Irish whiskey, touring the Hebrides and an American whiskey supplement on Kentucky Bourbon
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...
|Part 5 : Whisky classification by flavour|