Have you ever read the back of a whiskey bottle, or the tasting notes from a blog or magazine? Exotic, unfamiliar fruits and greasy mechanical parts abound — even colors are used to describe the taste of whiskies. Sometimes I wonder whether I am reading a flora and fauna guidebook to an industrial seascape or a connoisseur’s tasting notes. One of my favorite retailers’ in-store whiskey 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 whiskey, as I am not sure if I have ever actually tasted an elderberry. In the off chance that I have, I possess 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 whiskey to someone outside your own frame of reference. But there is a certain joy in attempting to bridge that barrier.
Why do we love whiskey so much? The wealth and complexity in this shades-of-copper-and-brown spirit offer a bounty of different flavors for us to enjoy. There is no right or wrong answer to the question of how a whiskey tastes, and we all pick up different flavors even though we are enjoying whiskey from the same bottle. But how are we able to identify the flavors that we taste? Unlike a specific item of food, we cannot say that whiskey tastes like whiskey. That simply does not do it justice.
All of our collective experiences and memories of smell and taste are available for us to draw upon when tasting and describing a whiskey. Even from the start of our whiskey journey we draw upon our experiences; you might remember the first time you tasted a whiskey and instinctually exclaimed that it tasted just like the aromas of hospital and nail polish remover. But whiskey takes time to taste and savor, and once we get past the nail polish remover, we find that there is so much more. It’s like a time machine, minus the flux capacitor and the 1.21 jiggawatts. As we slowly savor the flavors of the whiskey, it brings us back to the moment when 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 freshly baked bread along with thoughts of vibrant tropical fruits and freshly cut grass that enter your consciousness as the warming whiskey moves across your palate.
Even random experiences that don’t seem to have anything to do with the flavor of a whiskey can be drawn upon, strangely, to express a particular note in the palate. I would never have thought that the time I opened up the transmission of a Honda with a busted differential, smelling a combination of oils and other automotive effluviums, would years later spring to mind as the most accurate (and curiously pleasing) description of a certain Ardbeg Scotch. Similarly, I never expected that an aroma emanating from a compost pile I once built would years later would be revived to help distinctly delineate the parameters of a blessed pour of an eighties-era Port Ellen. I have even found myself describing the often disregarded Ledaig as tasting like garbage. . . but in a good way. Perhaps that’s why it’s often disregarded?
Because the scents and tastes of a whiskey 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 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, it may be that my memory of what a specific fruit or spice tastes like doesn’t comport with yours.
On a recent trip to a bar in Tokyo with a friend who isn’t a whiskey drinker, I found that his points of reference for certain flavors differed from mine. We were sampling a fine and very rare 1970′s Talisker aged in a sherry cask. The flavors, to me, were of dark red cherries, raisins, and chocolate… while my friend was transported to the memory of a very specific herbal pill for stomach pain. As he described it to me, I eventually figured out that he was talking about the Japanese pill ‘Seirogan.’ It’s 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 whiskey, such seemingly disparaging terms are not a negative reflection on the flavor, but simply an attempt to fix, in some expressible medium, one aspect of a multifaceted beast. One of the real pleasures of tasting whiskey, aside from the obvious consumption of it, is attempting to use concepts like burnt leather, soapy orange, sugared cigar smoke, and grassy biscuits. These are flavors that we do not have a culinary reference for, but we can construct them from the vast experiences of our memories, olfactory and otherwise. And, better still, is witnessing the recognition on a fellow drinker’s face when they understand what you mean by dark red, salted marshmallow.
One of the great mysteries of whiskey is how to draw upon your own experiences and express the flavor in an intelligible manner. It’s a mystery with many solutions. A whiskey is flavored by the drinker’s experience as much as the distiller’s craft, and you are likely to run out of whiskey before you run out of interesting things to say about it.
by Chris and Nate of The WhiskyWall