The origins of flavour

Is it really all about the cask? In this feature from Unfiltered issue 37 in November 2017, Tom Bruce-Gardyne set about uncovering the most likely sources of whisky’s unique character

What gives Scotch whiskies their flavour and bouquet?” asked a pamphlet published by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) in 1959. Well it was “a great mystery”, and apparently one that all the spirit’s “imitators the world over, would give a fortune to know”. The SWA then went on to explain that: “Water is probably the most important single factor in deciding character and flavour.” There was no mention of maturation in an oak cask – that universal container used for centuries to store everything from wine and whisky to fish and nails. Whisky was crafted in the distillery, and what happened thereafter in some hand-me-down barrel in the dark was of little import.

But that was then, for nowadays we know better than to talk up the raw ingredients – least of all water!

‘Wood makes the whisky’ is the present day manta of the Scotch industry, where distillers will happily tell you that at least 60 per cent of the character of their brands comes from ageing in oak. A clear, barely-formed spirit undergoes a complete transformation after years in the warehouse to emerge full of undreamt-of complexity, richness and flavour. In that age-old philosophical debate of nature versus nurture, there is no question who’s won when it comes to whisky – it’s nurture all the way.

Every aspect of maturation has been studied in microscopic detail, down to the diameter of the pores in the wood. The sourcing of the barrels and their previous contents has become almost a fetish for many brands, drowning out everything else. But has the pendulum swung too far away from nature, or in this case, distillery character?

Diageo’s master distiller Dr Jim Beveridge would like to rebalance the debate. “I think the distillery character is really important, but it needs to be aged in the right sort of cask to achieve the right level of maturity,” he says. “But that’s really all the wood has to do. In terms of getting to that mature point, the wood is absolutely essential. In flavour terms it doesn’t need to be there at all.”

If not heretical, that is certainly a refreshing view, although Diageo probably has more cause to trumpet distillery character than most since it owns some 28 malt distilleries, way more than any of its rivals.

“At heart we’re a blending company,” says Dr Jim. “As a blending company, we want to have lots of diversity of flavour.” Those with far fewer distilleries are likely to lean the other way and talk up maturation. That was certainly the case at Glenmorangie with its pioneering range of finishes. Sounding like the Forestry Commission, Glenmorangie used to obsess about wood management while competitors would wonder what weird and wonderful new finish would emerge.

What would Dr Bill Lumsden, its wood guru and now director of distilling and whisky creation, come out with next – a Baskin-Robbins or a Brent Crude finish, perhaps?

Yet Glenmorangie had the last laugh by pushing its rivals off the shelf with its ever-growing brood of extensions.

“I have huge respect for Glenmorangie,” says Jim Beveridge, “but what they’ve done is they’ve kept their distillate constant and played tunes in wood, and done so with great success.

An alternative might have been to have played tunes with the distillery character and left the wood constant.”

Hamish Torrie, who spent years looking after Ardbeg before becoming Glenmorangie’s director of corporate responsibility, insists it was never just about maturation. “The Nectar d’Or, for example, is Glenmorangie Original plus two years in a Sauternes barrique,” he says.

“That imparts extra flavour, but you can still taste the underlying character of the whisky”

Yet with the profusion of cask finishes from every distiller, the story invariably revolves around wood, as it does for most of the special editions that have flooded the market.

As my fellow Unfiltered contributor and whisky consultant, Angus MacRaild, puts it: “As long as the core part of whisky making – the creation of the distillate itself – is honed in the name of efficiency to the point of homogenisation, then the language of promotion, marketing and education will always revert disproportionately to wood.” To which Hamish retorts: “That may be true of others, but we spend an inordinate amount of time with experimentation into the nuances of fermentation and the copper to spirit contact in the still.”

To find out more I caught up with Angus, who reckons the trouble began with the growth in new, emerging markets when, in his view: “Producers started to say, ‘how can we make more whisky more quickly?’. They were looking at what types of wood would help speed up maturation, and I think more and more active American oak was seen as the answer.” In doing so, he feels: “We’ve arrived at this lop-sided reliance on the cask to give character, rather than on a distillate that’s rich in character in the first place.”

Of course, the proof is in the pudding, or rather the whiskies themselves. According to Angus: “There were some great proprietary bottlings at 5, 8 or 10 years-old, matured in relatively inactive casks, that still yielded beautifully characterful, flavoursome complex whiskies, because the distillate had a lot of identity and character.”

That was before, “the big groundswell of oak arrived”, as he puts it. But it was not just whisky that succumbed to that sweet hit of vanilla and coconut. Wine drinkers had discovered New World Chardonnay and despite being bludgeoned by a 4x4 plank of new oak with every sip, they kept coming back for more. It was Bridget Jones’s favourite tipple, and Glen Moray on Speyside brought out its own Chardonnay cask finish, presumably in her honour.

With Chardonnay those creamy cask flavours could hide a multitude of sins, but eventually the tide turned in favour of subtlety and even unoaked wines.

Clearly you cannot have unoaked Scotch, given that the rules stipulate three years minimum ageing in an oak cask. But Jim Beveridge makes a good point when he says: “If you have great wood character and not very compelling distillery character, it stops being Scotch and starts to become like some of those other international whiskies.” Back in 1959 there may have been bourbons keen to imitate Scotch, but you wonder if the trend has been reversed in some cases with blends hoping to release their inner Jack Daniels.

If the Scotch whisky industry were able to pull its collective head out of the barrel for just a second, it would do well to look around at other drinks.

New oak is frowned upon in certain wine circles and within the so-called ‘natural wine’ movement it is all about mother nature and the vineyard. Craft brewers are forever experimenting with different hops and malts.

If whisky distillers could be half as innovative with types of malt, strains of yeast and perhaps even varieties of barley, it would broaden the diversity of new make spirit and therefore distillery character no end. Yet maybe the SWA was right all along, by suggesting the answer to this nature versus nurture debate does not lie in the warehouse, the still room or in those fermenting washbacks. Perhaps it really is the water that makes the whisky.

*Job titles were correct as of time of writing in 2017 but may have changed

“The answer to this nature versus nurture debate does not lie in the warehouse, the still room or in those fermenting washbacks. Perhaps it really is the water that makes the whisky”