Tasting Notes: What are they? Are they real? Why do I care?
By Brett Mullins
One of the more controversial aspects of whisky drinking is tasting notes. Some choose their whisky purchases exclusively upon published tasting notes. Others insist that tasting notes don’t actually exist and are complete nonsense invented by whisky snobs to make others feel inferior. What’s the truth? Let’s take a look.
Tasting notes are the perceptions of smell and taste we experience when drinking whisky. Together, these notes describe the overall taste and aroma of the whisky. For many drinkers, picking out the individual tastes and smells is where the fun really lies! Common tasting notes found in whiskies include vanilla, oak, various fruits, tobacco, licorice, honey, cinnamon, and brown sugar. There are hundreds of others, including some dubiously complicated ones such as, "buttermilk biscuit dripping with treacle".
Do tasting notes exist? The simple answer is, yes. Our brains perceive the chemicals in the whisky as aromas and tastes we have experienced before. But, just because one person tastes cherries in a dram does not guarantee others will. Everyone’s taste buds are different and we have all lived our lives tasting different things. Not everyone likes coconut. So, while coconut is a tasting note many drinkers mention, a person who dislikes coconut might hate that whisky or one who has never tasted coconut may interpret that note as something else. Some of us are blind to certain tastes or odors, while some of us are overly sensitive to a particular type of taste. There are no wrong answers. If you taste peaches, it is peaches for you, regardless of whether the pros online say it is apricots or pears.
Honestly, when I hear a reviewer try to become overly poetic with his tasting notes, his opinion dwindles and I judge that he is trying to sound important. That may not be entirely fair, but a whisky review is supposed to be informative rather than being a vehicle to try to impress the viewer. I believe in keeping the tasting notes simple, using terms that most people understand. Otherwise, who is benefiting?
Obviously, whisky does not actually contain any of the above mentioned fruits, spices, or herbs. But, there are chemicals imparted into the whisky during the aging process that are reminiscent of them. So, what factors contribute to these notes? Let’s take a look at a few.
The oak casks used in the majority of whisky aging give off their essence to the whisky within, and infuse the whisky with chemical compounds that our brains interpret as flavors and aromas. When we say a dram is woody, oaky, or dank it is the influence of the cask. Vanilla, honey, and floral notes can also be directly related to wood. American Oak creates different notes than French or Spanish Oak. Many distilleries will age their whiskies in different types of oak to achieve different flavor profiles. One Scotch distillery is even preparing to release the first ever whisky using Scottish oak casks for the aging. It should be interesting to discover if there is a difference between it and other oak types. Some whisky is even aged in other kinds of wood, like cherry, apple, or maple. These whiskies are typically small batch and rather experimental. But, there is a difference.
Besides the wood itself, charring plays a big role in taste. Charring is the act of burning the inside of the cask before use, and there are multiple levels of charring, which completely change the influence of the wood. Bourbon requires the use of a new charred oak cask every time. But, most other whisky is made using used casks, and there is a big difference in the wood influence of casks which have been used once versus those used two or three times. Wine barrels are also used for aging whisky. Sherry, Port, Madeira, Cabernet, and Chardonnay are common varieties. These can impart various fruit impressions, as well as nut, spice, and sugar.
The grains used to make the mash for the whisky have a great influence on tasting notes. Corn is very sweet with a vanilla influence. Rye is floral, dry, and spicy. Barley is grainy, often giving a toffee flavor. Wheat is sweet like honey and imparts a smoothness to whisky that is unique. Distillers have experimented with various other grains including oats, quinoa, millet, and rice, with varying success. The grain used to make the whisky is the greatest indicator of the basic taste profile and knowing which grains a whisky was distilled from aids in choosing a new whisky with less risk.
The environment in which the whisky was aged has a bigger influence than one would imagine. Long summers, high humidity, cold winters, distance from the sea, and elevation all influence the aging process. Over the many years that a whisky is aging, the casks expand and contract with the weather, opening their wood grains and closing them again, causing evaporated compounds in the air to seep into the cask and a small percent of aging whisky to evaporate out of the cask. Even the location of a cask closer to the ceiling or the floor of the aging warehouse has an effect. The effect of each of these factors deserves an article of its own, so we won’t delve into them further here. Suffice it to say, that blending of the different casks of the exact same whisky at the same distillery is necessary to produce a consistent product due to these factors.
Does any of this matter to you? Only you can decide. It matters to me. It helps me make choices based on my previous likes and dislikes. Do you like your whisky fruity? If not, a Port finished whisky is probably not for you. If so, you might, like me, seek out Port or Sherry finished whisky, desirous of trying as many as possible. Is spice your thing? Perhaps you would love a high rye bourbon like Four Roses or Old Granddad. If not, maybe you should spend your money on wheated bourbons like Weller or Rebel Yell.
Ultimately, your tasting notes will never exactly match those of anyone else. However, there is value in exploring those notes in order to steer you towards the whisky most likely to fit your tastes. Or, by trying to discern your own tasting notes you can just add another level of fun to your drinking, attempting to identify as many tastes and aromas as possible from your favorite dram. Either way, tasting notes can increase your whisky enjoyment if you choose to use them.