Mar 052015

Part 3


Part 3 – Sampling, and the review itself

In the first part of this series I discussed figuring out how to get your head around what to write, and followed that up in Part 2 with some general remarks on how to deal with your actual website postings. Today I continue in a similar vein about tasting, scoring and the conceptuals of a review.


When I taste I scribble my initial notes immediately; then I have to retaste, usually with other rums in play as controls or comparators, then score.  Then I have to turn the whole thing into a coherent essay, including research, background and photographs. The re-edits can sometimes take days. Then, and only then, do I post on this site.

Some pointers that work for me and which I’d recommend – the list is not entirely for more casual bloggers, but who’s to say what’s useful and what’s not? As always, find your own method with which you’re comfortable.

1. I’m not going to go in depth on how to nose and taste, hold the glass, dip your beak, etc.  The subject has been covered by many others before, and you’ll find a way that works for you. However, a good glass, not a tumbler, is recommended.  I used to needle my friend Curt of ATW about pinching his daughter’s Barbie glass collection, but there’s no question that a good tasting glass is part of a reviewer’s arsenal for really getting into a rum’s profile.  Sure you can use a whisky glass, plastic cup or tumbler, but remember: you’re a reviewer, not a backyard boozer gunnin’ ‘em down over the grill. It almost presupposes a slightly more structured approach to assessing a spirit.

2. Train yourself to know how to identify what you are tasting and smelling. (Practice in the kitchen, on the spouse’s spices, in open air markets, anywhere there’s a plethora of aromas to tease out of the air).  Pay attention to your nose, because that’s where most of the taste comes from.

3. Sample blind if you can, and in conjunction with other rums that are your personal baselines for the type.  In other words, have three or four glasses in front of you, but with different rums in them, including the current subject, and sample them together  without knowing which is which. The point is to be as democratic and unbiased as possible. I usually ensure that the comparators – all previously reviewed and scored – are of similar styles, or ages. Because the first time you try a really top-tier highly-aged rum costing upwards of two hundred bucks, your enthusiasm can really cloud your judgement, and you may be tempted to give it a free pass just because it is what it is, if no controls are in place to temper your exuberance.

4. Do the occasional vertical tasting of an entire distillery’s line, if you can get them (and afford them); or try horizontally, as with taking five ten year olds and run them past each other.  You don’t necessarily have to write about it – it does increase your experience and relative understanding, though, and there’s nothing at all bad about that.

5. Have or develop a taste memory for rums of similar types and your scoring for them, so you can assess the current sample against such previous reviews.  (Henrik from Denmark told me that he has a mental map of a control group of rums which he knows extremely well, and he uses those as reference points to do his scoring).

6. Learn and practice how to write quick notes (this works well in a public environment like shops or festivals, or perhaps your friends’ pads), and how to score on the fly, even if a little potted (be comforted, it gets easier).

7. Every review should have, at a minimum, a description of the rum (name, type, age if known, country of origin, producing outfit, and proofage); words relating to colour, possibly viscosity (“legs”); nose, taste (with and without water added) and finish.  Anything after that is an optional extra – stuff such as if it has been added to, filtered, how it makes a cocktail, company bio, what other rums it reminded you of; comparisons, price, source (pot still, column still, cane juice, molasses) and so on.

8. As noted before, whether you write in clipped sentences, brief notes, stream-of-consciousness or lengthy prose is up to you.

9. Have a score sheet. This would list the things you feel need to be evaluated: nose, taste and finish are the three most common.  Some add (and score) presentation, balance and/or overall enjoyment.  (My sheet has additional space for comments and the notes on the actuality of what I’m sampling…as well as what I’m thinking while I do it. Every now and then I go back through my old notes, but I’m odd that way).

10.   Score appropriately and consistently. Scoring is always an issue – many use a system which starts at fifty and goes to a hundred; others use a four star, or five-bottle or ten point system.  Mind, I started with the naive idea I could avoid scoring altogether and let the narrative speak for the product.  Yeah…but no. It’s really not a good idea to leave scores out. Sometimes that’s all people come to a review to see.

11. Jot down key words that occur as you try the latest subject.  Try and isolate specific aromas and tastes, the way it feels on the tongue, or when you slug it down.  How it changes as it sits for a while, after you add water, or an ice cube. Feel free to be as metaphoric as you wish – language should be pushed around a bit. Good writing in reviews is, I think, an undervalued art form, no matter how some people complain about excessive verbiage. (It’s also a personal belief of mine, unshared by many, that a review should say something about the author and his/her perspective on life, even express a philosophy, which is why I write the way I do).

The easiest reviews to write, the ones that just flow without seeming effort, are the ones you are most enthused about, whether for superlative rums or really bad ones.  This is because both your emotions and intellect are engaged and this makes for a better writing experience.  I’ve always found the hardest reviews to be the ones that relate a rum that is mid range…nothing special.  Only practice can take you beyond that hump, because most rums will indeed fall into this section of the bell-curve.

12. Do not be afraid to call a dog when you find one. Tasting is a subjective thing, true. You tend to get a sense for the good or great rums, and as time goes on your personal palate will likely bend you to one profile more than others, something which should also be noted up front (I have a thing for Demeraras and higher-proofed rums, for example, and the RumProject has made no secret of its utter conviction that un-messed-with rums that are in the mid-age sweet-spot range are the only ones anyone should be drinking). But you will find bad ones too.  We all do.

When you’re reviewing something from a new outfit you really want to succeed, tasting a rum about which everyone else in the blogosphere spouts ecstatic hosannas and encomiums; when you’re writing about some aged and rare and expensive dream-rum, even a so-called “exemplar of the style” — then if you disagree and dislike it, it absolutely does not means that you have to go with the flow, or even waffle around with weasel-words.

If you can take the time to describe why you love a rum, then the opposite holds true as well; you show respect to both the consumers and the makers when you can clearly explain why you think some well-advertised, supposedly well-made product, isn’t what it claims to be. Do not do the humble, self-deprecating cop-out of stating a dislike for a rum with the short comment about this being nothing more than an opinion, and “I’m-an-amateur-and-I-write-for-amateurs” – as if this somehow says all there needs to be said; if you have an opinion for good or ill, you must be able to argue your case.  An uninformed opinion is worthless, and people who do more than just look at scores do actually want to know why you feel this way).

Last note:

For four different styles of writing, compare the brutally minimalist ethic of Serge Valentin on WhiskyFun; the informative memoranda of Dave Russell on RumGallery; the utterly consistent verbiage and brevity of the RumHowler; and Barrel Aged Mind’s Deep Field of research. There’s a niche for everyone, depending on style. No one way will ever be correct, or please everyone.

Tomorrow: Which rums to start with

  7 Responses to “How to Start Reviewing Rums – Part 3”

  1. There’s a lot of detail there, and who does the cartoons, they are a nice light-hearted addition! So I try to do a little reviewing myself, often in a comparative mode. If you are going to get a taste of a particular rum and actually compare it to others you already know (and not by memory but by sampling them at the same time) then I figure I might as well talk about them at the same time too. There are so many and good rum-bloggers out there, I don’t have to duplicate 1-thing-at-a-time style, and I’m not criticizing it by the way, I’m glad that others do this.

    I want to tell you though how I use such reviews as yours and the many others you have linked to your site. Because my palette is so different (and I’m sure undeveloped) compared to yours and others, it doesn’t really matter that you taste “raw walnut” or “nutmeg in the aftertaste”, because I’m not going to get all of those flavors. If you identify 7 flavors, I’m going to get 3 of them, and maybe a 4th that comes to me but not to you, etc. So here’s how I use reviews.

    If I drink a rum I like, and you review the same rum and like it, and especially if that happens more than once, then I discover that I can rely on your taste. Rums you like (even very different rums) I will also like more often than not, and also for dislikes. So the trick here for me is to read lots of reviews of the rums I already know I like or dislike and integrate the opinions of the other reviewers. Those who taste agrees with mine more often (no body matches anyone else’s preference profile exactly) are the one’s whose suggestions concerning new (to me) rums are more often acted upon.

  2. I could not have put it better myself. Every person discovers rums for themselves, in their own way. I really like your approach – if I wasn’t writing so much, that’s exactly how I would go about the process.

  3. Hi! Nice series of articles. But, personally, I don’t agree with your bullet point 10. In my blog, for example, there are no scores, and I don’t plan adding scores – I think scores aren’t doing anyone a favor. I invest in writing reviews, I ask of my readers to invest in reading those and not just jump to the score section. I don’t want to be a shortcut for shoppers, I want to help educate people on spirits, and they don’t learn from just buying the high-scoring rums. I hope my readers get an impression of the tested spirit by reading my notes, and according to that decide on whether to get that spirit or not.

    • Every reviewer must come to terms with scoring sooner or later. Initially, I thought as you did, for the same reasons, and many of my first hundred reviews lack a numerical rating altogether.

      Obviously I had a change of heart. My thinking is elaborated in a post I wrote on the subject in 2010:

      I still think, on balance, that they have value. I also believe that assessed in isolation, scores are meaningless: it is only in combination with the narrative, and with other scores, that they come into their own.

  4. Hi!

    First of all, many, many thanks for your years of work. I began my love affair with rum about 6 months ago, and your site is a weekly, if not daily, reference for me. I’m a huge fan!

    You discuss it briefly here, but I’m wondering if you wouldn’t mind sharing more on your process of using “control” rums. The concept makes perfect sense to me, but I would love to hear more detail on your process for choosing controls and how you use them. And perhaps even specific examples, if it’s not too much to ask!

    I apologize if this question has already been asked and answered. This page is the closest thing I’ve found so far.

    All the best!

    • Hi there Adrian

      Some background on technique. I usually do tasting notes for around six rums at a time (although occasionally it’s more, or less, as the situation warrants or how many I have). Six takes about two hours, complete with photographs, pouring, tasting, writing, thinking, re-tasting and adding more notes. My tasting notes must be very clear, very detailed and more importantly, I must be able to remember the circumstances of the tasting and what was going on, how I felt or what I was thinking at that time, because I may use those tasting notes to write a review many months after the tasting was done.

      What this means is that I always try rums of similar types together. Jamaicans with Jamaicans (or even similar estates’ together), Bajans with Bajans, agricoles with agricoles, whites with other whites, and so on. Initially when I began this system, the round-robin comparison was enough for me to get a read on how good any one rum was versus any other. But as time went on I realized that I found myself writing or thinking “This Jamaican rum is so unlike an Appleton 12” (or variations on that theme) quite often. So gradually, over the years, I found a series of reference rums that I use quite often when judging rums of a particular type (most of these eventually turn into a Key Rum, btw).

      The way I do it is to begin the session by trying the reference first. Then I begin the tasting of the first rum in the range. Then back to the reference. Write tasting notes, write comparisons, any images or thoughts that come to mind. Then #2, and #3 and so on. Are they better or worse than the reference? How are they different? Should the score reflect that or be calibrated on its own? All these are questions and ideas that often come up during the tasting. Sometimes the reference is so different from the range that it’s pointless using it, and the range is compared against the rums within it. Other times it works quite smoothly.

      You must understand that I do this from the perspective that one day I will write about these rums in a formal review and must explain and justify my reasoning. For a person who is doing this for herself or himself, a less structured methodology is completely fine.

      Hope I answered you properly, but if this makes something else occur to you, by all means ask.

      • This is great! Thanks for the detailed response. Very helpful!

        I ask because I’m interested in developing a system for comparing rums that I can’t have in one room at the same time, and might not even taste within two weeks of each other. I’ve been living in Europe for 10 years, but, as a native of North America, I spend a good deal of time on both sides of the Atlantic. The European rum selection has long been the envy of aficionados in the US and Canada. However, I came to rum initially through an interest in tiki mixology (although it’s expanded well beyond that), so many of the rums and rum styles used are described in terms of brands available back home.

        A good example is the Demerara 151 class, which is virtually non-existent in Europe. (Please tell me I’m wrong!) I’m trying to find a good substitute, other than Plantation OFTD. The plan is to compare that German green label Pusser’s (75% ABV) to things like Lemon Hart 151 and Hamilton 151, without trying to squeeze too many bottles of high-proof booze through customs.

        That’s just to give a little context. The ends are a little different, but the desire to compare rums tasted months, and sometimes continents, apart is similar!

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