By The Dram #1: Choosing Drams for Whisky Tasting

“It’s Drachma, not Dram!”

And so began the inaugural peatydataguy whisky tasting session – with a triumphant proclamation from Her (a staunch non-whisky drinker) to whisky aficionados Chewy, El Guajiro and yours truly. After a short history lesson in the etymology of the word dram from the most unlikely of sources, we devoted our full attention to the whisky line up in question.

The Selection Criteria

I’m not sure if you whisky fans share the same mini anxiety attack when someone asks you to suggest a whisky. Well, let me tell you that selecting a line up for a whisky tasting session is five times the stress!

Luckily, I had a brief to help me with the selection.

My very first blog post prompted a short discussion between yours truly and Chewy about whisky flavours and how people can use all sorts of bewildering terms to describe the flavours. I can empathise. Chocolate? Dash of black pepper? Salty? Iodine? What the heck does iodine taste like and how does one even obtain a frame of reference for that without gulping down a teaspoonful of iodine?

And so began my quest to pick five whiskies that would allow us to explore and more easily compare flavours.

Here was my selection criteria.

  • Whiskies should be directly comparable to each other to allow for some element of A-B taste testing along the lines of ‘this is peaty, and these are not’
  • Whiskies could be accompanied by reputable tasting notes so we can compare what we found for ourselves against what the experts say. For this, as with most of my whisky selections, I defer to Mr Jim Murray of Whisky Bible fame.
  • Total price should be under £50; one does not need to break the bank for this!
  • Regional or geographical coverage was not relevant in this case; after all, we were focussing on flavours.
  • I wanted to cover classic examples of three core flavours: Sherry finish, Vanilla, Peat, and then one final wildcard.

The Final Line Up

The Usual Suspects this is not

So…  this was where we ended up. From left to right:

  • Reference Series II Blended Malt 47.5%
  • Reference Series II.1 Blended Malt 47.5%
  • Dalmore 17 Years Old 1996 cask 10206 Old Particular (Douglas Laing) 48.4%
  • Smooth Ambler Old Scout 1o Year Old Bourbon 50%
  • Ardbeg 2000 (bottled 2016) cask 16016 54.8%

The £50 constraint meant that to get five whiskies we needed to go sample size which is 3cl. Between the three of us, that was 1cl each which is pretty standard tasting size at whisky shows.

Master of Malt (MoM) are a well known company that sell whisky samples online. They have a pretty decent selection, and more importantly were able to ship in time for my guests. This meant that my choices were constrained by what was available there (which I was thankful for. As any good IT project manager will tell you… scope reduction, gooooood)

I am in no way affiliated to this company, so I’m not flogging anything!

Sherry – The Reference Series

It was there that I stumbled upon the award winning Reference Series. Now, here was a range of products specifically designed for ‘controlled’ tasting experiments!

  • All whiskies were blends of single malts. They were made from the same set of whiskies, just that the proportion they were blended in were different. So, Reference I had a higher proportion of younger whiskies, II was the middle child, and III had the higher proportion of the older stuff.
  • All whiskies had the same 47.5% ABV, so alcohol content should not feature in the taste difference.
  • And the kicker… variants were then introduced for each of the original blends.
    • x.1 variants had 1/3 of the whisky spend a month in Pedro Jimenez sherry casks
    • x.2 variants had 10% heavily peated Islay single malt added to the original.
    • x.3 variants had spirit caramel added, which is a colour additive to give whiskies that golden hue. Strictly speaking it should have zero impact to flavour… but it’s up to you to decide!
  • So… that gave us 12 different whiskies that were different from its closest cousin by one single trait – perfect for our purposes!

However, it didn’t feel right to pick all five whiskies from the same series. I wanted more of an exploration. I ended up picking Reference II and II.1 because:

  • I vs II vs III – the age variable you can easily discern for yourself, as you can usually pick up 12 or 18 year old variants of your common garden variety supermarket whiskies (e.g. Glenfiddich). Younger whiskies tend to be more harsh, and older whiskies tend to be very rich. I wanted something that was sort of middle-of-the-road for my starter samples, and Reference II fit the bill perfectly.
  • Peat – there were so many other whiskies that were classic examples of peat, so no need for the x.2.
  • Colouring – this wasn’t a purely academic exercise. If colouring shouldn’t have a difference, it shouldn’t have a difference. We wanted something where the difference was obvious and specific!

So… Reference II and Reference II.1 it was then. Let show Chewy what the classic sherry ‘meaty’ and ‘Christmas pudding’ flavours taste like!

Vanilla – Dalmore

Vanilla sponge cake this is not…

The words ‘vanilla’ and ‘honey’ are used so often in the description of whiskies. You can see (taste?) why. After all, who in the world does not know what these two flavours taste like?

Dalmore is a very popular whisky which fit the vanilla honey bill. Plus, I had never tasted Dalmore before. I am more of a peaty sort of guy (hence the @peatydataguy handle!), so somehow never got round to pointing at the silver stag on the bar shelves and instead being fixated on the Ardbegs and Laphroaigs.

As luck would have it, MoM had a sample of a Dalmore from the very same cask that dear Mr Murray had tasted. No ifs and buts and doubts. Short of stealing a sip from his glass, this was the closest we were going to get to tasting the exact same whisky as he did.

On the plus side, this was from Douglas Laing, an independent bottler that I had never had the opportunity to taste whiskies from. Double score!

Peat – Ardbeg

Sherry Ardbeg from award winning German bottlers

The choice was fairly obvious. Short of launching a full scale assault on our taste buds with the likes of Octomore or Big Peat, the Ardbeg would give us a valuable lesson on how smoke can complement other aspects of the whisky. This was a distiller that understood that peat is the main character of the story, and not the entirety of the story.

And… this was an Ardbeg that was aged 16 years in a sherry cask. This would allow us to make the comparison against Reference II.1 which was a sherry finish (as opposed to sherry matured) with a healthy blast of peat.

This seemed a great candidate from an award winning indie bottler Malts of Scotland from Germany. After my piece on Michel Couvreur, it seems this blog is taking a decidedly European slant!

Wild Card – Smooth Ambler


And now for something completely different…

Bourbon Whiskey. You can’t get more different than a liquor made in a country that was founded on the principle of sticking two fingers up to the Old Country. Heck, they even spell it differently.

This was a bourbon given 95.5 in the Whisky Bible, comfortably in the book’s Liquid Gold range of 94 and above.

For continuity from the other whiskies in the selection, it had ‘light vanilla’ and ‘ulmo honey’, so comparisons with the Dalmore would be possible. What’s ulmo honey? Well, we’re about to find out!

How It Went Down

We tasted the whiskies in the order I listed them above, however in the final reckoning we gave the Smooth Ambler a skip on account of Chewy having to drive the Mrs and El Guajiro back home afterwards and it would be a tad irresponsible to do so after what was effectively a double measure of whisky (50ml).

The tasting was done over the course of 5 hours interspaced with food and water. So that was roughly 2 units over five hours, which for us checked the responsible driver tickbox.

So, on to business.

The Reference II and II.1 were both declared fruity and a tad bit harsh, with the sherry-finished II.1 having the expected fuller and meatier flavour.

Interestingly, Chewy thought the II.1 had a higher alcohol content on account of it being more harsh… theory disproved! Both ABVs were the same!

The Dalmore exhibited the vanilla flavours. Could not find the barley notes that Mr Murray described, but yours truly concurred with the lemon and custard flavours.

Chewy looked a tad bit confused at this point. Ah well, we’d have to try again!

The Ardbeg 2000… oh my goodness. The smoke grabs you immediately, and then the sherry richness just takes over. Masterfully handled mix of flavours.

I swear, El Guajiro closed his eyes and ever so slightly melted into the leather sofa. That happy sigh was for me the best compliment to a recommendation. His and my last run-in with the Ardbeg was a month back when we had a triple whammy of Perpetuum, Dark Cove and Uigeadial in the space of 10 minutes which in hindsight was not the best idea. This was a solid recovery.

As for Chewy, I believe he will not disagree when I say that he now knows what peaty means.

All in all, my rankings from today’s tasting would be Ardbeg on top, followed by Dalmore, Reference II.1 and Reference II.

Time to get me a bottle of that Ardbeg 2000…. !


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