Fantastic flavour fanatics

Fascinating pairings and intriguing palate pleasers were on the menu at our Sensory Symposium event in London back in 2017. Here’s a flavour of what was discussed from Unfiltered issue 36 in July that year


Cheese, coffee…seaweed? It’s amazing what you can end up pairing your Society whisky with. That’s why we’ve searched out a group of like-minded ‘Flavour Fanatics’ to explore the role of flavour and the never-ending journey into the complexities of our single cask, single malt whiskies and how our unique flavour profiles can be paired with a diverse range of products.

With that in mind, the Society hosted a Sensory Symposium in London on the evening of 10 May, hosted by SMWS ambassador John McCheyne with 70 flavour fiends in attendance.

Kicking off the event, flavour futurologist Dr Morgaine Gaye explained how our palates are constantly changing.

“As consumers we are now exposed to so many more flavours and foods, from diverse cultures, countries, different drinks, and with that exposure comes a greater quest for knowledge,” she said. “Trends also change, so in the 1940s and 50s for example, florals were very big – so we identify older ladies with aromas such as violet chocolates, rose or talcum powders. But right now, the trend is much more for leather, smoky, earthy flavours, notes that are very prevalent and identified with whisky.”

ABOVE: SMWS ambassador John McCheyne takes the mic

ABOVE: Dr Morgaine Gaye

That’s one reason, according to Morgaine, that whisky is an ideal place to explore a kaleidoscope of flavours, whatever age, associations or experiences you bring to the drink.

“Whisky’s complexity means it’s a journey and you’re deepening your understanding as you go,” she said. “It has the same basic ingredients but always tastes different, with these complicated flavour profiles that have something to offer for every palate.”

Affineur Ned Palmer – that’s the cheese equivalent of a sommelier – gave guests a taste of Lancashire cow’s milk cheese, paired with Cask No. 55.43: In the shade of the fruit tree from the Spicy & Sweet flavour profile. He also expressed a fascination for the diversity of both cheese and whisky, despite the limited raw ingredients that go into both products.

“Whisky is only malted barley, yeast and water – although you could argue that the oak in the cask is also an ‘ingredient’ – and with cheese it’s milk, starter culture, rennet and salt,” he said. “From these simple ingredients you get this incredibly complex set of flavours and variations and different styles.

ABOVE: 70 flavour pioneers took part

“From these simple ingredients you get this incredibly complex set of flavours and variations and different styles”

That’s a lot to do with what the French call terroir, the area you make it in, and also with the tiny variations in processes. But more than anything it’s about the patience needed to create something that doesn’t turn out one dimensional. In both cheese making, and whisky distilling, it’s all about slowness.”

Coffee expert Dumo Mathema found parallels between the wider world of flavours in both his sphere as well as the whisky world.

“As a relative newcomer to whisky, I didn’t realise quite how many styles there were out there, and that’s like many people are with coffee,” he said. “It’s not until you try something different that you realise that even if it’s from the same farm a coffee can vary every year, and that’s something we like to embrace.

ABOVE: Coffee expert Dumo Mathema

“Because of that variety there’s also a suitable coffee to go with every whisky, even the softer, more floral ones. This evening we had Cask No. 35.185: Frightfully delightful from the Deep, Rich & Dried Fruits profile paired with a natural Ethiopian coffee. But for peaty whiskies you could try a Sumatran coffee that’s also quite smoky with hints of sweet tobacco.”

The evening’s last pairing was perhaps the most intriguing – Cask No. 93.74: A class apart from the Oily & Coastal flavour profile combined with a piece of foraged seaweed known as Atlantic wakame (alaria esculenta).

Forager Richard Osmond explained how foraging is helping people to rediscover flavours from the local natural environment.

ABOVE: SMWS fanatics bonding

“There’s also a suitable coffee to go with every whisky, even the softer, more floral ones … for peaty whiskies you could try a Sumatran coffee that’s also quite smoky with hints of sweet tobacco.”

“Whisky distillation is about capturing the purest essences of flavour, the unique characteristics of each area and its unique processes,” he said. “Foraging is equally local-focused, and to eat wild food is to taste a particular wild landscape.

“Whisky tasting, particularly the way the SMWS does it, is all about exploring the huge and diverse range of flavours whisky can contain. It’s also about being open to the memories, feelings and places those flavours evoke.

“This openness to flavour and the aromas’ evocative qualities is essential to foraging, both in creating exciting wild dishes and in identifying edible plants. There are some intense flavours available in the British hedgerow that we don’t explore enough, but that’s only through a lack of imagination.”

Any dormant imaginations were well and truly stimulated through the series of tastings and the passion with which our Flavour Fanatics tackled their pairings. You never can tell where the Society journey is going to lead you…

Flavour always comes first

At The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, we focus more on flavour, not where a whisky comes from. Due to the unique nature of single cask whisky, the region or distillery may not always give the best indication of what the whisky tastes like. That’s one of the reasons we prefer to use a bottling code rather than the distillery name. And it’s also the philosophy behind our unique 12 flavour profiles, which we developed to help you find a whisky best suited to your own flavour preferences.

This article first appeared in Unfiltered issue 36 from July 2017, all titles and information correct at the original time of publication