What are the origins of the various tastes found in Scotch whisky?
By: Éric Van Hove, scotch and whisky expert
Passion whisky Québec
All of the magic of a Scotch whisky rests in its capability to produce various tastes and textures originating from knowledge and mastering of three different elements: the ingredients, the production process and the aging in oak casks.
In Scotland, only three ingredients are allowed in the production of a Scotch whisky: cereals, water and yeast. No aroma can be added afterwards, contrary to certain other countries (Canada) where such practices are allowed.
The cereals:corn, wheat, rye and barley all produce tastes that can be quite sweet or spicy, while also presenting distinct aromatic profiles. It is important to mention that almost the entirety of whiskies contain at least a small portion of malted barley to facilitate the aging process. Another important note is that it is this very unique addition that brings forth the peat smoke taste of the Scotch whisky.
Water:it is a necessary ingredient to active the germination of the barley, and also required during the soaking of the grounded grains and, finally, as a diluting agent to reduce the alcohol per volume of the product before its aging in casks and before bottling. Water has a relatively low importance in the final aromatic pallet, but it can play a large role in the distinct character of the whisky. If the water is mineralized, it can create chemical reactions during the fermentation process that can alter the taste; the water must therefore be pure to avoid creating undesirable tastes, but the real challenge lies in its accessibility, as 100 liters of water are needed to produce 1 liter of whisky, as opposed to 10 liters for beer.
Finally,the types ofyeast used by each distillery during the fermentation process are recipes that are preciously hidden from competitors and enthusiasts alike; they are incredibly important in creating the base aromatic profile of the whisky. It is during this step of the transformation of the sugar of the cereals into alcohol that the whisky can add to its arsenal various tastes such as banana, honey, strawberry, pineapple, pear, lavender or prune, to name only a few.
If being precise is the ultimate goal, it is necessary to add a fourth ingredient to the recipe of Scotch whisky: the e150a food colorant. It is concentrated caramel that can change the tint of the whisky in only a few drops. By analysis of different blind tastings, this caramel does not play a part in modifying the taste of the whisky. On the other hand, social media is home to various debates about the ethic aspect of changing the natural color of whisky, as it can be deemed as “cheating” for some.
The production process
The production process itself and the equipment used are critical elements in the creation of tastes and in the bringing forward of these taste into the casks for the aging period. The time allowed for the germination and the drying of grains, the tumbling of grounded grains and the heat at which they are fermented are all methods that are developed by the masters of distillation and strictly followed for each batch of products.
Also, the process of distillation, the amount of times this process is repeated, the type and height of stills used, the heating temperature and the recipe of what is kept of the whisky during this process are all controlled strictly as they are looking to produce whiskies with tastes that are similar. For many, these methods used have been passed on from generation to generation throughout time.
The last steps before the bottling are the filtration and the addition of water, both of which will impact the viscosity and the alcohol per volume of the finished product.
The ingredients and the production methods, that have quite a big importance, only represent 20 to 40% of the tastes found in a whisky. Between 60 to 80% of those tastes come from the aging process in oak casks. For a Scotch whisky, the aging process must be of at least three years and it must take place in Scotland.
The type of oak, European or American, will give a different aromatic profile to the whisky. The Quercus Alba (American oak) is must smoother and brings forth notes of vanilla and caramel, while the European oak is more aggressive with notes of pepper and a bitterness that is quite characteristic.
Obviously, what the cask has contained before being used for the aging of the whisky has a huge impact on the end result. The casks that have contained Bourbon, Sherry, Sauternes, Porto, Chardonnay, Rhum or Amarone are all used to age or to finish the aging process of a Scotch whisky. Each barrel has its particular tastes (that can be very or much less concentrated) depending on the number of times it has been used and the duration of the aging process.
It is also important to consider the location for the aging of the product. In a climate such as the one found in Scotland, where it is cold and humid, it takes quite a bit of time: 5, 10, 25 or even 40 years. In a hot and humid climate like in India, this time can easily be divided by two or even three to obtain a similar product. In the United States, in a hot and dry environment, if the whisky is left to age in the casks for more than a few years, it simply evaporates completely. Finally, in the aging process next to the ocean, the salt coming from the ocean can infiltrate the air around the barrels, which can give the product a magnificent salty taste.
There it is! It is quite simple, after all: a few ingredients that are fermented, distilled and aged. There lies the magical aspect of the whisky: something so simple that produces a large variety of scents, tastes and textures that become trademarks for some whiskies, so much that they can even be identified through blind tastings!
Photo: Konrad Borkowski, photographer « Whisky Island »