Tag Archives: Macallan

The whisky tasting deconstructed part 3

Wow, I’ve been so caught up by the World Cup (let’s say no more about it), by my regular work (the irksome distraction that puts bread on the table), and by my recent holiday (less irksome) that I’ve let the blogging slip.  Well I’m now breaking out of the post-vac funk.  This series on tasting was not in fact prematurely cancelled by the networks: here’s the final episode.

We left off at appearance before I meandered about somewhat gratuitously.

Next up then the nose or aroma.  In part 2 I made a strong case – or so I thought – for giving the nose its pre-eminent due.  It seems however that when it comes to my powers of persuasion a gap exists between my perception and cold reality.  My own brother – he who is flesh of my flesh, and blood of my blood – ridiculed my new whisky glasses (I can still feel the hurt 😦 ) and was generally disdainful about the whole notion of nosing.  Pretentious, he called it.  For a split second – before logic prevailed – it made me question myself: have I managed to get sufficiently far up my own arse that I’ve become one of those anoraks whom I despise?  Is nosing just the expected form for a whisky lover?  This is actually an important question to consider.  It’s easy to get caught up in ritual.  Let’s break away from whisky for a moment.  Imagine bread, freshly baked, voluptuous, just out of the oven.  A thick steaming slice is spread with rich Danish butter, which then melts into the hot bread.  You reach for a pot of ripe youngberry jam.


Freeze it there.  Now give yourself a blocked nose – you can’t smell a thing – and picture the scene again.  Hell, you might as well be eating a dog biscuit.  No, I would suggest, and most would agree I think, that nose is undisputedly important…nay, critical.  The aromas in whisky may be more subtle than those in baking, but understated charms have their own powerful appeal.  Scientists have identified multiple hundreds of distinct flavour bearing compounds in whisky.  The nose is essential to “unlocking” and enjoying these flavours.  It deserves dedicated attention.

I don’t like to oversell.  But here I’m going to chuck in a little extra – some hard-earned knowledge that I managed to prise from the internet.  Our sense of smell is derived from the olfactory bulb which is part of the brain’s limbic system, a region also closely linked with memory and emotion.  This physiological connection is the reason why smell has the ability to call up memories and emotional responses almost instantaneously.  So, on a deep and personal level aromas, or at least certain aromas to certain people, are intrinsically interesting.    The nose of my Redbreast 12yo was redolent of cut-grass and caramelised sugar.  It evoked memories of cricket games on mowed turf, of sprinting across the outfield to cut off a boundary, and of the toffee-ish crust on my Mom’s apple-bake.  Why would I or anyone else want to ignore such an evocative part of this experience?  I, we, don’t.

Those halcyon days

So how do you go about nosing a whisky thoroughly?  Do you just stick your snoot in the glass and inhale?  When it comes to whisky be prepared to be humbled.  There’s always more to learn, and sometimes it’s basic stuff.  I was recently invited to an event hosted by The Macallan – an excellent evening spent viewing fine photography and sampling even finer whisky – to which I was accompanied by my non-noseworthy brother, his wife (also unconverted), and an old friend, a local film producer of such legendary status that dropping his name would be downright gauche.  For the purposes of this post let’s call him Carson.  Carson had recently been to a tasting where he’d been prompted to open his mouth whilst nosing whisky.  I was dubious but gave it a try, and wow, what a difference it makes!  It was the equivalent of fuzzy vision suddenly being focused – everything seemed more precise, more acute, more definitive.  Cats apparently smell in this way.  There are organs in their mouths, called vomeronasal organs, that supplement their sense of smell.  These organs are also present in humans but are thought to be vestigial (i.e. like the appendix no longer serving a function).  Maybe not though.  Or maybe there’s some other simple explanation for Carson’s nosing style – Google can only get you so far.  Regardless, if you weren’t aware of this nifty little trick, give it a go – it’s easy and it works.

There are a few other “tricks” worth investigating, if you’re so inclined:

–        When you start nosing whisky, and even if you’ve been doing it for a while, you’re likely to be asking yourself whether you’re really smelling some of these subtle aromas, or whether they might be a figment of your over-exuberance.  You think that you smell something but you can’t quite put a finger on it.  Consider this: you met someone briefly years ago.  Unexpectedly you see the person whilst you’re out and about in a public space.  The face seems familiar, but you can’t place it, or associate it to a name.  This is the olfactory predicament.  Our sense of smell is the poor relative – deprioritized, often ignored, and mostly deprived of attention.  Recognition comes with repetition.  You may not remember that fleeting face in the crowd, but you won’t forget your wife’s.  It’s got to do with observation.  Smells can be observed just like sights and sounds.  Pay greater heed to aromas in daily life and it’ll enhance your ability to more readily identify these in your whisky.  To what extent will this amplify your enjoyment, if at all?  I’m not sure.  The optimal fun/work balance is different for each of us.

–        Alternate between two different, and somewhat polarized, techniques. Firstly focus on a particular reference point, i.e. a single aroma, and attempt to identify this in the nose.  This reference can be sourced from tasting notes about the whisky, from the impressions of others who may be tasting the whisky with you, or from a standardized model.  Secondly, make your mind blank and indulge in some free association.  Let your imagination loose.  There are no wrong answers.  I favour the latter because of its fun factor domination.

These tips above are of equal relevance for the taste of a whisky, but the next one is specific to the nose:

–        You now know about the cat thing, so try varying it up some more:  long draws, short sniffs, and, discreetly (I wouldn’t let my brother see me do this), block one nostril at a time.  Each iteration might give you a different perspective.

Although I’ve focused on this aspect of it, nosing isn’t just isolated to aromas.  You should also be aware of the nosing effects – the sensation on the epithelium or lining of the nose (like mouthfeel for taste) – and how these influence your personal impressions of a whisky.  One of the flavour standardization models which I have at hand labels these effects as any one of pungent, prickling, nose-warming and nose-drying.  I’m not convinced that it’s particularly necessary to get caught up in these details, but getting a gauge on the level of prickling can be useful in guiding reduction, since this can largely be attributed to the bite of the alcohol.     Add water gradually from neat until the prickling dissipates.

Moving on.  You’re now ready to toss it back.  This is where formal tastings can really get pedantic.  Let’s struggle through it.

First up you should evaluate mouthfeel.  I was given an old Glenmorangie tasting manual which provides some useful vocabulary to guide you through this process.  According to the venerable gentlemen who bring us this fine Highland malt (there are apparently sixteen of them, residing in a place called Tain) a whisky can either be mouth-coating (oily, creamy or smooth), mouth-warming (like Nando’s peri-peri mild to fiery), mouth-watering, or mouth-furring (astringent or dry).  Related – in that it influences mouthfeel – but separate is the body or texture of the whisky, ranging from light and watery to full and dense.  The aromatics have now been fully appraised and are nevertheless trapped in your mouth so feel free to roll the whisky about as if it were Listerine.

Secondly, you’re now finding yourself in the home-stretch, the taste.  Remember that it can be meaningful to taste both neat and reduced.  There are 4 primary tastes – bitter, salty, sour, and sweet – which may be present in a whisky, either individually or, more likely, in combination.  Other flavours, which you interpret as taste, are in fact aromas detected by the nasal passage at the back of your mouth.  Swallow and savour the finish, the persisting flavour of the whisky after consumption.  Does it linger long or is this whisky lingerless?   Is there an aftertaste – new nuances that were not initially evident but might appear after a second sip or after a few minutes have elapsed?

I copped some flak from smokers because on my comments in part 1.  I’m going to try to make it up to them.  You’ve now reached the point where you can sit back with a self-satisfied look on your face, light up a smoke, and consider your overall impressions of the whisky.

These ones are better for you. The tobacco equivalent of broccoli really...

I tend to focus on one aspect alone – balance.  Are the various flavours in harmony with each other or is this whisky wearing black shoes with a brown belt?  Is the taste consistent with the nose, or does it just talk the talk, but not walk the walk?  Weighty matters indeed…

Incidentally I found the Redbreast 12yo to be beautifully balanced, nimbly performing cartwheels on a tightrope.  I have tears in my eyes as I look at the dregs that are all that remain in the bottle.

On that bittersweet note I’m going to abruptly terminate this series of haphazard musings.  Enjoy the week ahead, and may the dram be with you.

Wrap party at Pepénero Restaurant

Last night saw the WHISKYdotcoza site wrap party take place.  There’s still some information to chase up from errant suppliers, and a few final tweaks to be made, but we’re almost there.  The opening bell is about to sound.  Let the trading begin…soon.

I sneaked in a quiet one before the festivities began

Our event was held at Pepénero in Mouille Point – a venue that I frequent regularly, and so do many other Capetonians it seems; Wednesday night and the place was packed to capacity.  We chose it for the party because it’s a great place to drink whisky.  For starters there’s a meaty selection of whiskies, as one would expect because it’s owned by the scion of one of the doyens of the local liquor industry.  The bar area is atmospheric – featuring an opulent décor style (which extends to the restaurant), large comfortable leather couches,  and a massive travertine bar counter, which is just perfect for propping up whisky-sipping barflies.  Take a bow Paul Kovensky.

I asked to bring in my own whiskies – their selection is wide, but by no means exhaustive – which they graciously allowed, so we worked our way through bottles of Macallan 12yo Sherry Oak and Highland Park 12yo, a taste journey starting from preserves and working its way to soft smoke.  I appreciate Islay malts once in a while, but I’m by no means a peat-freak, and this Highland Park is just right; enough peat into which to sink your teeth, but not so much that it clobbers you over the head.   Awesome stuff!

On the culinary front the restaurant was as reliable as always.  They have a fairly broad menu, but I find myself gravitating to their sushi more often than not.  It’s delicious and reasonably-priced, a winning combination in my books.  I like my sushi with strong wasabi, and too often restaurants don’t get this right.  Pepénero’s wasabi takes no prisoners – it sits up and punches you in the nose.

On the whole a great evening with our web designers and friends from Milk, who have done an amazing job.  Whisky, good company, and a great setting…what more is there?

Happy Easter everyone.  May the dram be with you.


You may remember from a previous post that I had ordered an ice-ball mould.  Well, the waiting is over.  It finally arrived.

Made in China of course

The logic behind the ice-ball is that in theory it melts slower than an equivalent sized ice-block, because a sphere with the same volume as a block will have a lesser surface area than that block.  Hence it cools a drink without diluting it as excessively.

The Macallan, makers of great single malt, have recognized this logic and embraced the ice-ball.  Check out this press release from last year:

March 15th 2010

Raising the Bar – The Macallan Introduces the Ice Ball Serve

The ice or water debate has long remained a fiercely contested subject amongst whisky drinkers and The Macallan has thrown its hat into the ring by creating an innovative serving method expressly for those who like their whisky with ice.

Believing the perfect serve to come down to personal preference, The Macallan has pioneered the Ice Ball Serve.  It is the first real move by any whisky brand in the UK to present whisky in an innovative, contemporary fashion and open the doors to a growing adult population that regards ice as an integral part of the spirit-drinking experience.

The Ice Ball Serve is based on the Japanese tradition of serving hand-carved ice with ultra-premium spirits.  The ice ball press instantly creates a flawlessly formed sphere of ice that adds a touch of theatre and sophistication.

The Macallan’s Marketing Assistant, Pat Lee, explains the science part: “The Ice Ball Press was inspired by Japanese cocktail culture where artisans hand-carve ice balls from massive slabs to create an uninterrupted surface that cools spirits quickly and evenly.  The ice ball melts slowly to preserve the integrity of the spirit.  We have updated this process, by developing a copper press that instantly trims a block of ice into a flawless ice ball.  This, combined with our masterful single malt Scotch whisky, is The Macallan Perfect Serve.

“The Macallan’s liquid excellence is continuously defined by its unprecedented elegance and versatility. The ice ball balances these qualities. As global cocktail culture has evolved, ice has become central to the modern-day spirits experience.  With an eye on this trend, we created The Macallan Perfect Serve, to modernise the way single malt can be enjoyed and appeal to a wider range of consumers.”

In essence; The Macallan ice ball serve takes this traditional practice to the ultimate level, with a single perfect sphere of ice, a unique beautiful serve with the benefits of maximum chill with minimum dilution.

Enjoy the perfect ice-ball serve at the following bars and restaurants:



The Ritz Hotel


The Connaught Bar, The Connaught Hotel, London

The Dorchester Hotel, London


50 St. James

Milk & Honey

It might have been a better idea to focus this initiative on warmer climes, the blink-and-it’s-gone British summer doesn’t count, but credit to them nonetheless.  Many brand owners’ marketing efforts are so focused on advertising, point of sale, packaging, and whatnot, that product aside there’s sometimes little attention paid to the consumer’s drinking experience.

So, having waited for a while, I was quite excited to ball some ice, and I hastily pressed my mould into service.  I had no Japanese whisky at hand so I called on an Abelour 10yo, knowing it would not let me down.  With the ice-ball in the glass and ready I tossed in whisky and water, let rip with the prescribed 13 and half stirs, and hey presto a mizuwari was born.

The mystical ice-ball

Vigorous but precision stirring required

I’m not an ice man (more a Maverick…sorry couldn’t resist) and yesterday evening wasn’t particularly warm, so this was never going to be my preferred format for drinking, or should I say appreciating, a whisky.  But it is a pleasant enough drink…hey it’s water and ice with a bit of fanfare and a fancy name.

I can’t comment on the efficacy of the ice-ball.  The theory’s appealing, but the difference in degree of dilution is probably quite subtle in practice.  I’ll have to repeat the experiment with two drinks at the same time, one balled one blocked.  I’ll say one thing though, whilst the mould is a great cheap alternative, I wouldn’t mind getting my hands on a Macallan-type ice-ball press.  Check it out here…with some sales patter thrown in.