Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Tasting Tips & Whisky Trivia

Having attended the Bruichladdich/Vintage Cellars whisky event also, I thought I should give some of my insight into the evening. Since Brad has eloquently discussed the distillery and their product in fine detail here, I have decided to talk 'tasting tips and whisky trivia.'

In referring to tasting, we were asked to cut all out whiskies with a 'wee' bit of water. We were then asked to taste each whisky with a 'wee' sip...and whatever we thought was a 'wee' sip, we were asked to take that and make it 'wee'er'!

So why cut whisky with a little water? The water will dilute the alcohol and re-state the flavour. A small amount of water will release more subtle variations in taste and smell which were not discernible when the alcohol was too strong/overpowering. In the glass, the water will start to separate from the oils in the whisky (extracted from the wooden casks during aging). This would normally start to turn your whisky cloudy in appearance. However, with the advent of chill filtering, this phenomenon has weakened (Bruichladdich does not chill filter, so this clouding can be observed). A suggested reason is that most people would 'prefer' their whisky to be clear when water or ice is added and apparently this has meant the a prevalence of this process in most whiskies on the market. It is argued by purists, however, that this filtration technique diminishes the flavour by removing too many impurities.

So why drink whisky slowly? Whisky is a slow drink by nature. It ages slowly over many years, and thus should be enjoyed slowly. Apparently, a dram should require upward of 15 'wee' sips. We were asked to take time out from out 'hectic' lives and sip some whisky, to mull on its complexities of flavour and scent. I was convinced!

DO NOT SWILL! An important tip was to NEVER swill your whisky. We tend to swill naturally because of the wine we drink, however whisky is not wine. By swilling your whisky in a glass you actually cause 'alcoholic shock' (not to be confused with the effect of consuming too much alcohol). In effect you are bruising the whisky and effecting its taste. Wine does not suffer from this when you swill it in a glass because it is only ~12% alc vol, unlike whisky which is obviously much higher. The reason you swill wine in a glass is to judge its legs, usually a sign a alcoholic content...and we already know whisky is high in that departent! Think back to the slow drink, NO SWILLING.

How should you store whisky? Never lie whisky down, as done with wine on racks. It may keep your wine cork moist, but whisky is stored upright to prevent the cork from deteriorating.

Is a darker whisky necessarily older? The story goes that whisky reaches a certain colour during maturation and cannot become any darker, irrespective of how long its in the barrel or the type of barrel. All variations in colour (unless stated otherwise by the manufacturer) are controlled via caramel colouring, which is an 'allowed' additive.

Why is whisky mainly produced from bourbon barrels? For those that are not aware, whisky uses second-hand casks for the maturation process, typically bourbon barrels. Now this phenomenon of bourbon barrels was not always the case. Apparently the story goes that Scots are cheap and buy used barrels from the cheapest seller. At the moment bourbon casks constitute the bulk of whisky aging production, so my guess is they are the cheapest and have been since the end of Prohibition in the U.S. This makes sense as bourbon has very strict distilling rules and only new oak barrels can be used in maturation. Furthermore, they can only be used once. Now in prior times the Scots were buying old claret casks from the English, as they would receive their wine in barrels from the French. Over the years many different barrels have been used including port, Cognac, Madeira, calvados, beer and Bordeaux wine.

Some notes on using different casks: Some manufacturers now use different casks to produce variations in whisky flavour, nose and colour. Using the example above, a wine barrel would create a whisky with perhaps a 'sweeter' finish, a rosier colour and a variation in its bouquet when compared to a bourbon cask. Even variations in the type of oak used to cooper the cask cause different maturation times. For example, American oak used in bourbon casks is tighter and allows less air filtration equating to a longer aging process. Whereas French oak, used in their wine casks, tends to more loose allowing for quicker maturation.

So there's some interesting tips and insights from the Bruichladdich Hilton tasting. For some more reading the Wikipedia article on Scotch Whisky is insightful.

See you all at the first meeting!