Whisky is a complex beast. It can’t be compared to most other consumer products. There is a depth to it that sometimes seems unplumbable. I guess that’s a big part of the appeal – no matter how much you learn, there’s always another mountain to climb and another river to cross…it’s a lifelong adventure, a continuing mystery, and I for one love it.
The most exciting but also intimidating part of the whisky journey is the exploring of flavour. Flavour refers to aroma and taste, and fully engaging with it can initially be off-putting. Certainly that was my experience. Just one look at an anorak swilling a nosing glass, and spouting forth with the cumulative pomposity of a group of old boys at a Hilton reunion is enough to make you wince. As fascinating as an underlying aroma of sandalwood incense, west coast heather, and figs (Anatolian mind you, not the common variety) may well be, at first sight it all seems a bit pretentious and intangible.
Yes, the language and technical minutiae often used to describe flavour can be an obstacle…but flavour is quite simply the single most important attribute of a whisky. It is the raison d’être. Once you’ve acquired a liking for whisky and become familiar with its basic defining elements, such as smoke in Scotch, the natural next step is to plunge in and explore further. Why do you like one whisky more than another? Why does this whisky pair with that meal, but not another? Why does this whisky work as an aperitif but not as a digestif? The answers lie in understanding flavour, and with some practice and a bit of imagination, it is something that is easily understood.
The trick in my opinion is perspective. Your nose and palate interpret flavour in an individually specific manner. Take a look at these tasting notes for the Glenfiddich 15yo Solera Reserve by two of the world’s leading whisky writers and tasting experts:
Nose: Chocolate, toast and a hint of peat.
Palate: Smooth, silky, white chocolate. Pears-in-cream. Cardamom.
Finish: Cream. Hint of ginger.
Comment: Elegant. Well-balanced to the point of suavity.
Nose: Honey with hints of wood and vanilla, complex spice and fresh fruit.
Palate: Honey again, perfectly balanced by delicate spice and Glenfiddich maltiness.
Finish: Medium length, with sherry notes and spiciness.
Comment: The sweetness is effortlessly balanced by drier oakiness.
They are clearly different. The basic direction is similar, but there is no single right answer. Whilst there is a theory and certain parameters to flavour (more on this some other time), at the end of the day you’re answerable only to one person. It’s sometimes worth the reminder that the whole endeavour is undertaken only to further your own satisfaction. It’s not a test – you drink whisky to enjoy it. And once you’ve started to master the identification of flavours in whisky, something that can certainly be done on the hoof, there’s no limit to the variety to be explored, and the enjoyment to be savoured. There’s always another high just round the corner.
It was in this spirit that I approached the tasting of a Glenrothes 1975 vintage over the weekend. I also invited a mate, who happens to be the local head honcho of a French flavour company, thinking that his more educated palate would make an interesting foil to my instinctiveness. Drop by tomorrow for our ponderings on this fine and almost extinct whisky.