A Beginner’s Guide to Sampling Scotch
We’ve all heard or read these descriptions of our favourite Scotch, where words like fruity, leathery and esters are thrown around. But not too many of us actually go into the details of how these flavour profiles come about. How do these experts arrive at these terms?
While reviewing Scotch, the three factors taken into consideration are the look, the aroma and the taste. These factors aren’t independent, and they tend to overlap, but let’s look at each one on its own anyway.
This is described based on colour, consistency and clarity.
Colours in whisky depend on the method of production, maturation and filtration. To complicate the matter, most large distillers add artificial colour to maintain uniformity across batches.The colour might range from clear to pale gold on the lighter side, going up to mahogany and treacle on the dark end of the spectrum.
By tilting the glass and observing how the whisky flows back down the sides, we get an idea of the consistency. Is it free flowing, washing down easily? Or is it more viscous, forming droplets and trickling down slowly?
Let’s move on to clarity. Whiskies might range from completely clear to almost opaque. While most mass-produced bottled whiskies are 'chill-filtered', a few cask strength bottlings may be translucent to opaque, if they are hand filtered. These ‘impurities’ that are removed by ‘chill-filtering’ also have a huge effect on flavour, which is why cask strength bottlings have their own cult following.
Apparently the most important element of whisky tasting since the nose is a far more acute and accurate organ than the tongue, although the two work together when you take a sip. The tongue detects only four primary tastes, but the nose can detect 32 primary scents.
Aromas can be sub-divided into the ones generated during production and those that build up during maturation. The fruity, fragrant aroma comes from esters. Phenols are responsible for that woody, smoky aroma, and aldehydes give us those leafy, grassy notes.
Feints like leather, tobacco and wax also arise in the production stage, but these are difficult to detect and pinpoint. During maturation, the wood casks add a whole new layer of notes, the most obvious being sherry or bourbon, since most Scotch is aged in used barrels. New wood, if used, lends resinous, pine-like aromas. Casks which were previously used for maturing bourbon lend beautiful vanilla, nutty, woody aromas that make Scotch whisky so special.
Again, taste can be broken down into the texture/consistency also called ‘mouthfeel’; the primary taste or impressions, and the aftertaste.
‘Mouthfeel’ is how the whisky feels, when you sip it and fill your mouth. How does roll over your tongue? Is it viscous or watery? Does it feel smooth or is it dry and almost astringent?
The primary tastes and impressions are those your tongue picks out immediately - sweet, sour salty and bitter. Most good whiskies will have a beautifully balanced mix of these primaries. Impressions are those notes from the aroma that give rise to flavours when the whisky is sipped.
The aftertaste is any lingering flavours that remain. Are they pleasant or unpleasant? Does the flavour linger for a long time, or does it fade rapidly? Are there any echoing notes of the primary tastes and impressions?
A well-made whisky will deliver on all counts - look, aroma and taste; and is a feast for your senses. This little guide is in no way comprehensive, but we hope it will help you begin to understand, and thus appreciate Scotch better.
In the end, the experience of enjoying Scotch is very personal one. Everyone is different, so while those descriptions you read might spell out certain flavours, don’t sweat if you don’t detect them.
The whole idea is to enjoy your Scotch and enjoy yourself!.
Article By: Viren Fernandes
Viren writes for food, beer and his own amusement. His interests include reading, travelling and envisioning himself as the director (and the audience) of a comedy based on everything he sees.
Image Credit: igentlemansgazette.com, mcclellands.co.uk, zimbio.com, cocktailtimes.com
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