WHERE FLAVOUR COMES ALIVE
OILY & COASTAL
This enigmatic flavour profile can carry you to new flavour frontiers, from clifftops to harbours, rockpools and lobster pots. Julien Willems takes a deep dive into the wonderful world of the Society’s Oily & Coastal whiskies
With longer days here to stay, life shifts to the outdoors. In the cries of gulls and terns, we hear an echo of our longing for the sea and its many delights. Our Oily & Coastal flavour profile is characterised by two opposite takes on coastal aromas, that are so distinct their mere suggestion brings in a tide of memories and a slick of emotions.
ABOVE: Sea spray and salinity or a figment of imagination?
Let us explore the duality in this flavour profile, characterised by opposite takes on coastal aromas. There is a lighter side made of beach walks, gorse driftwood and sea spray, waxes and light olive oil on one end. On the other, there’s a heavier side of harbour afternoons with lobster pots, a bit of peat and engine oil.
We start the journey on gorse-scented dunes and a sunshine-fuelled aromatic explosion. Coconut, sun cream and driftwood are descriptors that can be matched to wood influence. As described in our Juicy, Oak & Vanilla article, these coconut aromas come from cis-lactones that are naturally occurring in oak, particularly abundant in Quercus alba (aka American oak).
“These compounds have another interesting property in that they might also start to contribute to what we perceive as oily,” says SMWS spirits educator Dr Andy Forrester. As for the sea spray and saline dimension, maybe that’s more a figment of our imagination. From a scientific point of view, Dr Andy says: “There is no salt in whisky, and coastal maturation has never been shown to produce any difference in a whisky’s perceived salinity.”
“There is no salt in whisky, and coastal maturation has never been shown to produce any difference in a whisky’s perceived salinity.”
DR ANDY FORRESTER
IT STARTS WITH THE SPIRIT
What we should take into consideration here is the spirit, rather than its maturation. Oily as a descriptor can cover a lot of ground, starting with soapy or waxy flavours on the lighter end of the spectrum through to olive and motor oil on the heavier end. Soapy flavours, to start, can appear during fermentation in the guise of linalool (soapy, lavender) or benzaldehyde (almonds), and make it through the stills to the final distillate. Just how many of these compounds there are may be linked to a multitude of factors, ranging from type of yeast to bacterial activity in the wash.
For waxy flavours, think of distillery 26. It is renowned for its beeswax characteristics, and there are more than a few theories as to why that is. Among the culprits thought to be behind the highly sought-after waxiness of whisky are long (aliphatic) chain esters – these compounds are esters that come from the whisky ingredients and their fermentation. The reason these long chain esters are sometimes more noticeable might (in theory at least) have to do with their lower volatility and resulting accumulation in low wines and feints receivers, causing them to be in higher relative concentration in each successive distillation.
ABOVE: The home of Oily & Coastal in Campbeltown
BACK TO PORT
If we are to explain how a whisky can be, in our minds, associated with the heavier style of the Oily & Coastal profile, namely broken wave-battered rocks and rockpools, salt-crusted harbour walls, lobster pots and fishing trawlers bobbing in a faint backdrop of fragrant peat smoke, we need to leave the beach and head back to port. This is where we will find more answers (and admittedly, more questions).
The long chain esters previously mentioned, together with compounds called aldehydes, could also contribute to some heavier melted butter and oily, “deep fried” flavours (think distillery 93 for some compelling examples). Both long chain esters and aldehydes are believed to be the result of the breakdown of oils and fatty acids in the wash and wort. So, this might help to start explaining the vegetable oil aromas… The Oily & Coastal profile has this fantastic capacity to group both unpeated and peated malts. This is fortuitous, because it is thanks to peated malts that we may find some answers that could ultimately apply to unpeated malt too.
When distilling a peated malt, a distiller will usually attempt to extract as many of the smoky flavours as possible from the wort and low wines during distillation
A DISTILLER'S BALANCING ACT
When distilling a peated malt, a distiller will usually attempt to extract as many of the smoky flavours as possible from the wort and low wines during distillation. Interestingly, these prized aromas are carried by heavier phenolic compounds (think TCP-like scents, phenols, and sometimes bromophenols which have been associated with maritime notes).
These substances however are less volatile than ethanol and most fruity esters, which means they have a more difficult time passing through the still. As a result, in order to extract more of these phenolic compounds, a distiller has to wait for esters and ethanol to go through the still first. Then relative concentrations of phenolics and other heavier, less volatile compounds progressively rise in the still and pass through to the condensers and into the spirit in higher concentrations.
This presents a challenge, however: as the distiller pushes the distillation for longer, other compounds find their way into the distillate. Think hints of Marmite with a lick of sulphur (MMFDS compounds), lobster pots aromas, and slightly cheesier notes too.
These are perceptible at very low concentrations and although having a bit of it might well tug your flavours towards the refined, uncommon and desirable Oily & Coastal, if these flavours go overboard, they could well scuttle a whisky.
For your safe ground landlubber whisky, distillation is cut short, long before these funkier flavours are even on the horizon. But not so for peated whiskies. Distillers often cut the distillation later, taking a more generous ‘heart’ of the spirit, which is the part that ends up in the casks and bottles. The ‘head’ is where you might find nasty things like methanol, and should be avoided, as should the ‘tail’ which is home to ‘feints’ – think two-months-at-sea unwashed old-sea-dog woollen socks.
It is conceivable that this might, to a lesser extent, also be the case for some unpeated coastal whiskies. Where, to reach the balance of suitably coastal, harbour-like aromas, a distiller might need to walk the edge of a metaphorical, aromatic cliff… but from atop that cliff how far out at sea can we dream? And how many hues of green and blue can our senses feast on?
Are you naturally adventurous? Do you tire of terra firma? Are your usual tame drams no longer floating your boat? Time to let the sea take over and to cast off with us into this truly unexpected profile.
Head out to the coast, failing that your bathtub (don’t forget the bath salts… obviously) or even a bowl of shrimp and let these thick, savoury, coastal notes put wind in your sail and carry you to new flavour frontiers.