Since it is the Holiday season many of us will be cracking open bottles to share with friends and family. We will also be sharing our thoughts and ideas about the whiskies we are enjoying together. So I thought it would be appropriate to post up an article we wrote earlier about describing the flavors in whisky. Have a great Holiday Season and enjoy your whisky!
Have you ever read the back of a whisky bottle or the tasting notes from a blog or magazine? Exotic, unfamiliar fruits, greasy mechanical parts – even colors are used to describe the taste of whiskies. Sometimes I wonder if I am reading a flora and fauna guidebook to an industrial seascape or a connoisseur’s whisky tasting notes. One of my favorite retailer’s in-store whisky expert always seems to be able to roll out a litany of delectable berries and spices, flowers and baked goods. Sometimes his description of the flavors does little to provide me with any insight into the whisky, as I am not sure if I have ever actually tasted an elderberry. In the off chance that I did, I have no recollection of the experience. The lack of common reference points and the sheer variety of interpretation can often bedevil any attempt to effectively communicate the taste experience of a whisky to someone outside your own frame of reference. But there is a certain joy in attempting to bridge that barrier.
Why do we love whiskies so much? The wealth and complexity in this fine shades-of-copper-and-brown spirit offer a bounty of different flavors for us to enjoy. There is no right or wrong answer to how a whisky tastes and we all pick up different flavors even though we are enjoying whisky from the same bottle. But how are we able to identify the flavors that we taste in a whisky? Unlike a specific item of food we cannot simply say that whisky tastes like whisky. That is an over-broad generalization of the flavors of whisky and do not do it justice.
All of our collective experiences and memories are available for us to draw upon when tasting a whisky. Even from the start of our whisky journey we drew upon our experiences – you might remember the first time you tasted a whisky and instinctually exclaimed that it tasted of hospital and nail polish remover. But whisky takes time to taste and savor and once we get past the nail polish remover we find that there is so much more. Whisky is like a time machine, less the flux capacitor and the 1.21 jiggawatts. As we slowly savor the flavors of the whisky, it brings us back to the moment that we bit into that crisp, green apple or lingered in front of that fireplace on a cold winter evening. There are fond memories of egg nog and fresh baked bread along with thoughts of vibrant tropical fruits and freshly cut grass that enter your consciousness as the warming whisky moves across your palate.
Even random experiences that you wouldn’t think would have anything to do with the flavor of a whisky will strangely find themselves being drawn upon to express a particular note in the palate. I would never have thought that the time I opened up that transmission with the busted differential from a Honda, a combination of oils and other automotive effluviums, would years later spring to mind as the most accurate and curiously pleasing description of the one facet of a certain Ardbeg in its Islay glory. Similarly, that an aroma emanating from a compost pile I once had the ignoble duty to build would years later be revived to help distinctly delineate the parameters of a blessed pour of an 80’s-era Port Ellen. I have even found myself describing the often disregarded Ledaig as tasting like garbage but in a good way. Quite possibly why it is often disregarded…
As you might imagine, while the scents and tastes of a whisky may often draw upon a strange and surprising range of experiences, communicating these concepts to someone else is not always the easiest of tasks. Like our fingerprints and retinas, no doubt the particular distribution and alignment of our taste buds vary from person to person, and while we may be able to share an experience, the fine details will almost certainly differ. My experiences are more than likely different from yours. So my descriptions of a flavor might be totally lost on you – much like the retailer’s were lost on me. Or my memory of what a specific fruit or spice tastes like doesn’t comport with yours.
At a recent trip to a bar in Tokyo with a friend that isn’t a whisky drinker I found that his memory points of reference differed from mine. We were sampling a fine and very rare 70’s Talisker aged in a sherry cask. I was brought back to dark red cherries, raisins and chocolate. While my friend was transported to a very specific herbal pill for stomach pain. As he described it to me I slowly put it together and figured out what he we talking about…I commonly call it the “stink pill”. Not the most satisfying or appetizing of all flavor descriptions but that is what struck a chord with my friend. And curiously, in the world of whisky, such seemingly disparaging terms are not a negative reflection on the flavor, they are simply an attempt to fix in some expressible medium one aspect of a multifaceted beast. One of the real pleasures of tasting whisky, aside from the obvious consumption of it, is attempting to use concepts like burnt leather, soapy orange, sugared cigar smoke, and grassy biscuits. Flavors that we do not have a culinary reference for, but that we can construct from the vast experiences of our sometimes-mundane memories. And better still is witnessing the recognition on a fellow drinker’s face when they understand what you mean by dark red, salted marshmallow.
As you can see there really is no mystery to the flavors that one tastes in a whisky. It is what you taste and what the flavors in the whisky remind you of. Whisky is a social drink that should be enjoyed with others. So I encourage you to savor a glass of whisky and discuss with others what you are tasting. Much of the enjoyment of whisky comes from discussing what flavors you taste and understanding what others taste as well.