Big wheels keep on turning

A piece for our views column,

When I started this blog I thought I would have plenty to say on the subject of whisky. Somehow with time I seem to have gotten side-tracked into churning out tasting notes aiming almost for a daily basis. For the last 3 or 4 years running this blog I have tried to set myself a target each year of 1. covering every Scotch distillery currently producing whisky, 2. sampling every distillery bottled by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, 3. Sampling whisky from every country that produces it, etc., etc.,

Over the last few weeks however, I realised I was neglecting putting on some of my real thoughts and feelings ‘on whisky’. My activity on social media had withdrawn almost to the point of simply auto-posting notifications for new blog posts. A series of fortunate events this week inspired me to start writing about whisky and suggested a weekly views piece. I spend a lot of my time scanning social media and other blogs to keep abreast of current events and here is some of what caught my eye this week:

The Macallan as part of their current Image/photo-led campaign announced on Twitter that up to 80% of their flavour comes from the cask – see their tweet and my response in that thread here:

Read also Mark Reynier’s comments at Waterford distillery’s blog on the subject

This led me to thinking about one of my literary heroes on the subject; Michael Jackson who sadly passed away on 30th August 2007. Marking 10 years since Michael left us with so many inspirational works. See Dave Broom’s eulogy at ScotchWhisky.com for a view from someone who really knew him well.

Michael knew whisky like most of us only dream to be able to, and he famously declared Macallan as ‘the Rolls Royce of single malts’. So of I scurried to my home office to dig through my stack of boxes containing the mish-mash of samples and bottle shares, donations, gifts, swaps, a variety of containers (and I use that term very loosely) of precious amber liquids making up my un-catalogued liquid library. [note – perhaps my attempt to post a tasting note per day has the ultimate aim of taming and depleting this collection to manageable levels?]. Eventually I half-stumbled across / half-remembered exactly what I was looking for and pulled out 2 10cl flat glass ‘medicine’ style bottles adorned with the familiar printer labels courtesy of Ben from Ben’s Whisky Blog. Thereupon were printed the labels Macallan Edition No.1 and Macallan Edition No.2.

So I sat quietly contemplating Michael and all his inspirational books that have helped me on my way sipping these two no age statement expressions, bottled nearly 10 years after he passed away. I wondered to myself, would Michael have enjoyed these. Very probably. What would he have said I can only guess at. My own thoughts challenged this less than salubrious view from The Macallan that as little as 20% of the flavour was derived from the spirit character and I was tasting 80% wood from the cask influence. Surely Michael wasn’t conned into declaring this whisky as the best by overly-cask influenced bottlings. As usual after forming my own notes and opinions I looked to others who had tried these to see there thoughts, Mark at Malt-Review.com is usually on the money. If you can’t wait for our notes then head on over to Malt-Review to read Mark’s reviews of Macallan Edition No.1 and Macallan Edition No.2.

Finally all this musing got me back to one of the basic reasons I was interested in whisky, which was combining my biochemical background with a love of fine food and drinks and the chemical basis of organoleptics (a fancy way of saying how we sense or experience what we eat and drink).  So thanks to Dave again I was fascinated to read over the new Whisky Flavour Wheel. Developed by Dr.Don Livermore of Hiram Walker & Sons, specifically with Canadian whisky in mind – and why not! There should also be a Bourbon, Japanese, Irish, etc. flavour-wheel available as the Scotch whisky centric ones have dominated for far too long. The novelty in this new wheel was the approach of identifying and ascribing flavours to each of the components Yeast, Grain and Wood and also attempting to identify the exact chemicals that may be responsible for them.

72384_CORBYS_WHISKY WHEEL_8x11_4pc.indd

I have already attempted to write pieces on the chemical nature of flavour and still find it fascinating that what we detect in part is the exact shape of the chemical structures we encounter. The rest is neuroscience (something I should be qualified to comment upon, ha!) but I’ll leave experience and the connection between taste and memory for another day. One comment I can make on the above is having worked with pure Isobutanol I wouldn’t have thought to describe it as ‘winey’. In it’s purest form Isobutanol has the stench of cheese and sweaty feet, I guess diluted we may experience this very differently. On that note I guess the final comment should be on an article linking Science and whisky that has been going viral through all the popular social media channels for the last few weeks.

The paper on Dilution of whisky – the molecular perspective by Karlson & Friedman I eventually (facetiously) quoted in a tweet stating

“Two Swedish chemists confirm whisky has been being served correctly in Scotland for the last few hundred years”

Referring to the fact that every decent Public House (Scottish for Bar) will possess at least one little brass tap, usually accompanied with a small jug, placed there for the specific purpose of dispensing water to add to your dram of whisky.

Potstill bar tap

Here is a perfect example from the Pot Still in Glasgow. The Scots have long known that a wee drop of water added to your dram may make it more agreeable to the palate. Reminding me of the Jolly Toper’s paradigm that “Whisky may not always taste better when adding water, but water always taste better when whisky is added!”. The results of thescientific paper in question – which sadly, as is the case with a lot of science these days, did not result form any real science but was generated by computer modelling(!!) – indicate how polar solvents (i.e. water and alcohol or in this case Guaiacol – check flavour wheel above: Grain/Spicy, smoky, savoury) change their interactions with each other when the relative volumes or balance between them is altered. Thus the simple addition of a drop or two of water may redistribute volatile (i.e. easily evaporating) flavour compounds to the surface, thereby explaining simply how the perceived aroma and flavour of a whisky can change.

Whether whisky is changed for the better or not after the addition of water and the big question should you add water to your whisky or not? are best summed up in the advices: Try it and see and Drink it your way! My own preference is to first sample my whisky neat, explore it in depth then play with subtle to large dilutions with water to explore it further, and lastly I think… what would Michael do?