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Appreciating Whisky


Tasting whisky is easy, anyone can do it; just put it in your mouth. And what does it taste like? It tastes like whisky of course! Appreciating the flavour of whisky on the other hand, is hard; partly because flavour is a combination of your sense of taste and smell. Equally as hard, is describing why whisky has the complex flavour that it does, even if you cannot perceive it yet.

I'm a beer man. I tried to drink whiskey and Scotch, but I don't get it. It smells like a girl who didn't shower and just splashed a lot of perfume on. ― Mads Mikkelsen 

I call my whisky reviews, Impressions for two reasons:

Whisky tasting is subjective. My tastes almost certainly differ in some way to yours. That’s not to say we cannot like the same whisky, but I bet there are some whiskies that divide our opinions.

Many of the complex flavours found in whisky are impressions of things that are most definitely not in the whisky. Do you really think distillers add sawdust, leather or grass clippings to their whisky? No they don’t, but that does not mean a whisky cannot give the impression of those things when smelt or tasted.

But why can you smell or taste something that isn’t there?

Allow me to science the shit out of this. It’s all chemistry and biology. I’m no Chemist or Biologist but here is my scientific dad-explanation, or ‘dadsplanation’. Your senses of taste and smell work by perceiving chemicals in our food, drink and in the air, as flavours and aromas. Taste and smell are interrelated in some complex way I don’t understand, but I do know if I have a blocked nose, things don’t taste the same. Within the cells of your tongue and nose are chemical receptors that distinguish what flavours or aromas these chemicals taste or smell like. Your brain will lump these sensory inputs into groups such as sweet, sour, salty, bitter or savoury plus a few other sensations like spiciness, hotness or coldness, dryness, metallicness and fattiness.

Additionally, your brain has what I like to call a ‘flavour library’ that contains a record of everything you have tasted before and if you are lucky, connects those flavours with a thing. For example, when I taste an orange for the first time, the receptors in my tongue and nose translate the sugars, acids, enzymes and minerals etc within the orange into a flavour profile. From then on, I can recognise the flavour of oranges.

Once you get into whisky flavour, you start to see how complex it really is. Some of the impressions you get from drinking whisky can be explained by science, others are a complete mystery. Lignin is an organic polymer found in the cell walls of wood, when an oak barrel is charred, the Lignin begins to breakdown and continues to do so when the barrel is filled. The breakdown of Lignin produces an organic compound called Vanillin which is the primary component in vanilla bean and is the reason Burbon has vanilla flavours (all Burbon must be aged in first-fill ‘new’ oak barrels. Additionally, acids in the wood breakdown into aromatic esters with familiar aromas such as Ethyl henanoate (which smells like apples) or Ethyl syringate (which smells like figs and tobacco).

I find this really fascinating and these reactions occur throughout the whisky making process like the addition of phenolic compounds from using peat fires to dry the malted barley or the way exposure to copper during distillation removes unwanted sulphur which gives the whisky a meaty or vegetable flavour that can mask some of the more delicate fruity flavours. Then there is Terroir, the aspect that even science cannot fully explain. Everyone agrees that Terroir, which is a set of environmental factors within and around the distillery, affects the flavour of the whisky but no one can actually explain how. This is why you cannot just move a distillery to a new location and expect to produce the same tasting whisky, it just does not work like that.

How do you appreciate whisky rather than just taste it?

Whisky is often described as being ‘complex’ and this true because as you now know the is a lot of science and a little magic going on. Here is my advice to getting the most out of your whisky:

Tasting critically and drinking for enjoyment are two completely different things. If you are drinking for enjoyment, just do exactly that. Drink whatever you want, however you want. If you are tasting critically, come up with your own repeatable routine so as to best compare whiskies on a level playing field. 

First, get past the burning stage. If drinking whisky neat just burns your tongue, then you are not yet ready young Padewan. 

Buy a good nosing glass. Something tulip shaped will provide sufficient oxygenation and also focus all those complex vapours in one place. There are many available but you can’t go wrong with a Glencairn glass which should set you back about $10 each. 

Find a nice quite place to sit. You want to experience your whisky uninterrupted or distracted. Lock the door, turn the TV off, get comfy and focus on your drink. 

Slow down. Take it slow, put you nose to the glass, open and breath in through your mouth, not you nose (you will smell more than just alcohol vapours this way). Take small sips and kind of chew it around your mouth to coat your tongue. Swallow and breath out, taking note of the sensations within your mouth and further down your throat. 

Add a little water. Some people will tell you to always drink whisky neat and never add anything to it, but it's your whisky and if you want to explore it's full flavour profile then try it with a few drops of water as well as neat. You don't have to drink it that way every time but this is tasting critically remember. 

Don’t stress the details. There is already a lot of advice out there for the ‘best’ way to taste whisky but you need to find a method that works for you. Don’t try to match the tasting notes of someone else and consider it a win if your tastebuds align; it’s not. Take actual notes, write down what you smell and taste. Try many whiskies and try each many times (but not in the one session) then compare your notes. Every once in a while, a certain flavour or aroma will jump out at you, put an asterisk (*) next to that one. Over time, the asterisks will become more frequent and eventually you will be able to taste whisky like a Jedi.


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