I recently received an email from Peter Pogue raising the question about palate fatigue during whiskey competitions. His point was that the high proof whiskeys, 110 or higher, seem to be winning all of the accolades at these competitions. He wonders if the tasters get palate fatigue after a few flights and need the higher proof whiskeys to get any taste at all out of the whiskeys being judged. It is an interesting concept and I thought I would explore the idea in this blog.

Plate fatigue occurs when your taste buds become numb from alcohol making it harder to determine specific tastes. During whiskey competitions I have been a part of, it has definitely been a factor. These competitions generally are 8 hour affairs with judges sitting through multiple flights of whiskey, sometimes as many as 8 samples in a flight. Yes, the judges are encouraged to spit but there is still alcohol in the mouth numbing the taste buds. By the end of a completion with 50 or more samples, the judges are all going to have palate fatigue.

When I was learning to taste whiskey at United Distillers – Stitzel-Weller distillery under the eye of Quality Control Manager, Mike Wright – they were sampling every barrel at the distillery looking for bad barrels. They set up a trailer for the project and people were invited to come in every day and taste the samples prepared for the day. The samples were reduced to 40 proof and there were only about a dozen or so samples per day. This was to help prevent palate fatigue. People were asked to see if there were off aromas such as mustiness, acetate or other funky odors and flavors in the whiskey. Bad barrels would be disposed of by sending them to be re-distilled as fuel additive. This was an easy form of judging because the bad qualities are easier to determine than really good qualities in the glass. Even so, it did expose me to a lot of really good Bourbon, as well as the bad. The point is that even with this, palate fatigue was something to be avoided.

Whiskey competitions don’t reduce the proof of the whiskeys being judged. They do tend to sample the lower proof products first in the flights, but after four or five flights, that is not overly effective. The results tend to be that in the later flights a low proof whiskey would have a harder time making an impression on a judge than it would have in the first flight or two. This could be why many higher proof whiskeys do so well in competitions.

When I do tasting events I limit the number of whiskeys to four or five. I do tend to start with the lowest proof and work my way up, but not always. If I have a finished whiskey that I feel may linger on the palate, I will end with that whiskey even if it is not the highest proof. I always encourage drinking water and maybe nibble on a cracker or corn chip between whiskeys, as well to cleanse the palate. This will slow the numbing effect some, but not prevent it.

Take the results of a whiskey competition with a grain of salt. Palate fatigue could be causing some excellent whiskeys to be overlooked. There is also the ephemeral nature of tasting to consider as well. The judge may have eaten something that does not pair well with a particular whiskey on his palate or be having a day where they all taste better than they would at some other time or place. The only real score that matters is your personal score when you taste the whiskey in your glass. If you like it, it does not matter what type of award it won, or didn’t win.

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