Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Analysis of Michael Jackson's tasting notes

Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson (27.3.1942-30.8.2007) was the most influential beer and whisky writer of his time. He pioneered the writing of whisky tasting notes and also wrote many ground-breaking books on whisky manufacture and drinking culture. In the first edition of his most famous book, The Malt Whisky Companion (1989), he assessed 250 whiskies from 120 distilleries, a huge effort at the time. Based on his work Lapointe and Legendre (1994) studied the similarity of different whiskies. A total of 68 descriptors used five or more times in the book for describing basic malt whiskies aged circa 10 years were included in a matrix analysis to produce the dendrogram below to examine the similarities of different distilleries. Colour, nose, body, palate and finish descriptors were included. Some of the connections are quite expected, but for an average Scotch enthusiasist some are at the first glance somewhat compelling. That is probably because the descriptors are not scaled in any way and therefore the smoky notes in for example Aberfeldy and Glenugie are statistically just as strong as the smoky notes in Laphroaig. Also the amount of colouring, the cask-types and the maturation time of whiskies compared vary considerably. Anyway, despite these shortcomings, there is a highly significant correlation between the tasting notes and the geographic locations of the distilleries, especially in the 12 subgroups named from A to L. IMHO the dendrogram works pretty well in terms of grouping different styles of Scotch whiskies as well and at least is an eye-opener for some unpredicted similarities.
Lapointe 1994

The most common descriptors for each group are listed in the table below:

color nose body palate finish
A full gold fruity, salty medium oily, salty, sherry dry
B amber sweet, sherry medium, smooth dry, sweet long
C pale gold sweet, salty medium to full, oily sweet, spicy big, long, spicy
D pale gold fruity, grassy oily sweet, fruity sweet, quick
E pale wyne, gold fruity, peaty light sweet, spicy fruity
F gold aromatic medium, smooth, light sweet sweet
G gold, full gold grassy smooth, light grassy dry
H white wyne, pale sweet smooth, light sweet, dry, fruity, smoky dry, light
I gold, full gold dry, peaty medium, light, firm dry, smoky, sweet salty
J full gold dry, peaty, sherry light to medium, round sweet dry
K gold, full gold sweet, dry, peaty medium to full sweet, dry dry, long
L full gold aromatic, peaty medium sweet, smoky smoky

...and the best whiskies of each subgroup are listed here:

average best in basic malts pts best in book (1st ed) pts
A 75,3 Laphroaig 10 86 Laphroaig 15 89
B 80,0 Highland Park 12 90 Macallan 25 95
C 78,5 Talisker 10 90 Talisker 10 90
D 69,5 Auchentoshan 10 85 Auchentoshan 18 86
E 74,8 Bladnoch 8 85 Bladnoch GM1975 86
F 76,5 Springbank Cad15 88 Springbank Cad21 92
G 79,1 Cragganmore 12 90 Cragganmore 12 90
H 69,2 Bruichladdich 10 76 Glenfiddich 30 86
I 79,9 Longrow 14 90 Lagavulin 16 95
J 72,8 Linkwood 12 83 Linkwood GM25 87
K 74,0 Dallas Dhu GM1971 85 Dallas Dhu GM1971 85
L 73,3 Lochnagar 12 80 Lochnagar NAS 83

An interesting fact in MJ's tasting notes is that there is a significant correlation between colour, body, palate and nose, but the finish notes do not correlate with the classification derived from the other descriptions. As expected the correlation between the nose and the palate is extremely strong, but there is also a very strong correlation between the colour and the body (texture) of whisky, which might support the hypothesis that added caramel colouring affects the body (or mouthfeel) of whiskies.

Legendre 2004

Jackson M: The whole bibliography.
Lapointe FJ, Legendre P. A classification of pure malt Scotch whiskies. Appl Statist 1994;43;1;237-257
Legendre P, Lapointe FJ. Assessing congruence among distance matrices: single-malt Scotch whiskies revisited. Aust N Z J Stat 2004;46;615-629
Mantel N. The detection of disease clustering and a generalized regression approach. Cancer Res 1967;27;209-220
Sokal RR, Rohlf FJ. The comparison of dendrograms by objective methods. Taxon, 1962;11;33-40
Ward JH. Hierarchical grouping to optimize an objective function. J Am Statist Ass 1963;58;236-244


  1. Hi, thank you so much for this blog and loads of very interesting info!

    "which might support the hypothesis that added caramel colouring affects the body (or mouthfeel) of whiskies."

    OR this might also mean that 20 years ago producers used much less caramel for coloring single malts. If so then the color of particular whisky in this research is just a result of limited number of natural factors (age, cask type etc) and these factors lead to a very predictable palate.

  2. malts(aT)djbommel(dOt)comMarch 4, 2012 at 1:20 PM

    Can you organize/mail the original Articles from
    Francois-Joseph Lapointe / Pierre Legendre?

  3. I find these kinds of 'analysis' bring nothing. Too old reviews of whisky that is no longer available. Pretty useless.

  4. Hi Teemu,

    Any chance if you could replicate Michael Jackson's exact tasting notes on the Cragganmore 12yo - which he first published in his 1989 malt whisky companion book? Keen to know more =) thanks.

    1. Cragganmore 12y (late 1980s) 40%
      Nose:The most complex aroma of any malt. Its bouquet is astonishingly fragrant and delicate with sweetish notes of cut grass and herbs (thyme perhaps?)
      Body:light to medium, but very firm and smooth
      Palate:Delicate,clean,restrained, with a huge range of herbal flowery notes.
      Score 90

  5. This is great! Would be useful if we could apply this to a tasting note/review website e.g. connosr to find similar tasting whisky... or to find less expensive alternatives for flavors we like.

    The diagram might need to be updated though? I dont understand how highland park falls under the B group (no mention of peat in it, and I dont think Dalmore or Glenlivet are like HP at all) or how Imperial is in the L group (the imperial I have has no peat), etc.

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. It is just a statistical model based on the tasting notes from 1989 by MJ. Peat is just one singular descriptor and they are not weighted by their intensities.

      Besides, here are the MJ notes from 1989. The malts have changed a bit over the years ;)

      Highland Park 12y 40%
      Colour: amber
      Nose: smoky, "garden bonfire", sweetness, heathery, malt, hint of sherry
      Body: medium, exceptionally smooth
      Palate: succulent, with smoky dryness, heather-honey sweetness and maltiness
      Finish: teasing, heathery, delicious.
      Score 90

      Dalmore 12 40%
      Colour: full, amber
      Nose: powerful with sherry, fruit and malt
      Body: medium to full, but never very sweet or sticky. soft
      Palate: rounded and velvet-smooth, with a big development of dry, spicy, bitter-sweet malmalade-like orange and heathery, smoky flavours. Even a faint tang of saltiness.
      Finish: long with more orangy notes
      Score 79

      Glenlivet 12y 40%
      Colour: pale gold
      Nose: remarkably flowery, clean and soft
      Body: light to medium, firm, smooth
      Palate: Flowery, peachy, notes of vanilla, delicate balance between sweetness and malty dryness
      Finish: restrained, long, gently warming
      Score 85

      Imperial GM/CC 1970 40%
      Colour: full gold
      Nose: sherryish, aromatic, smoky
      Body: medium to full, soft, rich
      Palate: Malty, with notes of barley and vanilla, smoky, and full of flavour. A powerful, interesting combination of malty sweetness and peaty smokiness.
      Finish: soft, smoky
      Score 76