Beat the burn
If you’re new to cask strength Society bottlings, the alcohol burn you experience when nosing and tasting can come as a bit of a surprise. We spoke to Frances Jack from the Scotch Whisky Research Institute along with some well-known Society ambassadors to demystify this hot topic
WORDS: MADELEINE SCHMOLL
You know the feeling – you’re handed a beautiful glass of amber liquid, raise it to your face and poke your nostrils as deep as possible into the glass. But instead of a gentle waft of delicate and evocative aromas, all you get is a nose full of alcoholic prickle, the urge to sneeze and maybe even a tear in the eye. It’s hardly the ideal introduction to whisky, but when you’re pouring out cask strength drams, what can you do to avoid putting people off before they’ve even had a sip?
To beat the burn, you first need to understand what it is and that our reaction to it is something that is linked to our body’s built-in defence system. “It’s a drying mechanism of the inside of your mouth or nose,” says Frances Jack from the Scotch Whisky Research Institute (SWRI), the industry-funded research and technology organisation. “It’s similar to if you were using high-alcohol hand sanitiser that dries out your skin. It’s the same type of effect – that drying is perceived as a sort of a minor pain sensation.”
Global brand ambassador John McCheyne says this awareness is key. “The first thing to remember is that your body will challenge the attempted consumption of strong alcohol,” he says.
“Even an experienced drinker having their first of the day will likely have a trigeminal reaction, to varying degrees. A chemist once described it as your body waving a red flag.”
“The first thing to remember is that your body will challenge the attempted consumption of strong alcohol”
A QUESTION OF PERCEPTION
It turns out there’s more to it than just your initial reaction, as this sensation is something that you may be more or less sensitive to, depending on a variety of different factors. “We’re doing a lot of research at the moment looking at people’s individual differences and perceptions,” Frances says.
“It’s not just your personal taste in terms of your likes and dislikes, it’s actually differences in perception.
“You might be more sensitive to particular flavours or particularly sensitive to alcohol burn.”
In addition to genetics, your experience with spirits can also change your perception, she suggests.
“There are genetic differences and training and experience. If you taste a lot of high-strength whiskies then you’re not going to be shocked by the alcohol burn. If you don’t drink whisky or any spirits, then suddenly you go straight to cask strength, that’s going to be much more of a shock.”
SMWS ambassador Olaf Meier agrees. “My initial question for whisky newcomers is usually, ‘what alcoholic drinks do you enjoy?’ This is to gauge their tolerance and level of alcohol they’re used to,” he says.
“If they say they like wine, gin and tonic, rum and coke or vodka and lemonade, I know that they have not had experience with 40% abv, never mind cask strength.”
But whether you’re sensitive to alcohol burn or not, there are ways to acclimatise yourself to it. John McCheyne suggests that preparation is key. “Nosing with the mouth open helps, and alternating nostrils because each nostril may behave slightly differently,” he says. “Swirling in the mouth to allow the saliva to reduce the potency. The second sip, done the same way, should be easier because you’ve alerted and prepared your senses as to what to expect.”
Equally our ambassadors agree on what not to do, namely sticking your nose straight in the glass. “People tend to swirl the glass,” says John.
“So you’re activating alcohol fumes to the top of the nosing glass and spending 30 seconds with your nose in it will potentially numb your ability to nose.” What about water? Does adding it minimise the burn?
“As soon as you’re diluting, you’re going to change the flavour perception,” says Frances Jack.
“You would think that if you diluted it down you would perceive less flavour, but if you dilute it down you can perceive the flavours more readily. The first thing you perceive is that burning sensation so if you remove that and get rid of that a bit then it becomes easier to perceive other flavours.”
“When you add water to your whisky, the flavours separate in a different way”
FRANCES JACK, SWRI
The scientists at SWRI aren’t alone in this, as Frances points out. “You’ll see this across the industry. Blenders, for example, will generally dilute samples. It means they can nose and taste more samples, as the burn causes sensory fatigue as well.”
Another reason not to fear adding water is that it offers up new and surprising possibilities for flavour. “When you add water to your whisky, the flavours separate in a different way,” says Frances.
“Some flavours are released from the whisky – specifically things like esters and fruity types of flavours.”
And as John points out, even the act of adding water depends on what environment you are in.
“Adding water should be done carefully in small amounts until you get to the point which is best for you that day, at that moment,” he says. “Bear in mind your reaction may be different in another moment, on the same or a different day.”
BOLD AND SPIRITED
Ultimately, part of what makes cask strength bottlings special is this higher ABV. “The amount of alcohol present influences how other flavours are then perceived, so I suppose what that’s really saying is your flavour perception in a cask strength whisky is going to be different to how you perceive flavours at standard bottling strength,” says Frances.
“There’s a uniqueness there. Maybe it’s about coming at it from that angle – that uniqueness.”
This singularity is something that SMWS ambassador Alan Wood cites as being particularly special when he talks about trying his first Society bottling. “My introduction to SMWS whisky and cask strength was a lovely bottle from distillery number seven, a first fill bourbon cask, 15 years of age,” says Alan.
“With trepidation, I leant in to nose the whisky, expecting a breeze of vanilla, cinnamon, and all things sweet. This was not the case. The whisky came roaring out the glass, big bold flavours assaulting the senses. Then came the drinking part, and the first sip, there was the now-loved alcohol kick, that gentle reminder that you are drinking something uniquely different and spirited.”
BEAT THE BURN WITH SMWS AMBASSADOR ALAN WOOD
Holding your nose just off the glass and taking a gentle sniff will give you notes of subtle flavours but also a key indicator that there is something lurking there.
Go in with both eyes open, and especially if this is the first whisky of the night as your palate will be getting used to the sensation of drinking something that demands attention.
The whisky will start to unravel in the glass, with the ‘burn’ washed away with softer subtler notes as your palate becomes adjusted to the percentage.
Adding water can reveal a whole new level of mystery waiting for you.