The light and dark side of whisky

John Shearlock reports back from the two recent “Picks of Dramfest” tastings at Regional Wines where the themes were light and dark.

It is said that we buy with our eyes but it could also be said that we taste with them too. Our evolution over thousands of years means that we are hardwired to look for ripeness - something that is visually represented by deeper, warmer, richer colours. As such, we see certain colours and are immediately attracted and enticed - and we’re right to be. Sweetness correlates to energy and energy means survival - and although you might think you don’t have a sweet tooth, this is something your ancestors have cunningly lodged deep in your subconscious. A craving deep down for sugar, and the goodness it provides, exists in us all - a hangover from our cave-person days. 

It’s a well known fact too that where a whisky is placed in the tasting order seemingly affects how well that whisky performs (at least where scoring is involved). Results from hundreds of tastings at Regional have shown that we typically score higher as we move through the lineup. This correlates well with the fact that bigger, fuller whiskies and higher ABVs need to be placed higher up the order - so as not to overpower the other whiskies, and generally speaking, we like bigger flavours and we like higher alcohol. Dark whiskies tend to be fuller in flavour and thus find themselves later in a lineup, ipso facto, these whiskies are typically better received. The promise of the dark whisky starts to look like a self fulfilling prophecy - doesn't it?

So it’s no surprise then that when we lined up 16 whiskies over 2 tastings which essentially went from light to dark - the whiskies seemingly got better and better. So what does this mean for lighter styled whiskies? Well, essentially, if you’re a light whisky and not packing a high ABV or enough peat to up your flavour profile - you’re facing quite an uphill struggle.

The poor old 26yo Tullibardine from Cadenhead was a great case in point. A delicate old dram with oodles of savoury wood, this was a green granny smith amongst a bunch of ripe mangos and it didn’t stand a chance. It scored a measly 6.67 and came last out of 16 whiskies. That said - it’s a cracking little whisky with intriguing layers of subtlety.

The light whiskies that were higher in ABV and peated did fare better, but not by much. The stunning Springbank Local Barley 10yo and the Port Askaig 10th Anniversary both scored in the 8s but deserved higher in my opinion. The Amrut Greedy Angels was actually the highest scoring whisky over the two tastings, and rightly so, with its delicate blend of subtle peat and super extractive Indian malt (8 years is a longtime in the sub-continent). However, the Amrut was the darkest of the light whiskies and actually dark enough that, on another occasion, it could easily have been served amongst the darker lineup. How would it have fared in the dark lineup? Did it stand out from the light whiskies by virtue of its darkness, therefore scoring higher than it typically would have? Possibly. We will be able to put this theory to the test at this year’s Best of the Best, as the Amrut Portonova also won the dark tasting and, as such, these two over achieving Indians will both be making an appearance at the end of the year. Exciting!

It’s hard to fight that which is ingrained within us, and with whisky’s current trend for big sherry, there really is no surprise regarding the scoring over the two tastings. But, maybe it’s time we all looked at things differently. As the superlative top carnivore, living in a man made environment, it really is about time we moved beyond evolutionary necessity. 

So next time you taste a whisky, silence that inner caveman. Close your eyes, engage your taste buds and think objectively. You may just find yourself emerging from the darkness of the cave into a world of fantastic light...

Here’s how the whiskies scored over the two tastings.

The Light Fantastic

Cadenhead's Tullibardine 1993 26YO 43.9% - 6.67

Mystery Whisky – Wolfburn Northland 46% - 6.93

Gordon & Macphail Miltonduff 'Discovery' 10YO 43% - 7.52

Gordon & MacPhail Mortlach 15YO 43% - 7.54

Benriach Dark Rum Barrel Finish 22YO 46% - 7.92

Springbank 10YO Local Barley 56.2% - 8.28

Port Askaig 10th Anniversary 10YO 55.85% - 8.45

Amrut Greedy Angel 8YO 50%  -  8.97

Dark and Dirty

Adelphi 'Breath Of The Highlands' 2007 / 12 YO 52.7% - 7.39

Gordon & Macphail Mannochmore 2003 / 2019 56.8% - 7.89

Ardnamurchan Malt Spirit 2019 AD 57.4% - 7.91

Dramfest's 'Dirty Little Secret' 11 YO 56.9% - 8.04

Adelphi Bunnahabhain 2009 / 10 Years Old #900022 58.9% - 8.48

Gordon & Macphail Glenturret 2005 / 14 YO 53.5% - 8.58

Ballechin 'STFC' Bordeaux 2007 / 11 YO 60.2% - 8.68

Amrut Portonova Batch 22 62.1% - 8.82