If you missed it, part 1 can viewed by clicking here.
So what is flavour? Most people think of flavour as taste. In general language we would equate taste with flavour and aroma with fragrance. In a whisky context however it is an umbrella term referring to both taste and aroma (or nose). And whilst it’s easy to get side-tracked by peripheral discussions to do with casks, chill filtration, stills, and so forth – all admittedly interesting and all impacting on flavour – this, the actual flavour itself, is where you’ll find the real action.
You’ll have picked up by now that I’m not huge on rigid protocol in whisky tastings. The alphabet aside, fun should come above formula. Nevertheless, as you get down to the business end, there are some important basic “rules” to bear in mind. Allow me a little soliloquy then before I continue on with the ritual of the thing.
Rule #1: Don’t ignore the nose (or your other senses). People tend to become fixated on the taste of the whisky – probably because taste is the pre-culminating moment in the consumption process, and it’s the act of consumption that gives satisfaction. However, on a sensory level, taste is relatively limited when compared to smell; there are only 4 primary tastes but 32 primary aromas. In fact, calling the whole experience a “tasting” is a bit of a misnomer, since smell is integral and indeed all the other senses – feeling (texture), sight (appearance), and sound (hearing others’ impressions) – should be involved to some extent or another. So, savour the nose – it’s a “hidden” dimension of enjoyment waiting to be discovered. With just this in mind I’ve recently invested in some new, nose-accentuating whisky tumblers. In fact I liked the look of them so much that I bought a few sets for my whisky loving friends as well, and now I’m getting some for my twitter friends too.
Rule #2: Use water. If you want to be pedantic, and strictly conducted whisky tastings are pedantic, nose and taste the whisky neat first. I don’t really bother with this anymore, but I’ll concede that it can on occasion give you an added perspective on the flavour. Nose with restraint – the alcohol fumes coming off neat whisky can be lightly anaesthetizing. Some people prefer to drink their whisky neat as a matter of course. All power to them – I fully endorse their right of individual choice. Some people also choose to believe that the earth is flat. In both cases however there’s reason to suggest that the alternative is better. Adding a splash of water to your dram is what’s known as “releasing the serpent”- the water reacts with the flavour-bearing congeners in the whisky and in doing so unlocks its aromas. It’s meaningless to prescribe how much water should be added. The rule of thumb is equal parts water to whisky, but this can and should vary according to individual taste, and the nature of the whisky and its alcohol content. Water also softens the alcoholic edge of the whisky, which can otherwise be numbing and/or obstructive, although die-hards will tell you that saliva does the same job. I think not.
A corollary to this rule – use still mineral water, or something similarly pure. Water purifying chemicals such as chlorine do not belong in your expensive whisky.
Rule #3: Remember to enjoy yourself. I mentioned earlier that tastings play out on an enjoyment-education continuum. On the one end you get the serious – the people who do this for a living: industry professionals, heavyweight reviewers, and the like; and sidling up to them the anoraks – those pseudo-expert whisky fans who’re slightly too far up their own arses. The latter are easy to spot: they’ll swirl the whisky about dramatically, peer at it intently, nose and taste it ponderously, and agonise over each nuance of flavour, with suitably meaningful pauses in between, and the odd, highly focused, introspective stare into the distance. Don’t be one of these guys. Stick to (or at least towards) the other end. Drinking whisky should be fun.
I’m satisfied much of the time with contemplating just a single nugget of flavour, the one that floats unprompted to the top and builds my overall impression, and that distinguishes that whisky from others. In Bushmills 10yo it was turkish delight, in Bain’s it was overripe fruit, in Highland Park 12yo the gentle honeyed smoke.
I write about whisky, so often I’ll persevere, concentrate, tease out a greater array of flavours – but when I do I can feel myself shifting on that continuum – my day at the beach takes on that heavy Sunday evening cloudiness. The fun starts to seeps away.
Rule #4: Learn something. Hang on, you’re telling yourself, what’s with this dude? Ok, it might seem like I’m contradicting myself but give me a chance. As you’re aware, when you love whisky, you want to know more about it. And no matter how expert you believe you may be, there’s always more to learn. A certain measure of incremental learning is essential, and each tasting presents an opportunity to add to your knowledge, and with it your affinity. Your goal here is to understand the whisky relative to others – so that you can continue on your epic journey.
We can all identify the same basic flavours – admittedly to various degrees of proficiency – but we may not be able to describe them in a way that makes sense to or resonates with others…or reference them in relation to other flavours. The answer is standardization. There are various models – the Pentlands Wheel, the Diageo/Dave Broom inspired Flavour Map and its associated Flavour Camps, Serge Valentin’s SGP system, and I’m sure many others – all of which seek to standardize the flavour describing lexicon and get some sort of order and classification in place. It’s worthwhile to be familiar with these models, or at least with their vocabulary, so that you can identify whiskies that you may want to try. I’m all for prolific experimentation but premium whiskies cost long dollars – so unless you have a wallet built like a prop forward (the World Cup’s starting today, here’s my contribution to the rugby excitement) some discrimination may well be necessary.
Rule #5: The T in tasting is for team. Share your whisky, share the fun, share your impressions. Enough said.
Ok, that’s my bit of preaching done. Part 3 – the rest of the formula for an optimal tasting (coming soon to Words on Whisky) – will conclude this series.
Fellow rugby fans – we’re caught in a bastardly time zone predicament. I’m quite partial to sipping on a dram whilst watching my team pound others into submission, but not at 10h30. How early is it reasonable to start drinking whisky?
To the Springboks – may the dram be with you! Preferably after the games though.