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Language In Whisky – Are We Getting It Right?

Language in wine and whisky can differ hugely – but who does it better?
Language in wine and whisky can differ hugely – but who does it better?

Last year saw one of the biggest scrutinies of language the whisky world has known – ultimately leading to huge controversy. Attention was drawn to the fact that, after many years of doing so, well known whisky writer Jim Murray was at times overtly sexual and inappropriate in his reviews. Many rightly denounced his use of language and he was effectively cancelled. While I’m not here to rehash all of that controversy, it struck me at the time that while a lot of focus was on him sexualising whisky, many nuances in Murray’s language were extremely dismissive of women, something much worse. A small distinction, possibly, but ultimately it got me thinking about the broader use of language in whisky and how inclusive it is in general parlance about our hobby/profession – as well as specifically conveying what someone can expect to experience from a liquid they haven’t tasted.

As someone who’s always been fascinated by language, it has often perplexed me (in various aspects of my life) how people are unaware of how useful a tool it can be if wielded with consideration and care – and equally how devastating it can be if deployed with ignorance and idleness. I don’t simply mean casual insults or offence – even a simple lack of refinement can cause it to lose meaning and efficacy. We’ve all read mistake-riddled advertisements and public statements that have not been proofread and thought “surely they have enough money to get that right?” and the intended effect is – at the very least – diluted as a result. How then does this pertain to drinks and how we talk about them? Can use of different and/or better language directly impact the consumer?

When I first started in the drinks industry (or at least in my corner of it), wine was oft criticised by my spirits-focused peers for it’s pomposity and use of impenetrable language. My newfound colleagues would assure me that the wine world was stuck in an irrelevant past and even a brief foray into conversation with those who worked in it would leave you confused and cowed by their superiority and eloquence. I remember being at one of my first trade shows (Imbibe in London I think) where the first section you came to was all wine producers. Whoever I was with – and I genuinely can’t remember who it was – said something along the lines of “Wine? Fuck that. You’ll never understand a word they say and it probably all tastes the fucking same anyway”. This and many other one-sided opinions from peers lead me to shy away from wine discussion for some time. I would merely learn enough to get by in professional situations (“The house Pinot Grigio? Oh yes it’s a fantastic example of *checks bottle* ‘white’ wine”), and offer little more than “Yes, that’s nice” when drinking it in a social setting.

Concurrent to this, I immersed myself in the world of spirits and mixed drinks. Learning about categories, regulations, production processes and the culture that surrounded them all. As this world expanded more and more over the past decade or so, I simply went further down the rabbit hole. Some new categories came into prevalence – Amari and Mezcal spring to mind – while others more established – such as rum and gin – were changing daily. Whilst whisky was always the focus for me, all of them felt familiar enough, and could be subjected to the cliches of ‘tasting note bingo’; “Great mouthfeel”, “What a finish on that!”, “Fruity in the mid-palate” etc. It was only as a result of this immersion that I eventually started to realise that these liquids (and all others) were developed from a shared place – making alcohol enjoyable – and I learnt to really enjoy wine, even if I still discussed it in slightly more familiar ‘spirits’ terms.

This leads me to the point of this ramble. In the last few months I have been working with the enemy – Wine People. As with so many this year, the company I work for has had to pivot and while my job became (temporarily) irrelevant with the closures of bars and restaurants, I started covering shifts in the retail arm – firstly in a whisky shop (very familiar territory) and then, in December in particular, a shop that was built around the grape. While I have learnt what I can and picked brains where possible, the most fascinating thing has been to listen to the full-timers in the shop – all passionate and knowledgeable about the wine industry – talk to consumers about wines they’re recommending.

Firstly, the language used was not the flowery, unnecessarily complex tasting notes I was lead to believe was their stock in trade. In fact, on the occasions they were used, tasting notes were vague. Words like ‘red berries’, ‘dark fruits’ ‘savoury’ were often employed – phrases with enough give that people could find their own interpretation of them, rather than be alienated by not spotting something immensely specific. What was much more prevalent was use of words like ‘structure’, ‘muscular’, ‘refined’, ‘poised’ – language that better described the experience in drinking the liquid, rather than the precise flavours one was supposed to find in it. Whilst this may at first seem on the pompous end of things, it is – to me at least – a more inclusive way of describing liquids (especially to those who haven’t tried them). I might not be entirely sure if I want a wine that tastes like the first frost of winter in Milwaukee – but if I’m having red meat I know that ‘muscular’ is probably what I’m after.

Secondly, the connection to place is phenomenal. I know terroir is, for good reason, not overly talked about in whisky – few distillers acknowledge the location the grain was grown in as having any real relevance to taste, and when they do it is often hard to see it as more than marketing rhetoric. Equally, I think we overuse regionality to describe whisky (which a lot of my whisky friends like to chide me for). For example, if you gave me a Kingsbarns and a Glenkinchie and said “these are two typical Lowland whiskies, a bit fruity and relatively soft on the palate”, I’d be forced to agree that they had some vague similarities despite being almost incomparable in most ways. However, if you gave me a Craigellachie, a Mortlach, a Glenfiddich and a Glen Moray – all core range products from big companies – and said “These are all typical Speyside whiskies”, I would be forced to conclude there is indeed no such thing.


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