Sunday, January 27, 2013


Have you ever noticed that certain foods or wafts of smell can take you back to childhood moments, remind you of people or places? Things like the smell of pipe tobacco.  My grandfather used to smoke a pipe and when he would come to visit he would take us down to a little store on the Seattle docks with a wooden statue of an indian outside the door.  To this day the smell of that tobacco reminds me of that little shop with its glass counters and wooden bins and the painted indian.   

I read an article in an airport about a year ago entitled ‘the art of forgetting’.  The article was about how we as humans store experiences as memories, that what is remembered are sensations or events that have some emotional significance and that because of our limited ability to store these experiences we have to forget.  In the process of forgetting, only the strongest emotional markers are retained.

The wonderful thing about smell is that it can be one of the strongest triggers for long-term memories.  When you smell or taste something, what you will remember of the sensation will be much more than the sum of your senses.  It’s worth noting that taste refers to five sensitivities; sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami (savory, the flavor of red meat or tomato).  When talking about taste ‘aroma’ is key.  Your nose is a far more sensitive organ than your palate.  Neuroscientists refer to it as an ‘olfactory’ sense.

While you may be able to detect more complex aspects of flavor through smell the multiplicity means that we need a far more complex frame of reference and for that the brain uses comparative memory.  You associate smells with objects, you smell vanilla or cherry, pencil shavings, or wet leaves.  This is one of the reasons whisky notes often employ metaphors in describing taste.

The sensation of flavor includes smell, temperature, expected texture and length.  It is what is called a ‘hedonic’ sense meaning that it is a culmination of molecular stimuli which form a sensation that is quite literally greater than the sum of it’s parts. 

Consult the Oxford English Dictionary and it will define aroma as a pleasant and distinctive smell. Ask almost any Society member, and they will tell you it is one of hundreds of potential memory triggers, conversation starters and sensory delights that leap out of a whisky glass at any one time.’

- The Scotch Malt Whisky Society Handbook

Talking about flavor and aroma instead of taste and smell are a semantic nod to the complexity, emotion and individuality that we appreciate and which colors each person’s enjoyment of whisky.  The memories will be personal, the smells will be associations and the taste will ground the experience together creating the personality of the spirit.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


A quick look at the regions and flavors of Scotland.  

What and who are the Scots? The story of whisky is invariably a story of identity weather it be Scotish, Irish or American. Each whisky has a bit of an accent. Some have a hard peaty Gaelic accent from the west cost of Scotland, the Islands and Ireland.  Others hit a milder lowland note with more delicate refined flavors. The Highlands, true to Walter Scot’s vision, are a mixed bunch of full-bodied malts some salty, some sweet but never lacking in character.  But it is up north that one of the most recognized Scottish tastes is found, it is from the distilleries along the river Spey and known as Speyside. These malts are classically matured in ex-sherry casks and are the sweetest in Scotland.

To be considered Scottish malt whiskey, or as is sometimes called, scotch, the whisky must be distilled, matured and bottled in Scotland for at least three years and one day. Single malts must be made solely of three ingredients; barley, Scottish water and yeast.

How a whisky cask matures is one of the most fascinating parts of learning about whisky.  It is the crafted variability of whisky that appeals to a romantic image of the spirit.  The personality of a whisky is formed in the cask. Each cask acts as a lung breathing out alcohol and breathing in the flavors of the wood and the surrounding area. Most distilleries are in agricultural or wooded areas with the obvious exception being the costal distilleries that pride themselves on the sea spray flavor of their malts.  Each cask is individual. Scotch whisky is matured in ex-sherry or bourbon casks.  While the whisky is breathing some small amount of the spirit disappears, evaporates in to the air and is lost. This is called the ‘Angle’s Share’ and is a testament to the mystery of whisky and the dedication of the people who make it. 

I started my scotch education in Aberdeen purely by accident. When I started at The Grill I didn’t know whether Macallen was a bottle or something off the tap.  I am sure the regulars regarded me as something of a nuisance, always asking where things where, mixing up orders on top of not understand a word any one said. I remember the first time I had to serve a ‘half and half’ and poured the nip right in to the half pint, the shock and horror where instantaneous. For all my blunders those guys had all the patience in the world. Don’t get me wrong they still took the piss out of me for it but it is thanks to the regulars at The Grill I’m writing about whisky today. Because what they taught me is that more than the drink itself it is the stories of whisky that make it interesting. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2013


What does an apple taste like? Take a moment and really think about it. Is it tangy, is it sweet, is it sour? Think about the last apple you had, was it a golden delicious, a granny smith, a gala? Was it juicy, was it dry, what color was it?   

What ever it was there was something about the experience that made you remember it.  We are all consumers of flavor but few of us would consider ourselves to be connoisseurs.  That being said we can all enjoy the taste of a ripe apple. Whisky can be the same; there are distinct notes and flavors, colors and smells that you don’t have to be an expert to enjoy. The experience of having a dram of whisky is like biting into a good apple. Once you find the right one it is a sensation worth remembering. 

I always struggle when trying to describe the taste of whisky. In an attempt to decode the complex taste of whiskey I try to think of each whisky as having a character, a personality that is as versatile and individual as people can be. I once heard a bottle of wine described as the kind of drink that comes up behind you and whispers in your ear, ‘I knew your grandfather’. It true that each whisky has a story to tell, of the elements that formed its flavor over its lifetime. Distillers talked about the ‘relationship’ between the spirit and the wood it is matured in and at the end of the day no two casks of whisky are alike.  The ones you will remember will always be more than the sum of their parts.

Some whiskies are direct with the kind of no nonsense flavor you can’t help but respect. Some are subtle and sophisticated and others can take some getting used to. Then there are a few drams you can’t help but be seduced by. 

The two of the biggest misconception about whisky are that it tastes horrible and is solely meant to get drunk on or that it is exclusive, the kind of drink bankers, lawyers and politicians sip in dimly light rooms filled with cigar smoke. I aim to make the case that whisky is both while simultaneously being none of the above. By being a highly versatile drink that manages to hold both extremes and appeal to everything in between whisky has earned an iconic status. There is so much more to the Scotch whisky experience than harsh fumes or gastronomic comparisons. There is the identity of a nation, stories of people and places beyond the shores of Scotland.

Whisky is the greatest drink in the world – the stuff of legends, of healing, of friendship and companionship. In old Gaelic it was literally ‘the water of life’. No other spirit offers such finesse, such elegance, such complexity or such value. With all the excellent choices available, no one should settle for a whisky they don’t enjoy. It just starts with knowing what is out there.’ - John Lamond, Master of Malt and author of several books.

Whisky itself is highly individual and the experience can be very personal. Like a good old friend it is worth the time you put into finding what suits you and what you enjoy.

My aim in writing this blog is to offer a narrative of the Scotch whisky experience, to share my enthusiasm and to start talking about what is ‘out there’.