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Food & drink Whisky galore in all its aromatic guises; Got a good nose for Scotch? Sarah Westcott says you can develop one with practice.

A glass of whisky may be the best way to finish a meal but, as with fine wines, there is skill involved in appreciating a good Scotch.

And with the huge proliferation of bottled malt whiskies now available, it can be tricky discovering which is the finest to drink.

Author and whisky expert Phillip Hills says that while Irish whisky, American bourbon and even a Japanese version are now popular with drinkers, nothing matches a fine Scottish malt for complexity, flavours and subtlety.

The market for Scotch has been transformed since the early 1980s when it was hard to find bottled malts anywhere, even in Scotland.

Now, thanks to voracious customer demand around the world, and a renaissance in Scottish culture, whisky is becoming increasingly popular in Spain, France, Germany and the Pacific Rim.

But Hills claims that the increased choice can make it difficult to determine the quality and characteristics of a fine malt. The key is sniffing, or 'nosing' the whisky.

'You may think you know about smell, having done it all your life, but chances are you don't,' he says.

Hills says malt whiskies nose and taste better than blended whiskies, although he would 'prefer a good blend to an indifferent malt'.

He says: 'Blends differ most strikingly from malts in the structure of their flavour - a good malt releases more odours as it evaporates giving underlying smells off for a remarkably long time,' he says.

Hills claims malt whisky is 'the best liquor on the planet' because of its flavour, subtlety and complexity. It tastes much better than blended because it is made from malted barley and no other grain.

The best whiskies also derive more than half their flavours from the oak casks they are matured in with different types of wood leading to very different flavours.

Hills particularly recommends 'top notch' older malt whiskies, which are at their best after ten to 15 years spent maturing in fine casks. The best names include ten-year-old Macallan.

'This is the Macallan we all know and love. It is fully developed with raisins, vanilla and spices,' he enthuses. He also recommends ten-year-old Glenmorangie, 'a lovely, delicate whisky with a floral nose and honey taste'.

Fifteen-year-old Bowmore doesn't escape his praise either: 'The range of fruity flavours is like watching one's sister change from a dazzlingly pretty girl to a beautiful sophisticate.'

Hills, a life-long whisky aficionado and founder of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, is the first (and only) holder since 1791 of a private licence to distil whisky.

Keen to dispel the myth that whisky appreciating is a middle-class pastime, he warns people 'not to be impressed by pompous tasting notes'.

He says: 'Your judgement is the only judgment that matters and you don't need to be able to put words to your tastes to know that the tastes are good.'

To help whisky lovers, the Scotch Whisky Research Institute has devised a flavour wheel comprising some 40 odours.

They range from the plain repulsive like sweaty, stale fish, rancid and cabbage water through to the delightfully sounding cooked mash, leafy, fruity and honey.

Whisky lovers can also use the nasal effects of their Scotch to help them appreciate its subtleties. Is your malt nose warming, nose drying, pungent or prickling? And does it leave your mouth watering, coated or dry?

The joy, says Hills, is nosing out the flavours, analysing similar brands and finding your favourite selection.

The equipment for whisky tasting is pretty basic. You need whisky, glasses, a water jug, a spittoon and naturally a nose.

It is a very simple approach to whisky tasting - first nose the whisky without water. Then add half as much water as the whisky and nose again, before swilling it around your mouth.

In general the spirit should not be swallowed but spat into a suitable receptacle.

'Spitting helps determine the aftertaste of the whisky,' explains Hills, who suggests getting a group of friends together and appointing one person as chairman to take notes and keep order. Hand the bottle round so everyone pours a dram,' he says. 'Everyone noses it and whoever is first moved to say what they smell, says so. The others agree or disagree and the chairman writes it down and keeps the show on the rails.

'This doesn't work with sober, serious folk. I've tried it,' he adds.

Finally if you are still not convinced of the merits of malt, Hills says a wee dram may help perk up your love life.

'Odours akin to human sweat are fairly common in whiskies and the smell of sweat can lead to sexual arousal among other things.'

What excuse do you need to sit back, relax and enjoy a glass of Scotch?


SMOKY - this taste is by far the easiest to detect and can be found in whisky made from heavily peated malt (contrary to popular belief it has nothing to do with the levels of peat in the water). This acquired taste is the worst offender for masking other tastes, especially in young whiskies. The trick is giving the nose time to accustom itself to the peat when other smells will appear.

FRUITY - developed during fermentation, the aroma of apples, pears and bananas develops as soon as the whisky has been poured. It indicates an unpeated or lightly peated whisky which has been well-matured in a good cask and is not found in whisky that has lain for a long time in a nearly empty bottle. The scent of vanilla is often found in a well-matured whisky through fermentation.

CEREAL - this is associated with an immature spirit and is characteristic of feints (when we describe whisky as feinty, it refers to cereal odours.)

MUSTY - this comes from a variety of undesirable sources including bad wood, poor bottling practice and bung cloth disintegration which give it an off-taste. Musty and cereal flavours make for bad whisky but surprisingly are almost pleasant if in sufficiently low concentrations.

NUTTY - These flavours are happily quite common, particularly almond and coconut overtones. They make a delightful addition and arise from oak in the maturation process.

Appreciating Whisky by Phillip Hills is published by Collins on June 5, priced pounds 16.99.
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Author:Westcott, Sarah
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:May 27, 2000
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