A question of texture
It’s common to reach for far-flung metaphors and similes when we nose a whisky and attempt to describe its aromas – but so much of the pleasure of a dram comes from simply how it feels on the palate, finds Tom Bruce-Gardyne
“If you’ve got a dozen whiskies in front of you, and three or four have elements of citrus, you can’t just write ‘citrus’ each time,”
“Grande Cuvée is a paradox of tense freshness, profound maturity and inimitable complexity,” declared Tyson Stelzer in his ‘definitive’ Champagne Guide 2016. “… it sings with a youthful definition of breath-taking lemon and lemon zest, with marvellous layers of strawberries, figs and tangelos. It opens with a fanfare into a maelstrom of molten wax, wisps of smouldering truffle, Christmas spice and kirsch….” Lesser mortals would have given up by this point, but Stelzer soldiers on for another 17 lines!
This overblown tosh is an extreme example of a more common issue in tasting notes that was touched on by the whisky writer Dave Broom in Unfiltered last July: “If you’ve got a dozen whiskies in front of you, and three or four have elements of citrus, you can’t just write ‘citrus’ each time,” he said. And from this comes the temptation to plunge into a fruit salad of aromas and flavours, and perhaps “veer off into fantastical realms”, as Dave put it.
IT'S MORE ABOUT MOUTHFEEL
But ultimately, what does it matter whether a dram has the scent of lemons or limes or even smouldering truffles? “When push comes to shove, the decisive thing is whether you like the whisky or not,” says Olaf Meier, a regular chair of the Society’s Tasting Panel. By focussing so much on the nose, he believes we underplay what the drink actually feels like on the tongue. “I don’t think we put enough emphasis on the texture and mouthfeel,” he says. “We ignore the sense of touch. When you stroke an animal, for example, it is much more of an emotional connection which makes something immediately pleasurable or not.”
“Texture is something that is immediately apparent,” says the whisky writer Charlie MacLean MBE, who likes to encourage people on a Tasting Panel to think about mouthfeel before anything else. “I always put texture before taste, which is essentially just sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. You can usually say an awful lot more about the aroma and use all these exotic descriptors.”
For Olaf, the trouble with describing aromas is that “you always have to have the mental capacity of comparing them to something else,” he says. Invariably this involves a string of similes and metaphors, unlike describing the drink’s mouthfeel, which “comes automatically” in his view.
WHAT DOES 'SMOOTH' MEAN?
The most common descriptor of almost any whisky, at least among marketing folk, is one that concerns texture – namely ‘smooth’. “The smoothness of a product is a function of a huge number of factors that distillers naturally assess within the space of a sip,” says Matthew Pauley, assistant professor in distilling at the International Centre for Brewing & Distilling at Heriot-Watt University. Among them, he lists the whisky’s levels of alcohol (abv), sugars, fats and oils, and explains that: “The fat content comes from the raw materials and fermentation, and the tannins and sugar come from the oak.
“There is an effect know as ethanol clustering,” he continues, “where, due to the structure of the ethanol molecules and their polarity, you can form clusters of ethanol and water molecules, and these have been known to aid in the perception of smoothness.” It also depends whether the whisky is a standard 40% abv or cask strength because “the abv will influence the ability for these clusters to form,” he says.
“We ignore the sense of touch. When you stroke an animal, for example, it is much more of an emotional connection which makes something immediately pleasurable or not.”
“Due to the structure of the ethanol molecules and their polarity, you can form clusters of ethanol and water molecules, and these have been known to aid in the perception of smoothness.”
“I do honestly feel that the mouthfeel is very different with a chill-filtered whisky. Filtering just flattens it a bit”
THE CHILL-FILTRATION EFFECT
As well as being higher strength, the Society’s bottlings are non-chill-filtered, which according to Charlie greatly enhances the mouthfeel of a whisky. “Chill-filtration takes out a lot of the long chain fatty esters, which give you texture more than anything,” he says. Olaf agrees. “I do honestly feel that the mouthfeel is very different with a chill-filtered whisky. Filtering just flattens it a bit,” he says, adding with a grimace: “It makes it nicer. The one thing I don’t want when I drink a whisky is to say ‘that’s nice’. I don’t want nice. I want something to think about. It’s like a person, someone you meet and you don’t know if you like them, and then you get to know them better. That’s what I like in a whisky.”
GIVE IT TIME AND ATTENTION
Appreciating texture takes a little time, and when conducting a tasting Olaf always tells people: “Give it a minute in the glass, it’s been 10 years in a barrel.” With cask strength whiskies, a drop of water obviously helps you experience more than just the heat of the alcohol as you hold it in your mouth and chew it gently before swallowing. Aside from lessening the burning sensation, Charlie believes that adding water can enhance the texture. “More often than not, it can make a creamy whisky feel even more creamy,” he says. “And sweetness is often enhanced by reduced strength.”
ABOVE: Tasting Panel chair, Charlie MacLean
Down in Campbeltown, Iain McAlister, distillery manager at Glen Scotia, says of his whisky: “In terms of mouthfeel, you’re going to get that subtle salinity, that background sodium in there that comes through the malted barley.” Here he may be talking more of taste than texture, but as Matthew Pauley says all these myriad factors are being assessed at the same time when we take a sip of whisky, so it is hard to distinguish one from another.
Using the Society’s flavour profiles, a whisky like Glen Scotia sits firmly in the ‘Oily & Coastal’ camp. Iain reckons a lot of the oiliness “comes from the malted barley, through fermentation, and from the shape of the stills which in Campbeltown tend to be quite short, whether Springbank or Glen Scotia. The low wines from the wash still are incredibly oily. These oils, to a lesser degree will remain in the maturing whisky. It’s part of the DNA, part of the make-up that is Campbeltown.”
Whatever feeling a whisky gives you, whether it is brisk and slightly bracing on the tongue, or sumptuous, creamy and mouth-coating, these sensations are worth savouring. They speak directly of the drink’s sensual pleasure, unlike the deluded critic we met at the start, still no doubt wallowing in his maelstrom of molten wax.
“In terms of mouthfeel, you’re going to get that subtle salinity, that background sodium in there that comes through the malted barley.”