The Angels Share is alcohol lost due to evaporation during the maturation of whisky. The exact amount lost to evaporation varies based on the properties of the wood, the skill of the cooper, the humidity of the region and how regularly the casks are turned. The term is also the name of a Scottish comedy drama directed by Ken Loach centered around a fictional cask of Islay’s Malt Mill.
As a beginner tasting notes can seem rather daunting, as well as utterly absurd, casting my mind back to my own beginnings I often wondered how anyone could detect notes of nutmeg, rose or prune on their favourite dram of whisky. Over time I came to realise that the answer is simple: practice makes perfect, though the right glass can help. While odds are most of us will never be able to take on the role of a master blender everyone can learn to smell. Sensory abilities are best practiced by practicing recognizing and associating them with so-called key flavors. Sniffing is nothing more than learning a vocabulary. you sensoric ability can be finessed and checked, and tested again and again until picking out the notes is as easy as reading music. For those not prepared to spend the time to learn their are nosing kits, flavour wheels, and tasting books to consider. The real question is if they’re worth it, lets consider each in turn.
Are whisky nosing kits worth the money?Generally not! Nosing kits are a fantastic way of training your nose however they are unfortunately priced out of the reach of the average whisky drinker. I have the standard 24 bottle nosing kit which will set you back nearly £100. Mine contains:
- Balsamic (Vanilla)
- Balsamic (Hay)
- Floral (Rose Water)
- Floral (Carnation)
- Cut Grass
Flavour wheelsIf you’re not familiar with it I highly recommend the “Nosing and Tasting Course” series of articles by Charles Maclean, first published in whisky magazines, republished here for reference as the originals are deleted. Although the use of caramel colour essentially renders the colour bar worthless for most entry level bottles the flavour wheel is something I highly recommend to any new whisky drinker as it gives a range of suggestions without being too directive.
Tasting NotesTasting notes are something of a mixed bag, there is for example the often lambasted man in the hat, there are regular whisky magazines and a wealth of websites out there offering reviews. They can be very informative if you’re not initially sure what to look for, unfortunately every tasting note is simply someone else’s opinion. Your olfactory senses may be better, worse or simply different to the person leaving the notes. They certainly wont share your association of memory and smell, and you may not even be able to smell the same notes, as everyone has a specific anosmia (inability to perceive a specific odour).
Practice Makes PerfectThe only thing you need to develop your sense of smell is time and practice, ultimately you might find other peoples reviews helpful or you might find enjoy compare the scents of a nosing kit to your favourite dram. In this reviewers opinion the best thing to do is keep your money in your pocket until you’re ready to buy your next whisky, and if you’re struggling to find the vocabulary then you’ve always got the flavour wheel to fall back on.
The motherland of Single Malt Whisky is the Scottish Highlands which also encompass the Speyside and Island regions, the home of the majority of Scottish distilleries today. The total number fluctuates as new distilleries come online and older sites are shut down. The terms are somwhat interchangably used but as a rule:
- A “mothballed” or “silent” distillery is one that has been closed due to surplus of production but could be resurrected (Such as the museum distillery Dallas Dhu)
- A “closed” distillery refers a surviving site which has been put to another use but could be resurected (such as Parkmore or Cambus)
- A “lost” distillery refers to one where the site is gone and should be considered gone for good as there is no chance of resuming production (Such as the Littlemill or Imperial distilleries)
LowlandsThe area from the Scottish border to the Edinburgh-Glasgow line. Single Malt Whiskys from the Lowlands are typically more akin to the perception (if not the reality of) Irish whisky: peat free, lighter, gentler, smoother. And in the case of Auchentoshan triple distilled.
HighlandsThe rest of the Scottish mainland. Sometimes a distinction is made here in southern Highlands and northern Highlands though these distinctions have become less meaningful over time. Highland whiskys are typically stronger in flavor, though can have either very little, all the way to a lot of peat. Edradour and Dalwhinnie being typical examples of the southern Highlands and Dalmore and Glenmorangie of the northern Highlands.
SpeysideThe Speyside region is part of the southeastern Highlands, outlined by the towns of Forres, Elgin and Buckie along the coast and along the river Spey inland. This area is the heartland of Scottish Whisky making, containing the largest number and highest density of whisky distilleries. The Speyside is known for particularly round single malts, such as the Glenlivet, the Macallan, Glenfiddich and Glenfarclas.
IslayA special position is taken by the Island of Islay (pronounced “eye-la”), which lies in the North Sea by Jura. Home to no less than nine distilleries (with two more pending) the Island is known for its heavily peated single malts though the Bunnahabhain and Bruichladdich distilleries are typically unpeated* *Bruichladdich is also home to the Octomore brand however which is the most heavily peated whisky available.
CampbeltownCampbeltown single malts are single malt Scotch whiskies distilled in the burgh of Campbeltown, on the Kintyre peninsula in Scotland. Campbeltown was almost deprived its status as a whisky producing region by the Scotch Whisky Association as there were only two distilleries still in production. It only avoided this fate as Hedley G. Wright, the great-great-grandson of the founder of Springbank bought and revived the former Glengyle distillery, pointing out to the SWA that the Lowland region likewise had only three operational distilleries at the time (Auchentoshan, Bladnoch and Glenkinchie).
The disputed ‘Island’ regionThe Scottish mainland is surrounded by islands, on which there are also a number of recognisable distilleries. From north to south along the west coast would be the Orkney (Highland Park, Scapa), Isle of Skye (Talisker), Isle of Mull (Tobermory), Jura (Isle of Jura) and Arran (Lochranza). So far this ‘region’ has not been officially recognised by the Scotch Whisky Association but many sites do distinguish it from the larger Highlands region.
The below list and map represent the most complete list of active Scotch distilleries Unfortunately standardised data is not available for all distilleries, if you notice anything that’s out of date please comment below or let me know via the contact form!
|Aberlour Distillery||Pernod Ricard||Speyside||1826|
|Abhainn Dearg Distillery||Mark Tayburn||Highlands||2008|
|Ailsa Bay Distillery||William Grant & Sons||Lowlands||2007|
|Allt-A-Bhainne Distillery||Pernod Ricard||Speyside||1975|
|Annandale Distillery||Annandale Distillery Company Limited||Lowlands||2014|
|Arbikie Distillery||Arbikie Distilling||Highlands||2014|
|Ardmore Distillery||Beam Suntory||Highlands||1898|
|Ardnamurchan Distillery||Adelphi Whisky||Highlands||2013|
|Auchentoshan Distillery||Morrison Bowmore||Lowlands||1823|
|Balvenie Distillery||William Grant & Sons||Speyside||1892|
|Ben Nevis Distillery||Nikka Whisky Distilling||Highlands||1825|
|Benriach Distillery||BenRiach Distillery Company||Speyside||1897|
|Benromach Distillery||Gordon & MacPhail||Speyside||1898|
|Bladnoch Distillery||Raymond and Colin Armstrong||Lowlands||1817|
|Blair Athol Distillery||Diageo||Highlands||1798|
|Bowmore Distillery||Beam Suntory||Islay||1779|
|Braeval Distillery||Pernod Ricard||Speyside||1973|
|Bruichladdich Distillery||Rémy Cointreau||Islay||1881|
|Bunnahabhain Distillery||CL Financial||Islay||1881|
|Caol Ila Distillery||Diageo||Islay||1846|
|Daftmill Distillery||Francis & Ian Cuthbert||Lowlands||2005|
|Dalmore Distillery||Emperador Inc||Highlands||1839|
|Deanston Distillery||CL Financial||Highlands||1965|
|Eden Mill Distillery||Paul Miller||Lowlands||2014|
|Edradour Distillery||Andrew Symington||Highlands||1825|
|Fettercairn Distillery||Emperador Inc||Highlands||1824|
|Girvan Distillery||William Grant & Sons||Lowlands||1963|
|Glen Elgin Distillery||Diageo||Speyside||1898|
|Glen Garioch Distillery||Morrison Bowmore Distillers||Highlands||1797|
|Glen Grant Distillery||Campari||Speyside||1840|
|Glen Gyle Distillery||Mr. Hedley Wrigh||Campbeltown||2004|
|Glen Keith Distillery||Pernod Ricard||Speyside||1957|
|Glen Moray Distillery||La Martiniquaise||Speyside||1897|
|Glen Ord Distillery||Diageo||Highlands||1838|
|Glen Scotia Distillery||Loch Lomond Group||Campbeltown||1832|
|Glen Spey Distillery||Diageo||Speyside||1878|
|Glenallachie Distillery||Pernod Ricard||Speyside||1967|
|Glenburgie Distillery||Pernod Ricard||Speyside||1810|
|Glencadam Distillery||Angus Dundee Distiller||Highlands||1825|
|Glendronach Distillery||BenRiach Distillery Company||Highlands||1826|
|Glenfarclas Distillery||J. & G. Grant||Speyside||1836|
|Glenfiddich Distillery||William Grant & Sons||Speyside||1886|
|Glenglassaugh Distillery||Scaent Group (Glenglassaugh Distillery Co.)||Highlands||1875|
|Glengoyne Distillery||Ian Macleod Distillers||Highlands||1833|
|Glenlivet Distillery||Pernod Ricard||Speyside||1824|
|Glenrothes Distillery||Berry Brothers & Rudd||Speyside||1878|
|Glentauchers Distillery||Pernod Ricard||Speyside||1897|
|Glenturret Distillery||Highland Distillers||Highlands||1775|
|Highland Park Distillery||Edrington||Highlands||1798|
|Invergordon Distillery||Whyte & Mackay||Highlands||1961|
|Isle of Arran Distillery||Isle of Arran Distillers||Highlands||1995|
|Isle of Harris Distillery||Isle of Harris Distillers||Highlands||2015|
|Isle of Jura Distillery||United Breweries Group||Highlands||1810|
|Kilchoman Distillery||Kilchoman Distillery Company Limited||Islay||2005|
|Kininvie Distillery||William Grant & Sons||Speyside||1990|
|Laphroaig Distillery||Beam Suntory||Islay||1810|
|Loch Lomond Distillery||Loch Lomond Distillery Company||Highlands||1965|
|Longmorn Distillery||Pernod Ricard||Speyside||1894|
|Macallan Distillery||Edrington Group||Speyside||1824|
|Miltonduff Distillery||Pernod Ricard||Speyside||1824|
|North British Distillery||United Distillers PLC||Lowlands||1885|
|Royal Brackla Distillery||Bacardi||Highlands||1812|
|Royal Lochnagar Distillery||Diagio||Highlands||1845|
|Scapa Distillery||Pernod Ricard||Highlands||1885|
|Speyside Distillery||Speyside Distillery Co. Ltd.||Speyside||1976|
|Springbank Distillery||J&A Mitchell||Campbeltown||1828|
|Starlaw Distillery||Glen Turner||Lowlands||2011|
|Strathclyde Distillery||Pernod Ricard||Lowlands||1927|
|Strathisla Distillery||Pernod Ricard||Speyside||1786|
|Tamdhu Distillery||Ian MacLeod Distillers||Speyside||1896|
|Tamnavulin Distillery||Whyte & Mackay||Speyside||1966|
|Tobermory Distillery||Burn Stewart Distillers||Highlands||1798|
|Tomatin Distillery||Tomatin Distillery Company Limited||Highlands||1897|
|Tomintoul Distillery||Angus Dundee Distiller||Speyside||1964|
|Tormore Distillery||Pernod Ricard||Speyside||1958|
|Tullibardine Distillery||Tullibardine Distillery Company Limited||Highlands||1947|
Obviously not all whiskies are worth storing, and many bottles wont last more than 6 months on your shelf. For anyone keeping whisky bottles for more than a few months Oxidisation needs to become your watch word else your expensive bottle of whisky will start to deteriorate. There are a few avenues open to the whisky enthusiast who want’s to store their open whiskies for longer:
- Use an inert gas such as Argon, or a specialised combination mix to create a protective layer between your whisky and the air above
- Keep a supply of smaller bottles on hand and decant your whisky into these when the fill level dips
- Use vacuum pump stoppers to remove oxygen
- Use parafilm , or wax sealing to prevent oxidisation
What is Oxidisation?Oxidisation refers to the process by which a substance combines with or chemically reacts with oxygen. On your bike or car this is called rust, in a glass of wine this creates acetic acid (vinegar) and in your whisky it does something else again. While oxidation is an important part of the cask maturation process it also changes whisky in a bottled whisky once opened, causing gradual shifts in flavor and aroma. If you have a number of bottles open at once then over time these will slowly deteriorate
Does whisky age in the bottle?No whisky matures or ages only in contact with an oak* barrel. The continual aging of wine in a bottle** is related to tannin transformation – over time the tannins in a wine join together and form longer chains smoothing out the wine and imparting a silky smooth mouthfeel commonly associated with older reds. Assuming their is no cork/seal damage a still, unopened whisky will have virtually no contact with oxygen and so transform very little over time. Lacking the tannins, and organic material found within wine it will not continue to age, as such if your whisky was bottled at age 10, it will remain a 10 year old spirit. *In Scotland only Oak barrels may be used however other countries are less stringent and historically other barrels such as chestnut were allowed. **It should be noted that only a small number of wines actually benefit from bottle aging, the majority of wines produced are intended to be consumed quickly.
How long can you store whisky?Once open a bottle of whisky, depending on fill level, can be stored for anywhere between 6 months and years. Generally the alcohol will begin to evaporate first making the whisky smother, then through ongoing changes with the active gas (oxygen) will transform the various flavour compounds in the whisky. In the short term this can improve the overall whisky, or rapidly deteriorate but the end result will always be the same, a lifeless, barely flavoured spirit. If you want to see this in miniature, leave a glass of whisky out overnight.
Storage Options Pro’s and ConsThere are a number of techniques used by whisky drinkers, most but of which will be covered here. Other tactics such as igniting the oxygen inside a bottle, or chilling the spirit are too dangerous, expensive or impractical to be worth recommendation.
Inert Gas for whisky preservationInert gas, that being any purified gas, such as argon, nitrogen or compound gas, which does not undergo chemical reaction is the gold standard of any serious collector/drinker. As these gasses are heavier than oxygen they will create a protective layer between the spirit and the air thus prevent oxidisation. This is the gold standard of whisky preservation though bottles will require a top up after each pouring so this can become quite expensive.
Decanting whisky in to smaller bottlesA simpler solution can also be to decant your whisky into a smaller container. If you’ve ever done a distillery tour and taken a drivers dram, or swapped samples then you probably have a few smaller bottles already. These can be bought wholesale on Amazon, at a pinch if you’ve properly cleaned a beer bottle, and kept a few corks you can decant your whisky into this bottle. Less air in the bottle, and a smaller surface area means less oxidisation. Ultimately this can be a nuisance as it means scanning through shelves of smaller bottles looking for a particular dram, not to mention the labeling but as a serious drinker you’re going to amass a collection of these anyway – and they’re very handy for new drinkers.
Vacuum pumpsVacuum pumps are a great idea in theory though somewhat less so in practice. By using a pump you essentially suck the oxygen from the bottle leaving the liquid in a vacuum. If you’ve ever used these for your wine you’ll probably have noticed that they slow the deterioration rather than stopping it altogether. Unsurprising really as you won’t actually be able to remove all of the oxygen from the bottle, and oxygen is a gas so it will expand to fill the available space in the bottle. These will buy you time but not stop the process.
Sealing bottles with wax or parafilmYou want your alcohol to last as long as possible unfortunately alcohol evaporates at a varying rate each year depending on temperature. I recently bought a bottle of Dallas Dhu at auction with a low fill level. This might not have been filled to the top of the neck, but this is the cost of evaporation. Add to this that as alcohol evaporates, bacterial contamination can become an issue, transforming your whisky into a milky or cloudy liquids that is both unattractive to look at and unappealing to drink the appeal is easy to see. Parafilm or wax are a great way of preventing anything from getting into your bottle, but they don’t do anything to remove the things already in there. As such they are a preservation tool, however if used on low fill level bottles they will not preserve it for long.
The below list and map represent the most complete list of active Japanese distilleries, while a number of other distilleries have historically been active there are only 9 distilleries presently in operation including Suntory’s grain distillery.
Yamazaki DistilleryThe Yamazaki Distillery was founded in 1923 by Kotobukiya (now Suntory) under the ownership of Shinjiro Torii and the expertise of Masataka Taketsuru in Shimamoto, Osaka Prefecture. Shinjiro Torii’s conviction that “Good water produces good malts, and a good maturation completely depends on a good natural environment.” led to the distillery being built outside of Kyoto due to the access to soft water, high humidity and a diverse climate. Although not actually the first distillery founded in Japan, distillation being reported as early as 1870, the Yamizake valley distillery was the first active commercial distillery in Japan and remains the countries longest functioning distillery. Most famously Suntory’s Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 was awarded the title of World Whisky of the Year in Jim Murray’s 2015 whisky bible.
Hakushu DistilleryThe Hakushu Distillery was founded in 1973 by Suntory in Japan’s Southern Alps, despite being nicknamed “the forest distillery” at 700 meters above sea level Hakushu is among the highest single malt distilleries in the world (in contrast the Dalwhinnie distillery in Scotland the coldest place in the UK is only 324 meters above sea level. Originally conceived during an upsurge in demand for whisky during the so called “salaryman boom” the distillery was at the time the largest distillery in the world, unfortunately the original distillery, now known as Hakushu west is no longer active, production was moved to the new larger Hakushu east location in 1981. As Hakushu east has a production capacity of 3 million litres a year the twenty-four stills now standing in Hakushu west are unlikely to be needed for some time.
Yoichi DistilleryThe Yoichi Distillery was founded in 1934 by Masataka Taketsuru after he parted ways with Shinjiro Torii on the island of Hokkaido. Originally founded as Dai Nippon Kaju K.K. or the Great Japan Fruit Juice Company the distillery produced apple juice and cider while the distilled spirits matured. Six years later the first whisky distilled was introduced as Nikka Whisky from which the company would later (in 1952) take its new name. The survival of both Nikka and Suntory whisky brands was in large part due to the demand from the Japanese military, which resulted in the former being temporarily designated a Naval installation tasked to produce cheap whisky rations. Despite ongoing demand, and insistence from the companies investors the Yoichi distillery under the efforts of Masataka Taketsuru continued to craft “Scottish style” whisky, and managed to remain profitable enough for Nikka to establish a second distillery in 1969 on the main island of Honshu.
Miyagikyo DistilleryFounded in 1969 after some three years of searching the Miyagikyo Distillery is a stark contrast to the coastal Yoichi distillery being surrounded by the rolling hills and forests of the Miyagi region. Originally know as the Sendai distillery it now takes its name from the Miyagi Valley where the Nikkawa and Sendai rivers meet. Having been expanded twice the distillery has more than twice the production capacity of the first Nikka distillery, featuring four pot stills and most interestingly two Coffey stills made by Blairs Limited of Glasgow moved from the Nikka Nishinomiya bottling plant. These early Coffey stills are a form of the continuous distillation stills used for grain distillation for Nikka malts.
Fuji Gotemba DistilleryThe Fuji Gotemba Distillery, built 620 meters above sea level at the foot of mount Fuji in 1972 by Kirin. Its elevation ensures that the distillery’s temperatures range only a few degrees higher than the Scottish distilleries keeping both aging rate and alcohol loss within normal levels. The distillery produces one single malt whisky released under two labels, the 18 year old Fuji Gotemba expression and the 24 & 18 year old blend (which carries the age statement of the youngest cask) called Fujisanrokuor “At the feet of Fuji”, along with three grain whiskies.
Chichibu DistilleryThe Chichibu Distillery founded in 2004 by Ichiro’s Malt is Japans newest distillery and the first to be founded in 31 years. Production began in 2008 under the watchful eye of Ichiro Akuto the distillery owner, manager and Master Distiller who is also the grandson of the founder of the now-closed Hanyu distillery. The current annual production of 60 000 liters is distilled in a pair of small 2,000 litre capacity copper pot stills, manufactured by Forsyths of Elgin, Scotland. While the majority of distilleries seperate peated and non-peated production the Chichibu distillery produces one months worth of malt peated to 50 ppm each year just before the distillery’s annual maintenance.
White Oak DistilleryThe White Oak Distillery, sometimes known as the Eigashima distillery, located in Akashi City, Hyogo Prefecture, is primarily a sake and shochu producer but it is technically Japans oldest whisky distillery. I say technically because despite being founded in 1919 whisky production has been limited and only became regular in 1984 and the sites stills are presently used for whisky production only 2 months a year. The domestic distillery output, which amounts for approximately 70% of the market, in many instances does not meet international whisky standards as these are made using molasses. Export varieties although inline with international standards have seen only slow uptake though the brand is beginning to penetrate European and American markets.
Shinshu DistilleryThe Shinshu (or Mars Shinshu) Distillery founded in 1985 by Hombo Shuzo Co. Ltd is companies third distillery the previous two Yamanashi Distillery (1960-1969) and Mars Kagoshima Distillery (1978-1984) both having ceased operations. The current Mars Shinshu Distillery temporarily ceased operation between 1992 and 2011 but has resumed production with its first 3 year old being released as the The Revival 2011
Chita DistilleryThe Chita Distillery grain distillery owned by Suntory operates from within the Port Nagoya Sun Grain complex and its individual offerings are rarely available outwith the Japanese domestic market though found within Suntory blends such as the Hibiki. Very little information about this distillery is presently available. Information on a number of closed whisky distilleries can be found on WhiskyMag.jp
Jim Mcewan, master distiller from Bruichladdich distillery in Islay Described the glass as “fantastic, absolutely just great” noting that “the fact you can get your nose into the glass, and the little fins they’ve done the aeration. You can see it working their you can hear the sound of the waves, the aeration is good. It certainly brings the flavours out for sure” adding that he would certainly “use it professionally”. Heather Green author of “Whisky Distilled” describes the glass as a combination of the “nosing and tasting and an old fashioned glass” adding that she “Got a lot of notes that she hadn’t gotten the first time, and she’d be excited to serve this in her house”. Whisky is arguable the worlds best loved spirit and drinking it often an intimate sensory experience involving sight touch taste and most importantly smell, everyone drinks whisky differently and nearly everyone has a favourite glass which defines this special moment but we've discovered that none of these glasses help the spirit live up to its fullest potential. Introducing Normal the glass that will change whisky, whisky is made up of a great many compounds some volatile ones are the ones we don't want in the glass so we have to aerate so we let these ones out so the ones we're left with are the more aromatic ones. Existing nosing glasses often concentrate the vapour in such a way that they tightly focus it causing the ethanol to punch you in the eyes, burn the nose and numb the tasting receptors. Another potential downside to using the nosing glass is that it changes the drinking experience to an antisocial activity whereby the head is tilted up and back cutting the drinker off from his (or her) social engagement preventing him (or her) from enjoying the dram to the fullest. A traditional tumbler maintains a social drinking experience but all of the whisky aromatics are diffused and flattened out resulting in a much more diminished flavour, why wouldn't you want a glass that both optimises the taste and the experience of your high quality spirit? Existing whisky glasses come down to a compromise of good delivery of spirit and good looking design, we engineered a new type of whisky glass by mirroring a scientifically performing inside with an aesthetically beautiful outside. I began designing the Norlan glass through a process of combining fluid dynamics modelling and biomimicry born out of the love of whisky and frustration with the glassware available. One day i was watching the waves and thinking about the glass and it hit me, we have to apply biomimicry techniques to copy the natural way the waves move inside the glass and create a standing wave effect when you swirl so as to add air into the fluid for massive optimisation. I met Martin Hanczyc we got into a heavy conversation about the xxxx effect andf the rate of ethanol oxidisation to surface volume. Increasing the surface to air volume allows considerably more ethanol to evaporate. Distribution of molecules between the lower liquid phase and the upper phase in whisky is of critical importance for how a whisky tastes. The Norlan glass is specifically designed with these fins at the bottom or these protrusions which give a different quality to the whisky when you swirl it in the glass bringing up different types of molecules into the head space which give the whisky a fuller flavour.
Scent deliveryThe Norlan glass through over 90 design revisions both focuses and defuses in such a way that notes hidden to most distillers are revealed. This fantastically improves the taste of the whisky. The development of Norlan took over one year and included a four day workshop with master whisky distillers and experts. The distillers were the counterpoint between the qualitative applying their unique experience to patiently work through the results over four days while we redesgined and 3D printed the models on the spot
Hybrid DesignNorlan is the perfect marriage of a modern tumbler with an exceptionally improved nosing glass the stem-lets at the bottom allow you to examine the whisky without getting fingerprints on the bowl. The Norlan glass is designed to allow users to inhale the aromatics and drink without breaking eye contact with friends. We wanted to make sure we were making the best possible glass both for whisky lovers and for casual drinkers and felt we needed to have it tested by the experts. Many of my guests confuse the punch of the alcohol with the actual smell of the spirit and I think an different glass. I can see how this glass can elevate someones experience of their favourite whisky the same way a glass can change the experience of your favourite wine. We've really created a new category of drinking glass that offers an improved experience in the way that it combines the cool ease of a tumbler with the nosing and tasting qualities of a snifter.
Put simply whisky was originally a cure The newspaper “Daily Mail” reported recently about the 112th birthday of the oldest Briton. Grace Jones, born in 1906, a slim 20 years older than Queen Elizabeth II, has survived two world wars, experienced 26 prime ministers, 5 kings and 10 popes, so far. Her elixir of life is whisky. She never forgets to drink a glass before going to sleep for over 60 years and notes that “I do not intend to give up this habit.” “Water of Life”, or Eau de Vie is, surprisingly, the origin and meaning of the term “whisky”. On June 1, 1494 recorded a tax official of the king in Dumfermline, Scotland, that the Benedictine monk John Cor from the abbey of Lindores in the county Fife about 50 kilometers on the grain market on the grain market eight Bollen (about 500 kilos) malt for the production of “Aquavite” bought – on behalf of King James IV
Half a ton of malt bought by the monk John Cor is the first proof of whisky distillation on recordThis entry in the so-called Exchequer Rolls, the files of the Royal Scottish Tax Authority, is the oldest known proof of the production of whisky. The sheer quantity of half a ton of malt is staggering – because it was suffient to produce up to 300 liters of whisky. Whisky, Or Aquavit – or Eau de Vie? To understand this, we must go back several hundred years, as the priest and author Wolfgang F. Rothe explains in his books “Water of Life” and “whisky Pilgrimages”.
Background: The author of whisky pilgrimages:
Wolfgang Rothe, born in 1967 in Marburg, is a Catholic priest and church lawyer. Because of his events and publications on the subject of “whisky spirituality” he is also known as “whisky Vicar”. In Rome he received his doctorate in church law in 2002; PhD supervisor was today’s Pope Secretary Georg Gänswein. After a leadership role at the seminary in Sankt Pölten Rothe works since 2008, among other things, as a senior pastor in the Munich Parish Perlach. This year, his book “whisky Pilgrimages – A Spiritual Guide Through Scotland” was published. In 2016 he wrote “Water of Life – Introduction to the Spirituality of whiskys.From the 5th century, Ireland and Scotland were Christianised by wandering missionaries. They brought to the Celts much knowledge and technical equipment from the Roman culture, which were cultivated and refined in the monasteries over the centuries. This included the distillation of alcoholic liquids. On the mainland, this was usually done with wine – which one would have to import expensive and expensive on the island. So instead, the iro-Scottish monks developed the cheaper but equally suitable distillation of fermented cereal mash. Initially, their spirits were probably used exclusively as a basis for putting on medical tinctures, for preserving perishable medicinal and active ingredients such as herbs, berries and roots, for pain relief and disinfection. Supposedly, nothing tastes like that whisky, for today a growing fan community visits courses and tastings and thus opens up whole flavor and flavor landscapes. Rather, the potions were probably reminiscent of herbal spirits or liqueurs. From “aqua vitae” to “whisky” Nevertheless: To this day, many Scots drink a decent whisky in case of impending flu or other diseases, before they actually go to the doctor – the much famed Hot toddy. The monastic techniques refined, the apparatuses enlarged. And so it is not surprising that the potions “did not only do good to people at the end of the 15th century, but also tasted good”, as Rothe writes; nor that on that June 1, 1494, the monk John Cor needed such a lot of malt. It may be assumed that the monks expelled from the monasteries during the Reformation now also carried their art into the secular area in order to make a living. From then on, the clans distilled for their own use and the number of private whisky distilleries in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries increased so much that in 1644 the anti-genial Protestant currents in the Scottish parliament decided to tax the production of grain in the future. This started two centuries of blacksmithing and smuggling. Missing the link between the “aqua vitae” and the “whisky”. The term used today appears for the first time in the 18th century and goes back to either the Scottish Gaelic “uisge beatha” from which this website takes its name, or perhaps it’s Irish cousin uisce beatha. Intermediate stages were “uschkiba”, and “uiskie” – until 1763 for the first time the “whisky” is documented. And “uisge beatha” means – nothing but “aqua vitae”: water of life. Does the splendid grain distilling that Grace Jones, at least according to her own perception, helped to celebrate her 112th birthday, still retain some of that Christian-monastic spirituality of the Middle Ages to this day? Maybe one or two stormy autumn evenings will give you the opportunity to follow suit.
Every few months the newspapers run headlines like :
- The Independent – Lidl whisky costing £13.49 named one of the best in the world
- The Metro – Four of Aldi’s whiskies have been named among the best in the world
- Forbes – Inexpensive Whiskies From Supermarket Aldi Win Gold at 2018 Scotch Whisky Masters
There is no best whisky awardWhisky is an incredibly diverse product produced around the globe. While some awards/one man opinion awards (such as Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible) may award a best in category there is no individual, or award panel arguing that that one category wins out over another. Is the best bourbon really better than that single malt? Can you really compare that rye whisky to that grain? We may have a personal preference but if there’s no best category then there cannot be a ‘best whisky in the word’. If we’re talking personal preference then I’d give a shout out to the 37 year old Brora, my personal gold standard, though it costs a wee bit more than £30.
Awards are often price basedThis makes perfect sense if you think it through. Can a 6 year old single malt whisky really be compared to a 30 year old single cask? Some awards factor price into an overall score meaning cheaper whiskies earn more points, others separate the whisky into bands. Either way the award in question almost certainly isn’t putting a supermarket single malt against the heavyweights in a distilleries core range, nevermind against the lost gems of closed distilleries.
There are often multiple gold awards per categoryWhile some whisky awards have a best in category a surprising number of these are in fact point based. Under the points system any whisky scoring above a certain threshold will automatically be given a gold or silver award. It’s not unusual for there to be dozens of gold winners per category. This happens for a very simple reason :
Awards are generally pay to payIf inclusion into an award category requires a brand to pay them the brand included are expecting to get something out of it. Ignoring the fact that the only whiskies being compared are from brands and distilleries willing to pay (and supply bottles for sampling) very few would participate if they had only a 1 in 500 shot of an award.
Should you pay attention to whisky awards?Despite a lot of noise and numerous problems yes whisky awards are often a great way to discover new whiskies. There are more legitimate awards such as the annual whisky magazine awards, and even one man opinion awards can introduce you to world whiskies that are limited in supply, or new expressions ahead of the curve.
Should I buy supermarket whiskiesSupermarkets such as Lidl & Aldi do from time to time have some superb whiskies, their older whisky expressions are often a fraction of the price of a name brand. They make great everyday whiskies, and from time to time they release something pretty special (usually around Christmas). I’m not ashamed to have more than a few in my collection. Supermarket award winning whiskies are often solid enough when compared purely on price. Don’t believe the headlines though, if you’re drinking a supermarket bottle the only person who really thinks it’s the best whisky in the world is the journalist. Maybe….
No Age Statement Whiskies are whisky expressions released without a listed age. Sometimes known as flavour lead expressions* these single malts are blends of different age whiskies. In recent years NAS whiskies have become far more common, and incredibly polarising. Distilleries and brands argue that the lack of age statement allows the blender to create flavour and expressions that would suffer if restricted by age. Critics argue that instead they result in young whiskies replacing older expressions. *by Marketing teams
What are age statements?Whisky age statements indicate the age of the youngest cask used to create a single malt*. *Single malts are actually blends of whiskies from a single distillery, rather than the content of a single cask. Standard expressions such as the Laphroaig 10, Bunnahabhain 18 or the Glenfarclas 25 are all marriages of multiple whisky barrels.
Are all no age statements bad whiskies?Absolutely not, several distilleries such as Kavalan have never released an age statement, while other whisky brands have produced incredible, award winning, age free expressions. The controversy behind the introduction of NAS whisky generally stems from three concerns :
- A number of core expressions have been replaced by no age statements in recent years, often at steep mark ups
- The lack of transparency allows distilleries to overcharge for younger whisky
- A perceived threat to quality such as the Macallan decline correlated with the move to nas
What are the best NAS
Your choice of glassware is arguably the most important decision you’re going to make when pouring a whisky, unless you’re adding water, ice or mixer.
What is the best whisky glass?The glencairn is widely considered the best all rounder whisky glass and the one most commonly found in your average whisky bar. With a wide bowl, tapered nose and stubbed base. Raymond Davidson the designer derived the shape of the glass from the sherry copitas used by a number of whisky blenders. Ultimately the best glass depends somewhat on the liquid you’re drinking. We caught up with the London whisky meetup recently for a glass off. The results are below : TABLE HERE
What whisky glasses are available?
- Sherry copita
- Society glass
- Riedel whisky glass
- Norlan glass
- Cognac glass
- NEAT glass
- 1920s’ Blenders glass
- The quaich
The sherry copitaThe sherry copita is still the go to standard for a number of blenders and tasting panels, it works wonderfully for lighter drams and blends. Unfortunately it tends to build up alcohol vapours, long sherry cask finished whisky & peated expressions can be overpowering.
The glencairnAlthough not living up to its reputation as the all rounder, the glencairn whisky glass fares better than the copita for peated and sherried whiskies. Alas it suffers from alcohol concentration on higher ABV expressions.
The society glassBy far the groups favourite, the society glass only falls short on the older, more gentle blends. The society whisky glass is the gold standard for grain whisky, peated expressions and heavily sherried.
The Riedel whisky glassThe Riedel glass is a little more obscure but well worth inclusion, especially if your lean towards lighter or more medium sherried whiskies.
The Norlan glassThe Norlan came in dead last in every category except for look and feel. A bit of a surprise given the level of effort that seems to have gone into its production, and the pedigree of those involved.
The cognac glassAlthough not a whisky glass these are more common in bars than any of the others but worth inclusion. A solid alternative coming in behind the society and the glencairn glasses as an all rounder
The NEAT whisky glassThe NEAT (Naturally Engineered Aroma Technology) is one of the newest on the market and the most tumbler like of the mix. It does well for peated, sherried and higher ABV expressions and had the least alcohol burn off all glasses tried. Unfortunately the glass let’s far too many vapours to escape from lighter whiskies.
1920s’ Blenders glassThe 1920s’ glass is beautiful but ultimately far too fragile for day to day use (we broke two of them during our tasting). It performs heroically on gentle drams, old blends and brains. This glass does nothing for peated or heavily sherried whiskies.
The quaichThe quaich is more ornimant than whisky glass, it has fewer redeeming features than a tumbler. Leave it with whisky cubes, source water and the rest of the tourist guff.
The whisky nosing course was originally published as a booklet for whisky magazine and maintained on their website until August of last year. It is reposted here, unedited and in its entirety to preserve the resource. No affiliate links have been added.
The first two pieces in this series have stressed the importance of smell in the evaluation and enjoyment of Scotch whisky – hence the use of the rather ponderous ‘sensory evaluation’ rather than simply ‘whisky tasting’. So when we address ourselves to the question of how to describe whisky, we are talking mainly about putting words to smells. Compared to this, describing taste is simple, and I will say something about it later.
It is notoriously difficult to describe aromas, yet they are the most evocative dimension in our sensory universe. Think how memories of childhood can be awakened by certain scents; think how a place or a time, a holiday or a meal, can be vividly brought to mind by a smell – for good or bad. Remember, while there are only four primary tastes (sweet, sour, salty and bitter) there are 32 primary aromas, and we can detect some of them diluted to one part in a trillion. Every sample of malt whisky presents a bouquet of aromas – in some cases 20 or 30 identifiable scents – and although it is now possible to measure trace quantities of aromatic compounds scientifically, the only means of assessing the overall impact of a whisky is by nosing and tasting.
Professional tastings for the trade set out to be as objective and analytical as possible. The conditions in which tasting takes place are carefully controlled, and members of tasting panels are rigorously trained: if the human instrument is the best available, training is the standardisation and calibration of that instrument, in terms of both the language to be used and the measure of aromas discovered.
This does not concern us, as consumers. We are tasting for pleasure and the language we use to describe what we find in a whisky can be as subjective and as imaginative as we choose.
The most obvious figures of speech to use in describing smells are allusive: similes (‘smells like Parma violets/new-mown hay’) and metaphors (‘a barber’s shop’; ‘a beach bonfire’). Communication here relies upon your audience having smelled whatever it is you are alluding to. Hens’ mash is an oft-encountered descriptor, but it may be meaningless to people who have never fed chickens. Likewise with very personal allusions like’ the inside of my grandfather’s car’. But the broader your experience of and exposure to different aromatic groups the better: flowers and herbs, cooking and cleaning, babies and hill-walking … Generally speaking, women are better at coming up with allusive descriptors than men, and some of the best noses in the whisky trade are women.
Many of the words we use to describe sensations are abstract – general concepts, rather than strictly objective descriptors. These are as legitimate as similes and metaphors, but they describe an overall impression – the whisky’s construction (to borrow a wine term), general style, character and quality – rather than specific aromas. As such they are useful. But they are not precise, and since they cannot be defined by reference to a standard, they are not strictly scientific.
Think of terms like ‘smooth’, ‘clean’, ‘fresh’, ‘coarse’, ‘heavy’, ‘light’, ‘rich’, ‘mellow’ or ‘young’. Some are relative terms smooth compared to other malts, or perhaps other Speyside malts? Heavy for a Lowland malt?). Others have double meanings (soft can mean a suppression of alcohol and pungency, or it can mean gentle mouthfeel; young can mean immature or lithe and well-shaped). Many more are imprecise (rich can imply an intensity of character, or can mean rich as a fruit cake; fresh can mean acidic or vibrant). Such loose descriptors should be used with caution.
The first systematic attempt to define the language of whisky tasting was undertaken in the late 1970s by a group of sensory scientists in Edinburgh, Pentlands Scotch Whisky Research (now The Scotch Whisky Research Institute). They displayed their findings in the form of a wheel. This is now the accepted way of tabulating aromas and flavours, but at the time it was novel.
The Pentlands Wheel was for the use of the whisky industry, not the consumer, and could be applied to new-make spirit as well as mature whisky. With Dr Jim Swan (one of the wheel’s original authors) and Dr Jennifer Newton (his partner at Tatlock & Thompson, Chemical Analysts to the Whisky Industry), and drawing upon a vast lexicon of descriptors gathered from tasting panels over many years, I am currently working on Pentlands’ findings to produce a wheel which will be more useful to the consumer; the wheel you see here is work in progress.
The wheel has eight segments and three tiers. Users can begin from the outside rim, with the kind of vague aroma description which often arises spontaneously during a tasting, and work inwards to the core aromas on the first tier, or vice versa.
The order of the segments broadly reflects the development of aromatics during production (sections 1-6) and maturation (sections 6-8).
Aromas arising during production are:
1) Cereal: these aromas come from the malted barley, and are usually modified by the later stages of production (fermentation and distillation).
2) Fruity (the scientific term is ‘estery’): the sweet, fragrant, fruity, solvent- like scents which characterize Speyside malts in particular, arise during fermentation and distillation.
3) Floral (or ‘aldehydic’): leafy, grassy or hay-like scents, sometimes like Parma violets or gorse bushes, and often found in Lowland malts.
4) Peaty (also called phenolic) – these scents are abundant in Islay malts and range from wood-smoke to tar, iodine to carbolic. Almost all phenols are imparted to the malt during kilning.
5) Feinty: this group is the most difficult to describe, yet feints give whisky its essential character. They start coming in halfway through the spirit run, beginning as pleasant biscuity, toasted scents, then build through tobacco-like and honeyed to sweaty. The wise still-man stops collecting spirit at the honeyed stage, for the deterioration can be dramatic thereafter. Feints are mellowed and transformed by maturation in good casks.
6) Sulphury (from organosulphur compounds): these arise during both distillation and maturation. Copper plays a crucial role in removing such aromas, which are generally unpleasant. Maturation introduces the last two key aromatic groups:
7) Woody: the vanilla-related aromas in this group derive from American white oak. Some woody aromas are directly related to age: malts can become woody when they have been in cask for too long. Oak increases complexity, enhances fragrance and delicacy, creates astringency, lends colour and develops roundness.
8) Winey (also called extractives): if the cask has previously been filled with wine (mainly sherry, but sometimes port or others), the wood absorbs wine residues, which are extracted by the spirit and become part of its flavour.
The descriptive language of whisky tasting sets out to be as objective as possible, and to use precisely defined terminology. But the descriptors are a guide only. Use your own words and, if you like, group them under the various primary tier headings. Hold your own whisky tastings; see how colourful and original you can be in describing the whiskies. You will know your descriptions are accurate when the other members of your panel nod enthusiastically and exclaim, ‘Yes! Yes! I Know just what you mean – tea-time on a fishing boat stormbound in Mallaig harbour’.
Introduction to the Nosing and Tasting CourseHow much do you know about whisky? I mean really know. Indeed how much do you know about yourself? I don’t mean that Freudian couch business – rather how good is your ability to evaluate what your senses are telling you? The objective of this booklet is to help explain and develop your ability to interpret the signals. Every person’s nose has idiosyncrasies, by being aware of what they are you learn to understand what your nose is telling you. And once you can interpret these same signals, you can spend many happy hours talking about whisky with other experts in language you all understand. It isn’t easy, but it is supposed to be fun. The more tasting you do, the more you begin to trust your olfactory senses. The nose is the important one; hence the Nosing Course rather than the Tasting Course. It can recognise in the region of 35,000 different smells. It can detect aromas when diluted to one part in a million. Taste is easy; you can only taste four things; sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Get these two working in harness and you are well on the way.
Part 1 : What can your nose tell you
The nose has it: Charles MacLean on how to taste whisky, and exactly what your nose can tell youA sure sign of over-zealous indulgence is (of course) drinking alone. Another is (of course) drinking in the morning. This should concern me, I suppose. Solitary drinking is part of my job, and the best time to taste is late morning, when the palate is fresh. But though solitary, I am not alone: the professional tasters and blenders in the whisky trade do the same thing as me day in, day out. A few of them do not even like the taste of whisky. They keep their jobs, and their sanity, by evaluating whisky with their noses alone. For ‘tasting’ read ‘nosing’; whisky ‘tasters’ are referred to as ‘noses’ in the trade. (Likewise, a ‘whisky tasting’ is a ‘nosing’ and the ‘tasting room’ a ‘nosing room’.) The tastebuds are of secondary importance when it comes to the sensory evaluation of any whisky. The implications of this are twofold. First, you don’t actually have to like the taste of whisky to participate in a tasting. Second, whisky is best tasted in glasses that will bring out its aroma. Forget, therefore, about using traditional cut-crystal whisky tumblers: they’re hopeless for nosing purposes. They were designed for swilling whisky and soda, and are perfectly adapted to this purpose, but they neither catch the delicate aromas of malt nor permit the spirit to be properly agitated (which helps release the aromas). A good nosing glass performs both these functions. It is tulip-shaped, with a decent bowl (for swirling the spirit) and a narrow lip (to catch the aromas). Ideally it is made from crystal (so the lambent colour of the spirit can be considered) but not cut crystal, which distorts the hue in its facets. A tulip-shaped wine glass is ideal, but not a Paris goblet. The Riedel malt whisky glasses are designed to show the whisky at its best; if for any reason you don’t want to flatter the whisky a tulip-shaped glass is more likely to lay bare any faults. The next consideration is water. Whisky always benefits from a little water. It opens up the aromas – you can actually see the little oily chains of aroma-bearing compounds swirling in the glass, and your nose will give you ample proof. The question is: how much water? This is a delicate matter. I once ruined a glass of whisky from a bottle which cost £500 (Whyte & Mackay’s award-winning The 500 to be precise) by drowning it, and I only added a teaspoon. As a general guide you should dilute to around 30%Vol, but some whiskies take more water than others and some take less, so add a little at a time. The optimum point of dilution is when any prickle or burning sensation you might feel on the nose when you sniff it straight disappears. The ideal water to use will be drawn from the same source as the production water for the individual malt you are sampling. This may be difficult to obtain. At any rate, it should be still and soft. Bottled Scottish water meets these criteria; ordinary tap water, so long as it is completely odourless, is perfectly adequate. It should be cool but not chilled (say 15ºC); if the water is chilled it closes down the aromatics. The same is true of ice, of course, which should never be added during a tasting. Indeed, warming the glass in the palm of your hand helps to bring out the aromas. The next question is that of exactly what you can tell from the nose of a whisky. If you’re a professional blender you can probably tell all you need to know; the rest of us should note that while you can judge smokiness, fruitiness, peatiness, woodiness and age, you can’t judge alcohol from the nose, nor acidity, nor structure. Should you taste alone, or with friends? The latter, obviously, can be more fun. Tasting with other people also allows you to realize when you are imagining scents. There is no surer way of determining whether or not an aroma is present in a whisky sample than receiving the enthusiastic agreement of other people when you come up with a descriptor. But bear in mind too that nosing or tasting is subjective, and your seaweed may be another person’s kipper boxes. People don’t have to agree; indeed, I’m looking forward to some spectactular disagreements between Jim Murray and Michael Jackson on our tastings pages over the next few issues. To avoid sabotaging your senses, don’t taste in a room with a wood fire which is blowing back, or a kitchen in which you are cooking a curry, or a freshly painted bathroom. Encourage your panel not to wear scent or after-shave, and not to smoke while they are tasting, or for half an hour before the tasting. Speaking as an enthusiastic smoker, I am pleased to report that smoking does not impair your ability to nose and taste. Some of the best noses in Scotland (let alone France) are heavy smokers. However, your smoke can play havoc with the tasting ability of anyone who is not a smoker. The huge majority of people (around 80 per cent of us) have first rate noses. Noses equipped with some five million olfactory cells, which can detect aromas diluted to one part in a million – in the case of especially pungent compounds, one part in a trillion. The main drawback to being able to smell is age: one’s sense of smell deteriorates in time, like the rest of one. Also, be aware of a phenomenon called ‘anosmia’, ‘odour blindness’, occuring among your panel. This is identified when one member simply can’t smell certain groups of aromas. It can also work the other way, where an individual is acutely sensitive to certain scents. There are only three primary colours (yellow, blue and red) and four primary tastes (sweet, sour, salty and bitter), yet there are 32 primary aromas from which we build our sensory universe. Even when you think you are tasting with your palate it is in fact your olfactory cells that are doing most of the work: if you don’t believe me, hold your nose when you next take a sip of whisky, and see how much flavour the whisky has.
Part 2 : Sensory evaluation
Charles MacLean, glass in hand, continues his course in how to taste whiskyThe way that you choose to drink whisky should of course be the way that you enjoy it most. Nevertheless, to appreciate your dram to the full, in all its glorious complexity, there is nothing better than to follow the procedure adopted by professional ‘noses’. Although I shall go into this in some detail here, it is really quite simple and will soon become second nature. Ideally you should be in the company of others, for whisky tasting is above all a convivial pursuit. Actually, whisky ‘tasting’ is a misnomer. Truly, it is ‘sensory evaluation’, since four of our five senses are used – sight, smell, taste, touch. One might even say that the fifth sense, hearing, comes into play as the cork is drawn from the bottle, or the metal cap is cracked open, not to mention the glug-glug of the first drams being poured. Further, I am assured by the former manager of Dalwhinnie distillery that the sherry-finished Distillers’ Edition of his malt sounds different to the usual bottling. Be that as it may, the different senses give rise to different stages in a tasting: sight considers appearance, smell addresses aroma (generally called ‘nose’ in relation to whisky, as in ‘this malt noses well’), taste reports on flavour, and touch evaluates mouth-feel and texture. Pour yourself a measure of whisky. Hold it against a white surface, as you would when considering a glass of wine. Note first its colour, from gin-clear (in new-make spirit) to black coffee, with every imaginable golden-amber-copper hue in between, sometimes shot through with greenish or khaki, rose or mauve, henna or mahogany lights. Use whatever words you like to describe the colour: the important thing from the evaluation perspective is that it should tell you something about the way the whisky has been matured, American white oak bestowing much less colour than Spanish or other European oaks. I say ‘should’ because many malts and all blends are coloured up with caramel prior to bottling, in the interest of consistency from batch to batch. This is a shame, in my view, for although the amount of caramel in a vat is miniscule, we know (from Whisky Magazine, Volume 1, Issue 1) that the nose can identify scents diluted to one part per million, and occasionally one finds whiskies where artificial caramel is discernible on the nose or palate. Leaving this aside, a pale-gold (and sometimes slightly green) hue will suggest maturation in a cask which has been refilled several times; mid- or full-gold suggests a first-fill ex-Bourbon cask; burnished copper, a refill sherry cask (or perhaps a whisky which has been re-racked into sherry-wood for the last year of its maturation); polished mahogany, a first-fill ex-sherry cask; crimson, a port cask, and so on. Having enjoyed the colour of the spirit, swirl it in the glass and look at the ‘tears’ which adhere to the sides. Long tears (also called ‘legs’) tell you (a) that the sample is high in alcohol and (b) that it is likely to have a good texture. Now hold it up to the light and see how clear and bright it is. Do this again in a moment, once you have added water: if it goes very slightly hazy, it tells you than the sample has not been chill-filtered. This is a good thing, since chill-filtration, although it keeps the whisky nice and bright, takes out flavour elements. Swirl the spirit again, warming the glass in your hand and sniff it cautiously. Be careful, in case it is at cask strength (around 60%Vol), since this will temporarily anaesthetize your sense of smell. Ask yourself how pungent the sample is, and how intense. Is the nose ‘open’ – quite aromatic – or ‘closed’, giving little away? Professional assessors often mark intensity on a scale of one to five. Then assess the ‘nose-feel’ effects. Does is make your nose tingle (called ‘nose prickle’) or sting (‘nose burn’)? Does it have a warming or a cooling effect? Again, this tells you how strong the sample is: whiskies bottled at the standard strength of 40%Vol have little nose-feel effect. The aroma will come up as you continue to warm the glass in your hand. Note how complex it is, and if you can discern any particular scents, note these as well. Your first impressions are the key ones: continued nosing dulls the senses. The nose will also develop over time: it is no bad thing to leave your samples open to the air for a while (half an hour, say) to let them breathe and settle. Now take a tiny sip, remembering that if it is high strength, the spirit will burn your tongue. Note your first taste impressions. Add a little water; but as a general rule whisky gives its best, aromatically, reduced to between 30% and 20% alcohol by volume. Observe how swirling eddies appear in the whisky as you add the water: alcohol and water have slightly different viscosities and refract light differently. If the spirit has not been chill-filtered it will go slightly misty. This is caused by scent-bearing fatty-ester chains; the action of adding water opens them up and encourages them to release aromatic volatiles. Some people refer to this stage in the procedure as ‘awaking the serpent’. Nose first above the rim of the glass to catch the bouquet, then deeper, below the rim to catch the full aroma. Take short sniffs, and pause from time to time to breathe in fresh air and rest your nose. You will see that the aroma changes somewhat as time goes by, with scents coming and going. As with nosing straight, your first impressions are the most important. Note any scents you can identify and describe them in your own words. The concluding article in this series will discuss the language of whisky tasting, but for the moment simply use your own vocabulary. This is the most important stage in whisky tasting. Professional noses, who evaluate whiskies every day, obtain all the information they need from the aroma without actually putting it in their mouths. We go on to the final stage, however, and at last consider the taste of the whisky. Take a good mouthful, hold it for a moment and swallow it slowly. Notice first its texture and mouth-feel. Is it smooth, viscous and mouth- coating? Or fresh, acerbic and mouth-drying? Full-bodied or thin? Perhaps creamy or slightly fizzy? Repeat the procedure, but this time notice the ‘primary tastes’. There are four of these only: sweetness (picked up by the tip of your tongue); acidity/sourness (registered by the middle and at the sides); saltiness (also at the sides); and dryness/bitterness (reported by the back of your tongue). Not every sample will present all the primary tastes; many will offer a combination – starting sweet and finishing dry, for example, with some fresh acidity in between. Other ‘flavours’ are, strictly speaking, aromas flowing up your back nasal passage, but they register as taste nevertheless. Common in whisky is ‘smokiness’ (picked up as you swallow) and cereal (registered in the middle of the mouthful). Note any other tastes, aromas or sensations that might occur as you savour your dram. Finally, remark on the whisky’s ‘finish’ and aftertaste. Finish is the length of time the flavour lingers after you have swallowed, and is rated ‘long’, ‘medium’ and ‘short’. Aftertaste, if there is any, should be pleasant and not at variance with the flavour of the whisky. The aftertaste of very old whiskies can last for hours. The pleasure of whisky is in the astonishing diversity of aromas and flavours that are to be found in every sample: sensory scientists have identified some 400 flavour-bearing compounds in malt whisky, and they know there are as many again which have yet to be described. The overall quality of a whisky can be judged by its structure and balance. The structure might be simple or complex, but the flavour should match what is promised by the nose, and the nose and flavour should be a happy balance of scents and tastes, not dominated by one feature or another, not spoiled by unpleasant surprises. And after you have gone through the pleasurable business of ‘sensory analysis’ settle back, top up your glass, light a cigar and ponder the strange ways of the world.
Part 3 : The language of whisky tasting
Charles MacLean continues his course by reinventing the wheel
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