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.
Introduction to the Nosing and Tasting Course
How 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 you
A 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 whisky
The 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
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’.
Part 4 : Whisky classification by region
In part four of his nosing course, Charles MacLean looks at how malts came to be classified by region
Traditionally, malt whiskies were classified geographically by their region of origin – the region itself lending style and character to the whisky made there. With the rediscovery of malt whiskies in recent years, this classification has been eagerly adopted, and indeed expanded, by writers and marketing people addressing consumers who are familiar with the idea of regional classifications for wine.
But such a parallel is tenuous. As the chemistry of production and maturation becomes better understood, making it possible to produce, for example, Islay-style malt on Speyside, the usefulness of classifying malt whiskies by region has come to be doubted in certain quarters.
In this article, I will look at how regional classification came about, and explore its usefulness as a guide to the malt whisky drinker; in the next issue I will examine other ways of grouping and classifying whiskies, in relation to their flavour characteristics.
The original regional division was simply between whiskies made in the Highlands and those made in the Lowlands. The Wash Act of 1784 defined 17 counties as ‘Highland’; this was tightened up by an amending Act the following year which narrowed the region somewhat by redrawing the Highland Line from approximately Dumbarton to Dundee. Whiskies made above the Line were subject to different legal provisions from those below (in other words, those in the Lowlands) and the nature of some of the provisions, especially in relation to the permitted size of stills, strength of wash and speed of distillation, meant that whisky of very different character was produced in the two regions. Highland whisky was universally considered better than Lowland whisky.
By the mid-19th century three further whisky regions were being recognised – Campbeltown, Islay and Glenlivet. In the case of Islay and Campbeltown, this came about simply because of the number of licensed distilleries which opened there. In the case of Glenlivet, it was because of the historical reputation of the whiskies from this remote hot-bed of smuggling and the fame of what might be described as the first whisky brand, Old Vatted Glenlivet. By the 1860s, distilleries over 30 miles from Glenlivet Parish itself were adopting the name, giving rise to its being called ‘the longest glen in Scotland’. In truth, it had come to describe a style of whisky, approximating to our ‘Speyside’.
Not surprisingly George Smith, the owner of the first and most famous licensed distilleries in Glenlivet itself at Minmore and Drummin, and the supplier of the fillings for Old Vatted, was not happy about this state of affairs. In 1858 he enlarged and consolidated his operation and renamed it ‘Glenlivet Distillery’, a name he registered at Stationer’s Hall in London 12 years later, obliging other distilleries to use it as a prefix or suffix only. By the 1890s – the heyday of distillery building on Speyside – 25 distilleries were using the name Glenlivet in this way: there was Aberlour-Glenlivet, Macallan- Glenlivet, and so on.
From a blender’s perspective, Glenlivet continued to be lumped in with the designation ‘Highland’, and Highland malts themselves were divided into ‘Top’, ‘First’, ‘Second’ and ‘Third Class’ for blending purposes. This classification varied somewhat from blender to blender, but generally the dozen or so ‘Top Class’ malts were all Speysides (or Glenlivets – see box), were slightly more expensive and were used as ‘top dressings’ in a blend. The ‘Third Class’ malts were considered as useful ‘fillers’, balancing the flavours of the other whiskies. Over half of the 34 distilleries classified as ‘Third Class’ in the 1974 list have since closed.
With the rise in interest in single malts during the 1980s, distillery owners, consumers and writers began to look more closely at regional classifications, in order to explain to consumers the difference between one malt and another. Especially, we were interested in the ways in which individual regions might be considered to bestow regional styles or characters to the malts made there, although, in truth, it was also an accessible way of laying out the contents of a book on malts.
Professor R.J.S. McDowell [in The Whiskies of Scotland] had divided the Highlands into ‘The Glenlivets and their Like’, ‘Dufftown’, ‘Northern’ and ‘Island’ as early as 1967, but it was not until Wallace Milroy’s Malt Whisky Almanac of 1986 that sub-division really got underway, quickly brought to geographical sophistication by Michael Jackson in The World Guide to Malt Whisky (1987). Milroy divided the Highland Region into Northern, Southern, Eastern, Western, Speyside, Islands and Orkney. Jackson followed this, but renamed the Southern Highlands The Midlands, and sub-classified Speyside (where over one third of malt whisky is made) according to its main rivers, the Findhorn, the Lossie, the Upper Spey, the Lower Spey, the Livet, the Fiddich and the Dullan, Strathisla, the Bogie and the Deveron. A simplified version of this classification of Speyside by rivers was adopted at the same time by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society: Spey, Lossie, Deveron and Findhorn.
Some blenders still think geographically, although they tend not to follow the old ranking system. Colin Scott, Chivas Brothers’ master blender, is one. Last summer he gave a demonstration of how he puts together Chivas Century of Malts which, as the name implies, is a vatting of 100 malt whiskies. He arranged his malts geographically as follows: North Speyside (28 malts, including those from Elgin, Keith, Rothes and ‘The Coast’), South Speyside (25 malts, including the products of Dufftown), North Highlands (14 malts), South Highlands (15 malts) and ‘The Rest’ (18 malts from Campbeltown, Lowlands, Islands and Islay. These were each vatted separately for Century).
Having nosed the whiskies individually, Colin then vatted them by regional group and a tasting panel (that included myself ) nosed them again, before finally nosing and tasting the end product.
Although this arrangement was purely geographical, it was possible to detect family resemblances, even in broad districts such as the North and South Highlands and North and South Speyside. For example, the Southern Highlanders were marginally heavier, fruitier and more intense than their heathery Northern cousins, while the Northern Speysides were firmer, sweeter and more aromatic than those in the south of the region. Most of the whiskies seemed to have come from refill casks, and there was little evidence of sherry-wood, so the character of the malt, as bestowed by the distillery, was relatively unveiled by the effects of maturation.
But is classification by region really much help to us in guessing the likely character and taste of a malt? Even within regions there are marked differences – consider the powerful smokiness of the whiskies of southern Islay (Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg) and contrast with those of the north and west of the island (Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain). Look at the fruity richness of The Glenlivet and compare it with the cut-grass freshness of Tamnavulin, just up the road. Glen Grant and Caperdonich share the same source of water, but are quite different in flavour. Glen Mhor and Glen Albyn, the lost and lamented Inverness distilleries, were separated merely by a railway track, but could not be substituted in a blend, since each bestowed a different effect.
Recently the Nosing Panel of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society was presented with a 10-Year-Old Tomatin (Speyside), distilled from highly peated malt and matured on site in a refill sherry cask. It was superb – rich and gamey; very sweet and very smoky. But we all agreed we would have named it an Islay in a blind tasting. This is where regional classification breaks down.
Someone once tried to persuade Hugh Macdiarmid, whom many believe to be Scotland’s greatest poet of the 20th century, to think of the various whiskies as being like an orchestra. ‘The Islay malts are heavy and sombre as cellos. Highland malts are violas. Lowland the discursive violin, and grains are like pianos – sometimes fortissimo, sometimes pianissimo.’ With a snort, Macdairmid dismissed such ‘pseudo-poetical attempts’ as futile. ‘You can only know any or all of them by actually drinking them’.
Part 5 : Whisky classification by flavour
In the final part of his nosing course, Charles MacLean suggests thatclassifying malts by region has little meaning. Classification by flavour is more useful: but how on earth do you do it?
Traditionally, malt whiskies have been classified by region: first Highland / Lowland, then Highland / Lowland / Islay / Campbeltown / Speyside, then a proliferation ofsub-divisions of Highland and Speyside. The original division – and to an extent the later sub-divisions – discerned differences in the flavour, style and character to be found in the various regions. Such a break-down was seized upon by writers in the 1980s, when malt whisky began to be more widely appreciated, since it was a convenient way of communicating the virtues of single malt, distinguishing it from blended whisky and begging comparison (for the consumer) with fine wine.
With greater understanding of the influence of production and maturation upon flavour – to some extent inspired by the demand forsingle malts – it has become possible to produce malts with similar characteristics almost anywhere in Scotland.
But not quite anywhere. The essential distillery character is unchangeable. But you can easily alter the degree of peating of the malt. You can extend your fermentation times; alter your distilling programme. Vary the wood in which you mature your whisky: has it not been said that this can contribute up to 80 per cent of the mature product?
So where are your regional differences now, when Islay-style whiskies can –theoretically, at least – be produced on Speyside? And with the increasing interest in individual cask bottlings (which emphasise the difference between one cask and the next), the stress on region becomes secondary to that on wood. There might be other systems of classification more helpful to the consumer who asks, ‘if I like this malt, which others will appeal to me?’
‘I classify the malts I use in terms of their style and opulence,’ says Richard Paterson, Master Blender for JBB ( Greater Europe) whose best-selling blend is Whyte & Mackay. ‘I use the traditional four-way regional division [Highland, Lowland, Islay, Campbeltown] and I split my Highlands into heavy, medium, light and floral. The division of Highland malts into First, Second and Third class, is poppycock. It’s a beginners guide, and I doubt whether any blenders follow it today. Dalmore, one of my malts, is every bit as good as a Top Class Speyside for blending purposes.
‘The individual casks in which the whiskies have matured – especially ex-sherry casks – will influence where I marshall the malts; the classification is not rigorous or necessarily consistent. For me, the important things are how the constituents work together, and how they combine after a period of time, the marrying period.
‘Selection and classification all depend upon what style of blend you want to create. It is a very personal overview, based on an understanding of the contribution likely to be made by individual whiskies to the overall effect.’
John Ramsay, who is responsible for The Famous Grouse, Cutty Sark and Lang’s Supreme, agrees. ‘I am not influenced by the traditional geographical classifications. I go on weight and flavour; the character of the new make and the kind of wood it has been matured in – Spanish or American oak; sherry or bourbon or refill casks. I will group the product of a single distillery differently, according to how it has been matured.
‘For example, I use Glengoyne in all my blends, but will specify all Spanish oak for Lang’s, three parts Spanish to two parts American for Grouse and one part Spanish to four parts American oak for Cutty Sark.
In my view, regional styles are not helpful: Glengarioch can work like an Islay in a blend; Bunnahabhain like a Speyside, and so on. If I want to create a new blend with a certain character, I know which malts, in which woods, are most likely to deliver that character – and they might come from all over Scotland.’
Some blenders use a simple ‘phenol and ester’ rating for their filling malts, not unlike that produced by John Lamond and Robin Tucek in The Malt Whisky File (1995), where they gave a ‘sweetness’ and ‘peatiness’ score out of ten for all the malts considered. ‘The ratings are a statement of fact,’ they say in their introduction, ‘a guide to help you find those malt whiskies which are most akin to your own taste. If, for example, you like a malt with a sweetness factor of seven and a peatiness factor of four, then those other malts which have a similar rating should be of interest to your palate.’
There have been other attempts by the Scotch whisky industry and by liquor retailers to provide simple flavour guides for perplexed consumers. None of them have worked, and many consumers remain confused. For example, four years ago United Distillers embarked upon a complex research programme, codenamed Project Huxley, with the laudible task of coming up with a simple way of classifying both malt and blended whiskies. If memory serves they measured what they termed ‘intensity’ on an A-J scale, categorising whiskies as ‘light’, ‘medium’ and ‘full’. ‘Intensity’ was defined as the ‘overall drinking experience, from the enjoyment of the colour of the whisky to its aftertaste’, in spite of the fact that it has a somewhat different meaning to sensory scientists. This did not solve the problem.
Clearly, classification by character, style or flavour is more useful to the consumer than mere geographical grouping. The most exhaustive attempt to do this was made last year by Dr David Wishart, a designer of statistical software, using a statistical method known as ‘cluster analysis’ to classify malt whiskies.
Although originally developed for studies in biological taxonomy, cluster analysis can also be used for market analysis. Dr Wishart’s classification is provisional and on-going. He is keen to have your comments on his findings to date, so please let us know your views and we will pass them on to him.
How it works is this. Dr Wishart analysed the descriptive terms used in eight current books to describe 85 readily available single malts in proprietory bottlings at around ten years old.
A vocabulary of some 800 aromatic and taste descriptors was compiled. These words were then bundled into a number of flavour/aroma groups: sweet, peaty, smoky, medicinal, honeyed, spicy, sherried, nutty, cereally, fruity and floral. Each of the 85 malts was ‘consensus coded’ (2 where a majority of authors agreed, 1 where a minority agreed, 0 otherwise) according to the number of times a descriptor was applied to it.
Using his Clustan software, Dr Wishart then classified the 85 malts into ‘clusters’, each having broadly similar taste characteristics.
The result is what’s called a ‘hierarchical classification tree’ in which the 85 malts have been ordered and classed into a kind of taxonomy of malt whisky based on their flavours and aromas. Dr Wishart then examined – somewhat arbitrarily – the division of this tree into ten groups of whiskies plus one singleton.
Although you may be surprised to find, for example, Knockando and Glen Grant clustered with The Macallan and Springbank, or Glenkinchie lumped with Highland Park, the methodology is interesting and the findings potentially of great value to the consumer.
But to obtain more meaningful clusters, the language of whisky tasting must be more rigorous, the descriptors more narrowly defined, more analytical. The ideal body to do this would be the Scotch Whisky Research Institute. But since most of us, including this magazine’s distinguished Noses, do not suppress personal preferences and subjective assessment, the most meaningful clusters are personal, based upon our own experience. So why not set about producing your own clusters, based upon your own tasting notes?
Part 6 : Trial by jury
Tastings have been vital to Whisky Magazine since the very first issue. Here consultant editor Michael Jackson explains the criteria he uses when assessing a whisky, and what he considers whenmarking out of ten
How does one unravel the flavours of whisky? How does one pin down in mere words (and worse, marks out of ten) the flavours and aromas, from ginger to cedar to hay; lavender to juniper; marzipan to pepper, that make up this most deliciously complex, teasing and satisfying of drinks?
Of course, it can’t really be done; and yet I have to try. When I appraise a whisky in print, my first concern is to build up a description. You may not wholly agree with what I find, but it will have been the result of thorough nosing and tasting on my part, and a careful effort to find the right words. What follows is an account of my tasting criteria for the notes on New Releases that follow; my fellow-taster Jim Murray may well disagree with me on some points, but at least then you will know that we each have our own prejudices.
I use a tall, clear glass, shaped like a tulip or a sherry copita, to highlight colour and retain aroma. I pour the whisky at room temperature and initially sample the whiskies neat, because I wish to describe the body, texture and mouthfeel of each. I will then dilute each slightly, nosing and tasting for a second time. The purpose of this is to note the effects of the water as it opens up the whiskies. Sometimes I will make several degrees of dilution as I seek the most individual aromas and flavours of a particular malt. In all whiskies, I am looking for aroma, flavour, complexity and harmony, but never, ever blandness.
The finest whiskies have an interesting colour (the more subtle it is the harder it is to describe); a tempting aroma; teasing flavours, developing with each mouthful; an enjoyable texture (whether delicate or rich) and a long finish (I want to savour the pleasure, not forget what I have just sampled). If the colour is dark, I expect that to be echoed in some sherry-wood flavours (or, these days, perhaps the flavours of wood from port or Madeira casks), not in burnt-sugar caramel notes. I also expect the aroma to be echoed on the palate but, again, in a complex of flavours. I prefer outlining merits to pondering flaws, but would certainly not favour a whisky that was raw and aggressive, that collapsed in the middle or fell away in the finish. These are faults of structure.
In analyzing the aromas and flavours of whiskies, people who work in the industry often seem preoccupied with defects. They sometimes use very negative descriptors: ‘rubbery’, ‘cooked vegetables’ and ‘fecal’, for example. Whiskies can also manifest biscuity flavours (from the malt), clover notes (picked up by the water), smoky fragrances (imparted during the kilning of the malt), fruity characteristics (perhaps coming from the yeast during fermentation), hints of vanilla (from the wood), apricot (from sherry casks) and mint (arising from reactions during maturation).
If it is a blended Scotch it should have enough complexity to suggest that someone took trouble over assembling the component whiskies. What about single malt Scotches? If there were a perfect malt (or beer, or wine, or cheese), we would need only the one. I do not want them all to taste the same. Food and drink should know its own mind, and reflect its own origins. If it is a Lowlander, I am looking for a clean, grassy, barley-malt character; a Highlander might be expected to be more flowery; a coastal malt more salty; an islander seaweedy. An Irish whiskey should have some of the leathery suggestions of unmalted barley; a Canadian the spiciness of rye; a Bourbon the sweetness of corn and new oak; a Tennessee whiskey a hint of charcoal. It is when these elements sing through, without the whisky being one-dimensional, that my interest becomes more deeply engaged.
These are some of my benchmarks: The Famous Grouse is a beautifully-balanced blend but with notably enjoyable wood character. Johnnie Walker Black Label is hugely complex and with a distinct hint of peppery Talisker. As a Lowlander, Auchentoshan has a lemon-grass barley note, while Glenkinchie’s is drier and spicier. The Glenlivet has, to my nose and palate, a peachy floweriness, Glen Grant more hazelnut; Clynelish a mustard-cress suggestion of seaweed, Laphroaig more iodine. Wild Turkey has a robust Bourbon character, Maker’s Mark a smoother interpretation.
All of these factors contribute to the final score. For Whisky Magazine I mark out of ten, with a mark of five indicating that yes, this is a whisky. I rarely score below six. A score of seven indicates a pleasant whisky; one of eight something exceptional, one of nine a great whisky. As for a ten…