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Issue 41 - Something fishy or a salt on the senses?

Whisky Magazine Issue 41
July 2004


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Something fishy or a salt on the senses?

Ian Wisniewski explores the phenomenon of marine characteristics and asks why we can taste the sea when we drink some malts

The flavours we find in malts are inevitably a personal matter, reflecting the individuality of our palates, though the question of marine characteristics in malts is an increasingly public, and controversial debate.

Variously manifested as briny, sea breeze, seaweed, iodine, sea spray, and salty lemon notes, marine characteristics have been identified in various island and coastal malts, by numerous master distillers, specialist retailers, writers and devotees. A couple of evocative tasting notes I recently heard are: ‘like eating fish and chips at the end of Oban pier,' and ‘stepping off the plane at Islay airport.'

Typically grouped under the heading of ‘salty,' references to ‘salt' or ‘saltiness' in this article are used for ease of reference. This doesn't indicate the type of flavours that result from adding salt to food, but the characteristics associated with saltiness.

Explaining how marine character develops in malt whisky has, traditionally, been a straightforward process. The influence of sea air, breathed in by the casks during maturation, received all the credit. That's certainly one aspect to consider, but it doesn't cover all the possibilities.

Water can pick up various characteristics en route to the distillery, including peatiness, but which particular notes water may contribute to the resulting flavour of a malt is uncertain. Studying separate production cycles using different water sources would help to quantify this, but it's hardly going to ...

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