting glasses have been developed too. These are not standardised but do have a similar shape as the ISO 3591:1977 glass. I happen to own some.

To prevent bias in your observation of the wine / whisky you need to remove the visual information. This will prevent neural pathways to form in your brain, prevent triggering memories of something that looks the same as you are having now.

To do this you can use any glass that is not transparent, as long as everyone is using the same glass. You can buy black glasses. blue glasses and a green glass will work too, but green will create some kind of relevant association in your brain with Ardbeg or Lagavulin or any other whisky that is presented in a green bottle.

Use a lid or a cover glass to keep the congeners in your glass. In the image below you can see an olive oil tasting glass in a transparent and blue version with a cover glass. These work excellent as well but do look very strange to a whisky / wine drinker.

Photo by iLaddie (CC)
Photo by iLaddie (CC)

When you are using branded Glen Cairn glasses that are transparent you will create observational bias during the tasting. That is fine, as long as you are aware you are creating the bias by using a branded transparent glass. If you have nothing else, use a non branded transparent sherry glass with a lid. These are widely available in your local whisky / wine store.

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If you want to know how to clean you glassware before a tasting here is how you do that!

“The tasting glass should be perfectly clean; it should there- fore be carefully rinsed with distilled water after having been washed in such a way as to leave it completely odourless. Particular attention is drawn to the fact that the majority of commercial detergents are perfumed, and that drying towels can transmit an odour from the washing product used. The use of detergents is prohibited in particular when the glass is to be used to examine the effervescence of wines. Cleaning by use of concentrated mineral acids or a chromic- sulphuric mixture is not permitted.

Drying should preferably be carried out using hot air, free from traces of oil. Glasses to be used for the examination of effervescence should be rinsed several times with distilled water and left to dry, without a drying towel being used, in an inverted position. After drying, the glass should be protected from dust, preferably being suspended by its base or fitted with its lid if it is provided with one.”

~ ISO 3591:1977

Presentation of the sample

The whisky / wine should be presented to you on a “coaster”/”Placemat” that has three digit identifications for each glass. Each three digit sample is only known to the persons setting up the tasting. The Three Digits should be totally random and unique.

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Image © http://www.compassboxwhisky.com/

Depending on the kind of tasting people have to do, like for instance an ISO 4120 Triangle Test, the coaster can have a different layout.

For wine a great example of a tasting placemat can be found on Winefolly You can even order some if you like when you follow this address. Please check out Winefolly on YouTube and see how you should use it.

Standardised tasting notes

As you can see the placemats are uniform and this helps with consistency of your tasting notes over time. The uniform character of the placemat also helps reduce bias. It should not contain branding/marketing of any kind. The Placemat has a layout in order to adhere to the ISO 6564 (withdrawn) flavour profiling standard. When you follow the link to the ISO 6564 you will get a VERY extensive explanation about how a ISO 6564 Flavour Profile is done. Please note that the ISO 6564 is now withdrawn but it was valid between 24-10-1985 and 10-05-2011. That blog also details the way you should score a note.

In short, what one writes down is:

  • a) identification of perceptible attributes;
  • b) determination of the order in which these attributes are perceived;
  • c) assessment of the degree of intensity of each attribute;
  • d) examination of after-taste and/or persistence;
  • e) assessment of overall impression.
annex-a
Annex A of ISO 6564

Ranking the samples

The way a ranking between samples can be done is detailed in ISO 8587:2006 Sensory analysis – Methodology – Ranking. This standard details the way in which you should do a “product assessment”.

Product assessment can be done by

  • 1) pre-sorting of samples
    • i) on a descriptive criterion,
    • ii) on hedonic preference;
  • 2) determination of the influence on intensity levels of one or more parameters (e.g. order of dilution, influence of raw materials, of production, packaging or storage methods)
    • i) on a descriptive criterion,
    • ii) on hedonic preference;
  • 3) determination of the order of preference in a global hedonic test.

This is one seriously interesting but boring ISO standard detailing all kinds of statistical methods of how you should use the data you gather from a panel of assessors. It links to all kinds of assessment ISO standards.

What is basically asked to an assessor is to rank, against a specific criteria, the different samples that are presented to them. All their rankings are put on a big heap. Someone does some statistical calculations and the overall opinion of a representative amount of assessors is determined.

What you should take away from this is the last line. It says “representative amount of assessors”. A representative amount of assessors is never just one assessor. << one blogger.

Standardised vocabulary

One of the most difficult things in describing your findings is using the words to do so.

The vocabulary used to detail what is meant with words like “Aroma” is given in ISO 5492:2008 Sensory analysis — Vocabulary. This document does not detail what is meant by the word “Banana” or “Smoke”, but it does show that having a common reference for describing a sensory note is needed. This standard also shows when a word such as “wet”, “salty”, “sweet”, “astringent” or “pungent” should be used. It also gives meaning to words  like “body” or “Bouquet”.

Other words that relate to actual tasting notes are standardised in the standard to train assessors, ISO 5496. Words like “Vanilla”, “Cloves”, “Mint”, “Fruity Peach”, “Cinnamon” etc get linked to an actual Chemical Compound that you can train yourself in recognising.

Things that should be avoided are colourful descriptions using adjectives like “stewed freshly sun-dried peaches” or “stewed pears in dry red wine”.  There is nothing wrong with saying “stewed pears in dry red wine” as a highly personal note, but unless you know which “Dry Red Wine” and which kind of “pears” and the exact way how this combination of ingredients was “stewed” the tasting note becomes “nontransferable” and basically useless.

To keep your notes reasonably smart you should avoid adjectives, methods of preparing foods, location indicators, family references (“Grandma’s Blueberry Muffins glassed with milk chocolate and dry roasted non-salted almonds”) etc out of your notes. It really sounds interesting to say that your whisky smells “Damp like the Coastal Dunnage Warehouse of Bowmore, before it was repainted in 1976”, but unless everybody was there in Bowmore in 1976 … you get my meaning. “Damp” all by itself is a much better descriptor and even then I don’t know if your “Damp” is my “Damp”.

I personally used the words that are on the “Revised Scottish Whisky Flavour Wheel“. Even though many words on this Flavour Wheel are very “Scottish”, it is a good way to get some kind of standard in place.

Summery

Doing a “proper” whisky or wine tasting, according to international ISO standards is no fun what so ever.

It takes a lot of preparation. It takes up a-lot of your time. Most of the time you don’t know what your tasting. Your not doing it with friends. You have to be quiet.

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Image from free WordPress Images

It does give the best possible standardised unbiased way of doing a tasting. But not fun! Unless its your job and you like it.

ps: its not my job, I design Trains. I just like reading ISO standards about Foodstuffs.

Conclusion

Anyways, there is absolutely nothing wrong with me doing a tasting with friends, in a smelly bar, while having a hot and spicy snack, while discussing notes with each other. That is fun!! The kind of fun that will set my notes up for all kinds of bias! And that too is ok, just as long as I realise that I am biasing myself!

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