Ah, the year 2006... We remember that year vaguely...
And that's because our archives for this year haven't been completely reconstructed yet. During the first 15
years of our collective malt mania we produced over a thousand E-pistles about (single malt and/or Scotch)
whisky, but a bunch of those articles may have been lost due to a few massive site crashes over the years.
When MM founder and editor Johannes van den Heuvel retired in 2012, he finally had the opportunity to try
and collect all the old content in one, easily navigable archive - or rather in part 1 and part 2 of the archives.
So far, all E-pistles from 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 were recovered.
In 2006, these were just five of the E-pistles that we published:
E-pistle #2003/??? - The Colour of Whisky - by Michel van Meersbergen, Holland
E-pistle #2003/??? - An Interview with Martin Green - by Ralf Mitchell, UK
E-pistle #2003/??? - Natural Corks vs Other Seals - by Olivier Humbrecht, France
E-pistle #2003/??? - Another Look at Oak - by Bert Bruyneel, Belgium
E-pistle #2003/??? - Ask an Anorak; 'Old Bottle Effect' - by Johannes van den Heuvel, Holland
And that's it for now. More E-pistles from 2006 will be added later. The results of the Malt Maniacs Awards 2006 are on-line as well.
Follow us on Twitter if you want to know when more of the old stuff will be published.
Or: 'Our Adventures with E150-a'...
A lot has been said about E150-a, better known
as spirit caramel. About its usage to adjust colour
to bring various batches within the same visual
standard year-in, year-out. About the fact it will
not affect the taste at all. About the purists who
say caramel destroys the taste completely so all
coloured whiskies should be avoided at any cost.
Average Joe can't be bothered and because he
represents about 90% of the whisky market the
conglomerates will continue to use caramel with
legitimate commercial reasons: 'Costumers are
very attached to their brands and expect them
to be the same for years and years and years.'
How right they are. The purist camp will not go
with that, saying: 'Caramel, or better E150-a is
not generated by distilling or wood maturation
and is therefore a non-natural thus a destructive
element in whisky.' How right they are.
The maniacs however are not that decisive and more cautious before coming out and spreading their opinions.
That's why we took up the challenge and created 'The Big Caramel Experiment'. Maniacs Klaus, Thomas, Serge, Charlie, Alexander and me, as well as malt sponsor for this experiment Dirk van Staden of 'Liquid Gold' have challenged their tastebuds in an attempt to clear up those hazy skies around the subjects on caramel. In this experiment we want to find out what caramel exactly does to whisky. Is it, as the chemists say, 'organoleptically inert' - not detectable by nose and taste? Does it ruin your precious dram of let's say: an Arbeg 31yo OB Manager's Choice for France? Is there a threshold for the use of caramel?
Let's start with E150-a itself. As the code suggests it's a generic colourant.
E150 is available in four different versions ranging from E150-a to E150-d. Each is created for specific purposes. E150-c is the best known, it's what gives your Coke or Pepsi its colour. E150-a, important for us, is quite special because it has to do its work in an extreme environment: a liquid which contains a minimum of 40% alcohol and on top of that it has to be light-proof for a longer period of time. You can't have your whisky separating or losing colour after a few weeks on the shelves in your shop. It's made by controlled heat treatment of sugar, with or without the presence of alkalis or acids.
Another 'special feature of E150-a: it is not obtainable for mortals like us.
Fortunately Diageo PLC was very happy to provide us with a 200ml bottle of E150-a. E150-a is a highly viscous liquid, it took several days to settle down in the bottle. The colour is almost opaque black. Against the light a thin film of E150-a will show as a deep, brownish red colour. The smell reminded me of roasted raisins, ground coffee and burnt bread. A minute quantity of E150-a is enough to give a one litre bottle of water the looks of a 'Dark Sherry' maturation, so our 200ml could be used to colour a small loch!
Now for the test - in itself quite a simple one.
Three different liquids, of which two are coloured (one medium and one heavy), should be put in a certain sequence.
From not coloured to heavy coloured or the opposite way, from heavy coloured to not coloured. This has to be done three times for the nose and three times for the taste, so any lucky guesses will be smoothed out in a greater total. All nosing and tasting is done blindfolded and an assistant is to give the different coloured samples (of the same liquid) in random order. For the colouring we had to dillute one part of E150 -a with four parts of water to create a more workable fluid. To make life a bit harder the taster gets one chance and one chance only to put an at random presented sample on the right spot in the sequence.
The liquids for colouring are plain water, a Lowland malt, a Highland malt, a Campbeltown malt, an Islay malt and a blend of the former four malts. I think it's obvious that the selected malts have to come from refill casks so we can be as safe as possible to have malts that have a preserved distillery character. The honours for the Lowlands are taken by a Rosebank 1990/2003 (46%, Helen Arthur, cask #486). The highlands are represented by a Clynelish 13yo 1990/2004 (43%, Van Wees 'Ultimate', cask #12733). Campbeltown by Springbank 10yo 1993/2004 (50%, DL OMC, cask #628) and Islay by Bowmore 11yo 1992/2003 (46%, SigV UC, cask #4229). With this line-up we think we have a solid, general coverage of Scottish malts. In the tradition of the Malt Maniacs points are given in this test. 3 points if the arrangement was put in correct order. 1 point if only one sample was given the right place in the sequence. For 5 sessions that makes a maximum of 30 points for each taster.
Klaus has calculated an expected average score, it is shown at the bottom of the outcomes from the sampled clusters.
'There are 6 different combinations of neat (1), medium (2) and heavy (3) caramelized samples (123, 132, 213, 231, 312 and 321). Therefore the chance to guess a bullseye is 1/6 (=1/2 point). The chance to get the position of one sample right can be calculated as follows. 1/3 (3 different samples for the first position) + 1/2 (2 different samples for the second position) +0 (no choice for the last position) - 1/6 (for the bullseye combination which has to be subtracted) = 2/3 (2/3 points). For a series of 5 runs we get an average score of 5 x (1/2 + 2/3)= 25/6 = 4.167.'
Due to excitement Alexander forgot to read these lines and renosed and retasted the samples over and over before putting them into a sequence. Even with this foul play he got one sequence false! Good for him I'd
say… It means however that the scores from Alexander are not included in the results of the experiment. Luckily for all of us Alexander was the only maniac to present extensive tasting notes of the different
coloured samples. You will read them at the beginning of each malt cluster.
1st Cluster: Neat and coloured springwater
First let's try to find out what E150-a does with the smell and taste of water.
Every taster has coloured his own samples to the same specifications used for the malts.
This will also give some information about intensity of colouring and the amount needed to reach a certain level of colouring.
The following are the results from nosing and tasting springwater:
For nosing: For tasting: SubTotal:
Charlie 13 pts 15 pts 28 pts
Michel 13 pts 13 pts 26 pts
Klaus 7 pts 8 pts 15 pts
Serge 13 pts 11 pts 24 pts
Thomas 11 pts 15 pts 26 pts
Expected 4.17 pts 4.17 pts 8.33 pts
Total score: 119/150 pts (Expected: 41.67/150 pts)
Comments from several tasters:
Serge: 'The influence of caramel on water is totally obvious on the nose, and very easily detectable. For the taste it's almost the same. Very easy to detect caramel – just a little harder to make a difference between light and heavy concentration.'
Klaus: 'My results are slightly above average. The samples performed differently but I was not able to nail it down. The main reason is almost certainly that my sensory equipment is not so sensitive. A cigarette every now and then might do no harm, but I am a heavy smoker. Another reason to stop smoking!'
Thomas: 'This was almost too easy. Except for the first sequence when I mixed up sample 2 and 3 I had a perfect score. There was no way to miss the smell of burned sugar in the nose and while tasting the water the extremely bitter finish (sounds funny to use that word in connection with water) gave away the coloured samples.'
Charlie: 'The dark coloured sample becomes more obvious/bitter after ca. 10 minutes while the medium coloured sample is quite difficult to detect by nose and mouth. All this is spite of my scores…'
So, obviously big influences on water by the caramel. The key word is bitterness.
Especially in the finish I found sharp notes as well, it reminded me of overly oaked spirit.
2nd Cluster: Neat and coloured Lowland (Rosebank)
Now that there is a concept about the smell and taste of E150-a the test continues with the first malt.
A light-hearted Lowlander, delicate and easily approachable. Surely caramel should be easily detectable…
Alexander made the following notes: 'Nose: (1-neat) Herbal, Citrus, Lemongrass, A bit sour, Fat make-up powder.
(2-medium colour) Dead, Like the first sample,but seems to be covered by a blanket, Citrus, The herbal part isn't there anymore, Fat powder is still there, but the Lemongrass is gone. No sour note too. (3-dark colour) Sorry, but I can smell the caramel, Full, Burnt, Bit raisiny, Oat. Taste: (1-neat) Strong Alcohol, Slight bitterness, Most complex version, Fresh. (2-medium colour) Bitter, More vivid, Warm. (3-dark colour) Bitter, Burnt toast, lacks complexity.'
The following are the results from nosing and tasting Rosebank:
For nosing: For tasting: SubTotal:
Charlie 6 pts 4 pts 10 pts
Michel 6 pts 9 pts 15 pts
Klaus 7 pts 2 pts 9 pts
Serge 0 pts 0 pts 0 pts
Thomas 6 pts 4 pts 10 pts
Expected 4.17 pts 4.17 pts 8.33 pts
Total score: 43/150 pts (Expected: 41.67/150 pts)
Comments from several tasters:
Alexander: 'The more caramel, the more dead the nose was. It flattens the nose. Sample 1 was the fullest and the sharpest. The raisins I occasionally taste turns out to be E150 and not something coming from sherrycasks...SHIT !'
Klaus: 'Unfortunately I did not write down my impressions right after the test. I only remember that it was a fine and delicate lowland malt (maybe c/s) where the influence of caramel should be obvious. Could it be that the samples with caramel tasted fuller, more dark fruits, less stingy, - I don't remember exactly. My nosing results slightly above average. The tasting results below par, but I finished the sample with 3 sips.'
Thomas: 'Although sure to detect the same differences with the same additional aromas I still failed to score better. But after reading the results I detected that obviously I was on the heavy caramelized samples' trail for a change. Why could I find those 4 out of 5 times but couldn't tell the clean sample from the medium one? Even at the risk of tainting the scientific value of our test I decided to to some additional tests. I asked Anke to hand me the glasses with samples 1 and 3. I had no problem at all telling those two. Four times I sniffed and four times I was right. Hmmm... let's try the same again only this time with samples 2 and 3. No problem again. Not a single wrong guess in a few runs. Now for the „tough" one. Would I be able to find the clean one between sample 1 and 2? The first try....wrong! I did it again – and again I picked the wrong one!! Now I opened my eyes and sniffed at them alternately when it finally hit me. I had mistaken the fruitiness in the whisky for sweetness caused by caramel while actually sample 2 was more damped and muted. On the other hand sample 3's added bitterness seemingly had prevented me from making the same mistake with this one. Now that I knew what to look for I went without any more wrong answers through five more runs with samples 1 and 2. I had learned something!'
Serge: 'Now, there's clearly a difference with caramel, but I thought the heavily caramelized version was the neat one (4 times out of 5). That's weird! In fact the caramel sort of took some sweetness off! The results for tasting are at complete random. The caramel's influence was almost undetectable for me.'
Okay, a minor case of mayhem caused by the caramel. No-one has difficulties detecting caramel.
To decide if it's the medium coloured or the heavy coloured is a different case altogether. As with the springwater a very distinct sharpness in the finish made it fairly easy to detect it as 'heavy coloured'.
3rd Cluster: Neat and coloured Highland (Clynelish)
A more 'sturdy' malt for this session. Would it be powerful enough to withstand the overwhelming caramel?
Alexander made the following notes: 'Nose: (1-neat) Flowery, Perfume, Maximum depth. Strongest Alcohols, Fresh, Sour. (2-medium colour) Chocolate, More complex, Some herbs, Livelier, Perfumed. (3-dark colour) Warm, Flat, A lot of dark chocolate. Dead. The caramel from the previous samples killes al lot of those tiny tastes. Taste: (1-neat) Sweet, Light, Tarry, Most complex version, Chocolate mousse. (2-medium colour) Stronger, Sweet but less burnt. Like Cognac, More complex, less bitter. (3-dark colour) Bitter, Flat, Thick, Sweet.' The following are the results from nosing and tasting Clynelish
For nosing: For tasting: SubTotal:
Charlie 13 pts 8 pts 21 pts
Michel 10 pts 13 pts 23 pts
Klaus 9 pts 5 pts 14 pts
Serge 7 pts 0 pts 7 pts
Thomas 7 pts 6 pts 13 pts
Expected 4.17 pts 4.17 pts 8.33 pts
Total score: 78/150 pts (Expected: 41.67/150 pts
Comments from several tasters:
Serge: 'The caramel is more detectable in this Clynelish, which is a bit more neutral malt than the rather citrusy Rosebank. Nothing too spectacular, though. On taste: the caramel is heavily present now, it's just that again, I took the most caramelized one for the 'neat' version 5 times out of 5. Maybe I should have learnt how spirit caramel tastes before the session ;-).'
Thomas: 'Hey, am I getting better at this or what? While the score doesn't look much more impressive than my previous attempts for the first time I managed to detect all the clean samples with my nose! And with this whisky it wasn't difficult at all. Instead of fresh seaspray, salt and grassy notes the caramel had „managed" to absolutely kill the nose. It was totally bland, unimpressive and non-descriptive when colour was added. It didn't make that much difference how much caramel was in it: once it was spoiled it was gone. Now, why that same findings didn't hold true while tasting the samples again is beyond me. However , this was the most impressive tasting in this series so far!'
Klaus: 'For my sensory equipment it seemed as if the aroma intensity increased, if more caramel was added. However the results from the blind tasting only showed the average results. If I remember, I liked the caramelized samples better than the neat one.'
Charlie: 'The neat sample is surprisingly bitter. Therefore I had difficulties identifying the coloured samples. No sooner did I think I was on the case with the nose, than the correct judgement of flavour eluded me! Overall, I was rarely able to judge the samples with complete confidence.'
Alexander: 'Whereas in Rosebank it was like a blanket, in Clynelish it changed the character a lot. E150 dulled it a bit and destroys the complexity of the whisky, mellows it out.'
Clynelish and caramel definitly don't go well together. Huge inbalances and more nastiness happening in the glass.
A case of putting things in sequence from 'not so good' to 'plain awful'. Or the other way around of course…
4th Cluster: Neat and coloured Campbeltown (Springbank)
The 4th cluster will see a much higher ABV, perhaps this will have some influence on the behaviour of E150a…
Note from Alexander: 'Nose: (1-neat) Flowery, beautiful depth, Salt, Tar, Very good, Unmistakeably a Springer (2-medium colour) Complex, very perfumy, Fresh, Mint, green notes. (3-dark colour) Clay, A bit flat but nice nevertheless. It's hard to cover up this great whisky. Taste: (1-neat) More organics, Natural sweetness, Farmy, This is a Springer! (2-medium colour) Sweet organics, More complex than previous sample, The alcohol is sharper, Sweet, Less bitter, Beautiful. (3-dark colour) Even with lots of lots of E150, this still is a great whisky. Tarry, Harsh, Warm, Bitter, Sweet & Strange finish, Organics, Cleans mouth.'
The following are the results from nosing and tasting Springbank:
For nosing: For tasting: SubTotal:
Charlie 8 pts 8 pts 16 pts
Michel 13 pts 13 pts 26 pts
Klaus 9 pts 3 pts 12 pts
Serge 6 pts 3 pts 9 pts
Thomas 3 pts 6 pts 9 pts
Expected 4.17 pts 4.17 pts 8.33 pts
Total score: 72/150 pts (Expected: 41.67/150 pts)
Comments from several tasters:
Alexander: 'This is such a strong whisky, that the E150 has problems covering it all up. Still E150 changes the bitterness, adds harshness and covers up some tastes, but it can't push out all the tastes.'
Klaus: 'I am no big Springbank fan, but this one I liked very much. I enjoyed the neat sample most. The heavy caramelized sample showed some bitterness in the finish. The nosing results were slightly above average, the tasting results below par.'
Serge: 'Again, some results almost at random… I got the neat version the three last times; but couldn't really make a difference between the lightly and heavily caramelized versions.'
Thomas: 'Right from the start I knew this one was going to be much more difficult than the previous Clynelish cluster. Somehow the caramel aromas were way closer to the Springbank character than with other whiskies. I really had a hard time to tell any differences. It was as if my nose was already tired and though I thought I'd be able to finally tell the different samples apart I obviously wasn't able to. A new theory crept up my mind. What if caramel works differently with every whisky?'
Mixed results and comments now. To me it was almost too obvious. Differences were minute but oh so clear!
5th Cluster: Neat and coloured Islay (Bowmore)
Bring in the peat. Will E150-a finally see its defeat? A very interesting thing happened when I prepared the Bowmore samples. Altough I used the same amount of caramel Bowmore coloured much darker. I have no explaination for this strange behaviour. Alexander's notes say this: 'Nose: (1-neat) Added organic element that must be covered up in the other samples. Still mild peat, more balanced, Fishy Islay (2-medium colour) More perfume lifted by sharper alcohol to carry it, sea, less peat ? Bitter, Mild Islay. (3-dark colour) Dead, Peat, Sea, Perfume, Sweet, Not bad. Taste: (1-neat) Sweet, Liquorice, Cleanest taste, Most balanced, Syrupy finish, Nicest finish, Still not the most complex around. Could have been a Caol Ila at some points. (2-medium colour) Deeper and more complex. Sweet, Peat, Sweet again, Warming, Improved finish. (3-dark colour) Flat, Peat, No complexity whatsoever, Licquorice, Ruined finish.
The following are the results from nosing and tasting Bowmore.'
For nosing: For tasting: SubTotal:
Charlie 8 pts 3 pts 11 pts
Michel 5 pts 6 pts 11 pts
Klaus 6 pts 5 pts 11 pts
Serge 3 pts 9 pts 12 pts
Thomas 5 pts 6 pts 11 pts
Expected 4.17 pts 4.17 pts 8.33 pts
Total score: 56/150 pts (Expected: 41.67/150 pts)
Comments from several tasters:
Klaus: 'This was the worst malt. All 3 samples showed a disgusting bitterness in the finish. The results were almost what you could expect when you just guessed.'
Thomas: 'Well, if you look at the first results you'd have to say I had no idea if there was a difference or not. But all the time I had the feeling I could tell the caramelized whiskies from the clean sample. My „assistant" Anke took a blind sniff as well and she, too, had the feeling that it would be impossible to NOT notice a difference. So what went wrong? The first thing I did was to tell Anke to pick one of the clusters without telling me which one it was and to hand me one of the glasses so I could take a guess. First impressions were smoke, a little bit sweetish . With it came a hint of something slightly burned – almost with a Lagavulin touch. I liked it! So my guess went with the only Islay the test had to offer, the Bowmore, which was right although the sweetness made me consider Clynelish as well for a little while. That wasn't too hard but but it proved that my nose was okay that day which was what I wanted to find out. As I learned later on Anke had picked the heavily caramelized sample which explains the „burned" aromas. I have to admit that at that point I kind of liked the added dimension. It made it a bit sweeter and rounder. At least that's what I thought at that point. But that still doesn't explain what had happened. My nose was fine, I was sure to smell and taste differences and yet the results were so off. My misgivings even before I started were that I didn't know what to „look" for: I might detect something and erroneously take it for caramel. If that were the case here there should at least be a pattern, but nothing like that. Very frustrating in a way. At that point I was scratching my head....'
Serge: 'Most funnily, I could find 'a difference' again four times out of five, but I took the heavily caramelized version for the neat one again. Decidedly! On taste: things were a bit more obvious in this series, as I got it correct three times.'
Charlie: 'I found all these samples unusually bitter, which confused me, and made me feel my results were pretty random. When I saw the results, it confirmed my suspicion that phenols serve to cover caramel well.'
Mayhem shifts to havoc! This was really strange.
All the samples were very different from each other but almost no-one was able to come up with the correct sequence.
This was the sequence Dirk and I enjoyed the most. Almost impossible to 'put your finger on'.
6th Cluster: Neat and coloured Blend
For this part of the experiment a vatting had to be made from the four malts provided. The reason for this cluster is a line from Charlie. He heard from blenders that caramel is a very important ingredient to bond different spirits together. I found this too interesting to ignore. In their own words, this is what the panel found out:
Thomas: 'After creating the vatted .. err... blended malt I first tried the clean sample. What a weird mix that was! Very imbalanced with all kinds of aromas that didn't work together very well: heather, tar, fishing net, pine, paint and dishwater. The palate was a little bit better when grassy notes were duelling with some herbal tea aromas. The finish, however, spoiled any pleasure again: flashes of plastic and used sneakers. Pretty disgusting! That came quite unexpected to me since I more or less liked all the whiskies when I tried them seperately. So they are probably right when they say, blending is an art! Okay, now let's add some caramel to our creation. And I have to admit it actually improved my product by adding something liqueur-ish to the malt. Nose: Tia Maria, a bit musty, sandalwood, furniture polish and cough medicine. Not too shabby! On the palate: memories of years long gone by: Jägermeister! Really weird!! The finish, however, couldn't hold the interesting level. Despite some polished leather it was too bitter overall to still be pleasurable. But what about the some more colour? In my opinion this took it over the hill: sherry and smoke in the nose, very syrupy and overall dominated by the spirit caramel. Even worse: it seemed one -dimensional, sweetish at first, bitter in the end. Not much development at all.'
Serge: 'Malt Vatting (Rosebank, Bowmore, Springbank, Clynelish) + 1 drop of water. Colour: white wine. Nose: fresh, clean and a bit spirity. Gets quite yeasty, on mashed potatoes and yoghurt. Some green apple and pear. I really smell the mash. Mouth: sweet and green at the same time. Rather grassy, with some peat from Bowmore. Notes of apple juice. Lacks complexity but it's easily drinkable. 78 points. Malt Vatting (Rosebank, Bowmore, Springbank, Clynelish) + 1 drop of caramel solution. Colour: straw. Nose: again, yeasty and spirity, but with a little less 'green apple notes' and more fruits such as apricot and plum. Markedly 'rounder'. Some whiffs of liquorice I didn't get in the 'neat' version. Mouth: no doubt it's sweeter and rounder, with some fruit jam, apricot pie, caramel (ha-ha!). I think it actually is better, even if perhaps a bit bitter and drying. 79 points. Malt Vatting (Rosebank, Bowmore, Springbank, Clynelish) + 4 drops of caramel solution. Colour: orange/amber. Nose: extremely marked by the caramel, almost like a sherried whisky. Bold notes of crystallised fruits, wine (???). Also more fragrant and more on cooked fruits. Interestingly, I find it quite better! Mouth: round, creamy, sweet… The texture seems different. More notes of dried fruits and caramel, milk chocolate, light toffee. Also more liquorice. The profile has changed, no doubt. The whisky didn't get sweeter at all, but most certainly rounder, with much more liquorice and a nice creaminess. And I liked it better, imagine! 83 points.'
Klaus: 'The neat sample was very stingy, strong alcohol influence, everything very sharp with a lot of edges. The sample with just 1 drop of caramel was a lot better. Every nuance seemed to have been integrated. I don't know why, but this dram was considerably better. The full coloured malt had gone over the top. The caramel influence was detectable. Sour and burnt nuances were detectable, dark bread. In the taste category the differences were not that large. The neat sample tasted sweet with citrus notes, then a sour impression and finally creamy bitter chocolate. The sample with 1 drop caramel was a pixel better. The unpleasant sour note in the middle was missing. Additionally everything seemed to be rounder. With the heavy coloured sample I found that the sweet notes at the start had turned a little bit dull. I think here the caramel had done too much. I think that caramel cuts some of the edges and integrates them. The neat blend sample had the most nuances, but the lightly coloured blend was friendlier and definitely more delicious.'
Charlie took his chance and made air-tight notes according to industrial standards:
'I nosed and tasted 'straight', then added one third as much water, to bring down the ABV to approx. 30%.
Sample A (no caramel)
Nose (straight): Mellow to start, then developing some nose prickle. Sweet biscuits.
Then a charred aroma takes over (from the Bowmore?); trace of vaporous acetone; mossy in the development.
Flavour (straight): Hot (especially swallowing). Light sweetness, then light acidity. Centre palate delivery; dries in finish.
Nose (dilute): More estery (vinyl); now some fruity notes (boiled sweets - pear drops, acid drops).
A musty, mossy note behind, also a faint artificial scent (Bowmore FWP?)
Flavour: (dilute): Considerably sweeter, with a peppery engagement on the tongue; still warming to swallow.
Light acidity; dries in the medium length finish. Pleasant.
Development: Nose more fragrant, delicate. 'Natural' compared with the other samples. Flavour same as above.
Noses/tastes much better at reduced strength. The best of the three.
Sample B (one drop of caramel in 15ml)
Nose (straight): Sweet vanilla sponge cake; softer and not nearly so aggressive; possible trace of coffee grounds.
Not as complex as A; other aromas difficult to isolate.
Flavour (straight): Sweet and smooth; less acidity; acceptable level of bitterness in the finish;
Warming; lingering bitterness in aftertaste.
Nose (dilute): Estery, acetone notes increase; traces of very dark (i.e. bitter) chocolate. Less complex than A.
Flavour (dilute): Pleasant soft mouthfeel; sweetness greatly enhanced, now also a trace of saltiness;
Dries in the medium-length finfish, but not bitter. Warming.
Development: Back to sponge cake, now possibly Madeira cake i.e. joined by Maraschino cherries.
Flavour same. An acceptable dram.
Sample C (four drops of caramel in 15ml)
Nose (Straight): Vanilla toffee, with moss/damp earth behind.
Dried fruits or constituted raisins/sultanas; trace of sweet tobacco.
Flavour (straight): Mouth-filling; dry overall with some salt; lingering bitter aftertaste after a long finish.
Nose (dilute): Nose very tightly integrated; hint of treacle toffee; soon distinct coffee grounds dominate the entire aroma.
Flavour (dilute): Pleasantly sweet to start, with a good mouth-feel. Bitter finish and lingering bitter aftertaste.
Development: Develops towards coated cardboard; little aroma. Same flavour. This amount of caramel at this strength (ca. 30% Vol), clearly has the effect of binding in any other aromas and subsuming them to the aroma/flavour of bitter coffee.'
Thank you Charlie! I think we can draw some sort of a conclusion: caramel is important in blends.
All the tasters agree that the coloured samples are better than the neat ones!
Time to come up with some overall conclusions.
I was pleasantly surprised with the outcome of the test. Especially the blending part openend my eyes and made me think the other way around: not as a malt-consumer, but as a malt-producer. It's so obvious you need caramel to bond different casks together it's beyond belief. I can only imagine the same goes for different casks from the same distillery. Caramel breaks up the 'tension' from a single cask and makes it approachable for another... If I had 10.000 casks in my warehouse of which only 1.000 would make it as 'fitting the distillery profile' and a drop of caramel would bring 8.000 casks into that profile I know what I would do... with the greatest care that is... That does not mean I have great objections against the colouring of a single cask and bottle it as such. Caramel does have influences on a malt and can destroy it completely. My final thought is about the producers. Only days ago I had a little chat with a person from the the same certain company that provided us the spirit caramel. He kept on raving that caramel has no influence on whisky. He did nosing and tastings and was not able to detect any differences. I suggested it was alright to say that he actually did notice differences, even then he denied... Isn't it about time for them to come out of the closet and tell the world how and why they use caramel? Credibility is also a very powerful PR tool...'
And now some conclusions from the other tasters;
Alexander: 'E150 ruins the finish ! Conclusion: E150 has the ability to cover up a lot of specifical characteristics, which is nice if you are a blender looking to put out the same product you did last year. It
also allows you to use a wide palet of whiskies, because most characteristics will be masked by the caramel. And gives you a nice dark colour. Luckily this Springbank showed us that caramel can't kill it all.
Which shows us again what a good whisky Springbank can be. There is a difference how caramel reacts with (regional) characteristics, since caramel behaved differently in a lowlander and an Islay whisky.
Especially in the Bowmore is ruined the finish. In the Rosebank (and in a lesser manner the Clynelish) it covered up most traits... When I stand in the corner of the whiskyproducers I surely can understand the use
of caramel. When owning a lot of mediocre casks at best, caramal can be the cement between the bricks (when used with care). It allows to build a tasteprofile very easily, allowing you to use multiple sources.
And gives a nice colour too ! At the same time it can cover up flaws and tones down the character of most whiskies that would be too outspoken for most consumers anyway. Since they make up 95% of all
whiskyconsumers you should use E150 in blends. Another story for the use of E150 in Singles. What kind of consumers are they? I would say they are more aware of what they drink and when they would know how
whisky can taste like without the caramel, I would hope they would look past the colour of a whisky... But I don't know. I understand the use of caramel in the big sellers like Highland park 12, Laphroaig 10 etc. since
they do perform a crossover function to pull consumers from the blend to the HIFI world of Single Malt Whisky. Still the true whisky for the specialist are the single casks, non chillfiltered, not coloured...and not reduced ;-)'
Klaus: 'For me caramel has only marginal influence on the malt.
They are within the range of batch variations. I think they can only be detected in a head to head tasting. I am curious what my fellow researchers, with maybe sharper sensory equipment, will find out. The most astonishing thing for me was, that a drop of caramel can sometimes improve a malt. The effect is marginal but detectable. For caramel in springwater there is a very strong indication that small amounts of caramel can be detected by nosing and tasting. The results for the malts were not that clear. I would say that the influence of caramel in the Rosebank and Bowmore is questionable because the results were very near to ones which could be expected. On the other hand Springbank and Clynelish achieved overall scores which were almost two times higher than expected. Unfortunately I cannot express the probability in numbers that this result comes from just by chance. But I think that it indicates that the influence of caramel can be detected here. To conclude with: I think our little experiment clearly shows that something happens, when caramel comes into play. But we were not able to nail it down with certainty. Therefore I want to encourage everybody, to make his own experiment. Buy a bottle of E150-c (that is not much different from spirit caramel E150-a) for 1 euro in a supermarket and voilà you can colour a whole cask of whisky.'
Thomas: 'As much as I would like to say it, caramel can NOT be detected in every case! I do believe, however, that it DOES influence whisky although I do not have scientific proof for it (and certainly my scores don't support this statement..). In my opinion there's three basic findings in this:
a) Caramel does not work the same with every whisky but it depends on how it interacts with the character of that specific malt. Some malts might show characteristics that have similarities with caramel in the first place. For example, I could imagine it to be very difficult to find it in Lagavulin. Some whiskies will seriously suffer, others might actually profit from the addition (making them warmer, more rounded)
b) There is obviously a certain level necessary for caramel to be detected.
Once this level is reached it doesn't make that much of a difference if you add some more IMO.
c) I think your nose has to be „educated" to tell the difference. You have to know what to look for and I believe the more often you have the opportunity to test different samples like we did the better you'll become at this.
As I said before spirit caramel might actually improve what's in the glass (or bottle) like the blend I mixed.
So would there be any harm in adding colour to your product? Despite my findings I say yes. Not only might it kill the characteristics altogether but caramel in most cases will lead to a standardized taste and lessens the individual aspects of the malts. If I were to sell whisky would I use caramel? Is my whisky of good quality and sells well enough, then definitely not. Am I stuck with an inferior product that's gathering dusts on the shelves I might be desperate enough to do it. Why should I? But think about it: you invest all your knowledge and money to produce an individual new spirit, then you select casks which seem promising and wait for 10 years ore more to get something special. Then you go on and add caramel and what might you achieve: the equivalent of what MacDonald's is to food for drinks. Doesn't make sense in my book.'
Charlie: 'For me this was a fascinating, and somewhat humiliating, exercise.
But then, I am constantly humiliated in blind tastings! Here are my general thoughts:
a) Spirit caramel is not 'organoleptically inert'. This is perfectly clear when you add it to water.
However, when added to whisky it behaves in a different (and even a beneficial) way.
b) As one would guess, stronger flavoured whiskies disguise or overcome the aroma/flavour of caramel – but not in nearly as predictable a way as I had formerly thought. I found it remarkably difficult to rate the samples with confidence. My notes are litered with 'maybe' rather than 'probably' – and few 'certainly'.
c) The claim that it 'binds' flavours in a blend is proved, for me. It becomes increasingly difficult to separate out and identify aromas and flavours – which is, after all, the role of the blender, to increase the 'integrated flavour complex' - and the overall effect is generally pleasant. UNTIL too much caramel is added when that flavour becomes bitter [It ocurrs to me that maybe this is lost when the beldn is married for a while?]. I will never again be able to taste industrial Scotch with the same gusto! But since we are assured that only small amounts are used in decent blends...no problem.
d) For me there is stil the sadness that, when single malt whisky is tinted, you 1) cannot hazard a guess as to what kind of casks (U.S. or Euro; first fill or refill) have been used in the mix, and 2) have some of the aromatic and flavour complexities 'smoothed off'. But this is a minor complaint, compared with the overall enjoyment of the whisky.
e) Single cask bottlings should definitely not be tinted – but mostly, they aren't!
All this experimenting was not enough for Serge…
'My baffled conclusions: no doubt caramel does change a malt's profile.
I'd say it might make a mundane one creamier and rounder, but I still have
to check what would happen with a great one. Oh, yes, why not try that
now? Let's see what I could do… Okay, now that I have my bullet-proof
jacket, let's try the great Ardbeg 1972/2004 Manager's Choice for France
with and without caramel (with apologies to all the Ardbeg fans!)
Nose: ah yes, the caramelised one definitely has much more coffee notes,
with much more dried fruits, sultanas and chocolate. But get this: it isn't
any worse than the 'naked' original version! Just a little less 'ultra-clean'
and more 'sherried' (whatever that means from now on in my book).
There's also more 'jammy' notes, such as marmalade and quince jelly.
On the palate, the caramel's effect is very obvious too, with mainly some
heavy notes of liquorice that sort of overwhelm the great lemony notes
the 'original' had. It also got more dryness, with more burnt rubber…
But on the whole, the malt resisted the caramel like a champ and perhaps
it lost two points, max. Overall conclusions: caramel does change a whisky's
profile, obviously. It does so with even a small amount. On the other hand,
it might help some MOTR whisky getting better, while the great ones might
loose a bit of freshness and subtlety. The main effect isn't to make the whisky
sweeter, but rather to add some coffeeish, sherry-like notes to the spirit.
It also brings more liquorice, and makes the palate a bit creamier.
Okay, now you can shoot at me, I'm ready!'
As a matter of fact, we're all ready to be shot at, dear reader! We'll all await the inevitable fallout!
What? You're now sipping that wonderful sherry matured malt… and feel no need to shoot us? Are you sure it's sherried. Are you??
This is dedicated to all the distillers who realise E150a, used in small amounts, isn't that bad!
Dramming happily ever after!
Michel & the Coloured Gang
With the recent general increase in interest towards Whisky across
the world, there is now a greater market for Whisky Auctions than
before with one of the leading international specialist whisky auctions
held at McTears (www.mctears.co.uk) in Glasgow. Martin Green,
McTears' whisky consultant, and a recognized authority on collectable
Spirits, was recently available to give an interview to me on behalf of
the "Malt Maniacs" and there follows a transposition of what was said;
RM - I'm with Martin Green who is a whisky consultant, and an adviser
to McTears' Auctions, who have the Premier whisky auction in Glasgow,
running four times a year, and that is continuing to develop. Martin, I
have six questions for you, first question; (at this point we move round
a selection of displayed whiskies at McTears) What are the features of
a collectable Whisky ?
MG - 'Eh! Age, rarity, commemorative bottlings, some of the malts which
are being produced today are the collectables of tomorrow. For example
Bowmore Bi-centenary bottling done to commemorate the anniversary of
the distillery 1779 - 1979 originally only cost in the region of £40 to £50, now
sells for as much as £350 at auction. Equally you've got things like vintages of Glen Grant 1952, and we have here Gordon & Macphail bottlings which although young spirits like this 15 year old Bladnoch 1967, and 15y.o. Glen Burgie 1968, when these were purchased they wouldn't have been expensive but we are now getting over £100 a bottle at auction, so over that period of time they have become collectable. Next to them a Kinclaith bottled by Cadenhead's a 20y.o. distilled in 1965, the distillery's closed and it's now worth £400 to £450, and possibly will sell for even more than that. Also we've got Manager's Drams produced only for people who work for Diageo, and some were bottled under the old United Distillers label, and as these were never on sale to the public it makes them instantly popular with collectors, and hence, that does put the price up.
What have we got here ! A 1973 Ladyburn by William Grant & Sons, very collectable !
The distillery has been dismantled, eh! ......... more Connoisseurs Choice selected Vintages, not terribly expensive to buy, but over the years have become more and more collectable. Down at the bottom here, we have a very old bottle of Inchgower from the House Of Bell's, which is obviously no longer bottled under that labeling which although only a 12y.o. bottled in the 1970's - is now worth over £100, as opposed to what you would pay for a Inchgower under the Flora and Fauna Series which is only going to be £25 to £30, and we have various vintages of Macallan 1937, 1938, 1950, they have very much a range of Vintages which we always get very good prices for, and there's a huge demand for Macallan at auctions anyway ! ......... now we've got a very rare blend up here, a 25y.o. Chivas Regal produced for the American market a the turn of the Century, only three of these bottles have ever appeared at auction and the last time we sold this it fetched £3,100, and next to it a very rare Irish one which could be surprising in the sale, it's Coleraine, which stopped distilling in the the mid 1970's, it's in terrible condition and the label's very bad, I think it's possibly going to see four figures !!! and is the only bottle of Coleraine like that, that I've ever seen.
Some blends, and why they are collectable, Old Gold label here, eh....... with the old spring loaded cap, and the lead capsule covering it is all embossed with the distillers name, in a dumpy brown bottle, that's going to make over £100. So what else have we got ? ............ a very rare Mortlach ! from Gordon and Macphail, it's in a crystal decanter, it's a 60 y.o. 1938, very collectable, but at the top end this time you're looking at around £4,000.'
RM - Next question, how is the Whisky Auction Market developing ?
MG - 'Developing rapidly !!! Since I came to McTears in the year 2000, we originally intended two sales a year, but it became apparent by the summer time of 2000 that there was going to be room for a third sale and we changed that last year in 2004 to four sales a year, which average about 600 lots. The internet is helping things expand rapidly because people from abroad can buy one or two lots quite easily, and were finding each sale that goes by we have new buyers both on paper, and attending in person ehm......... it's very much on the up !'
RM - Thank you, eh.. third question.
Which is the most unusual/strange whisky you have ever come across ?
MG - 'Eeeehm...... probably...... there was an old bottle of Danish Whisky in a sale, ...... that was a number of years ago, which didn't sell for a great deal of money, but it was very unusual, and I understand that during the war years there was spirit distilled in Denmark.....'
RM - Can you remember what it was called ?
MG - 'Um, I would have to research it and I could get that information to you...
But I think it was just labeled Danish Whisky, with a company name associated to it.'
RM - What is your view on the recent appearance of fake whiskies ?
This is a question of considerable interest to all Malt Maniacs !!!
MG - 'Well basically, to sum it up, Auction Houses are always on the look-out for any item that appears not to be authentic, whether it be Whisky, or it be anything else ! Ehm.... if I had any doubts whatsoever about stock coming in, by the sheer fact of where it was coming from, or what it appeared to be, ...... and I wasn't sure, ..... I would instantly reject it ! Without any question and doubt, and if there was any further concerns, I would advise the client to go ahead and have the spirit, label and glass analyzed before we would take it, and even then, if there was further doubt, there would have to be a report with it to confirm that it was authentic.''
RM - Have you seen any fake whiskies yet ?
MG - 'Not recently, no, I've not seen anything of a dubious nature in recent years.'
RM - You are aware of the Macallan situation ?
MG - 'Yes, very much so !'
RM - And I believe there is some turn-of-the-century Longrow surfaced as well, and may be fake !!
MG - 'I haven't seen any of that. No one has approached us with that. Certainly, there are possible sources , but they would probably not approach me because they know that within the industry I have taken a very strong stance !'
RM - Right, right, that's grand! Thank you, emn......... fifth question, a little bit of trivia here, .........maybe not !!!
What whisky question would you like to be asked, but from previous interviews, .. never get asked ?
MG - 'Probably more about tasting, and what I think of certain whiskies which were going to go into.'
RM - Thats a good lead into my final question...... What do do personally rate as your 7 best drinking whiskies?
And could you please, for the "malt maniacs" mark them out of 100.
MG - 'O.K. well I'm going to give you them not in any particular order, not in an order of importance, but, an 18y.o. Fettercairn that I tasted at Christie's (Auctioneers) in 1989 which was done by Whyte & Mackay who own both the Fettercairn and Dalmore brand, ... and that was .. well I have notes of fudge and toffee, and I really like that.... and the 50 y.o. Dalmore 1926 which was very smooth, with a hint of sherry and fruit , very very powerful, .......a very powerful whisky, and even though theres a huge difference in age, I'd give them both 90 out of 100. ....... and then, ... this was a gift from a client, in the early 1990's , an 25 y.o. Glenlivit bottled for the Queen's Silver Jubilee so it would have been a 1952 ..... which to me tasted like nectar ..... although delicately spiced, with a taste of sherry, and I would give probably about 85 out of 100.'
RM - As they say long in oak and smooth as milk ...........
MG - 'Yes it was very nice indeed, very, very nice......... what else have I got here (Martin glances at his list) 52 y.o. Macallan which was provided at a tasting we had at McTear's in 2000, 90 out of 100. ........... and also the 50 y.o. Macallan Millennium Decanter we tasted. again 90 out of 100. So I would put these two together because there's not much difference in age, I thought they were wonderful whiskies, ... like mature wine, .... almost resinous, ........ like Armagnac. both very good whiskies. A 21y.o. Springbank which I first tasted in Italy in a restaurant which I loved, ............... sweet, not overly peated, some iodine, very smooth, I particularly liked that one, and give it 90 out of 100 as well. A 21 y.o. Talisker, again tasted in Italy, this time with a client, it was powerful, peppery, oily whisky and as I liked it I will give it 90 out of 100 as well. And lastly, ehm ............. Bruichladdich, which I hadn't tasted much of until within the last 5 years, the one I'm naming here is a 35 y.o. bottled by Hart Brothers, the Glasgow Company, which knocked my socks off !!! it was fantastic, delicate, slightly oily, limited peat and seaweed and sweet and very complex, ........ a very nice whisky, and I give this 90 out of 100 as well.'
RM - Martin, thank you, and good luck with all your forthcoming whisky Auctions, and on behalf of all the "Malt Maniacs" thank you for this interview. (Footnote: The most recent whisky auction at McTears new Auction House in Glasgow was a success with 95% of all the lots selling at encouraging prices, ..... lot 116, a miniature of Glen Spey 1896 sold for £2,700, quite possibly a new world record for a whisky miniature.)
Editorial comment: I tend to publish E-pistles from maniacs and foreign correspondents largely undedited and prefer to let the article speak for itself. However, in this case I feel that the article doesn't paint a complete picture of the actual 'situation on the ground'. I have to say that Mr. Green's claim 'I've not seen anything of a dubious nature in recent years' seems a bit odd in the light of some fairly recent scandals and developments. In fact, at least one case listed on the Fake Alert page involved an antique bottle that was passed as genuine by Mr. Green, but later proven to be a fake. A number of other highly suspect bottles were 'certified' by Mr. Green as well. Asked about another controversial bottle Mr. Green replied: 'I haven't seen any of that. ... Certainly, there are possible sources, but they would probably not approach me because they know that within the industry I have taken a very strong stance !'. Hmmmm... I have to admit I've heard mixed reports about the strength of that stance...
One could argue that anybody that makes his living from the trade in antique whiskies can't be expected to play anything else than the role of the fox preaching to the chickens, but I have to disagree. Although large parts of 'the industry' seem quite content to sweep the problem under the rug and turn a blind eye to the situation some traders do indeed realise the danger of a few 'fakers' destroying the market for decades to come. A few do indeed take a strong stance on the issue - which gave me an idea. Maybe we should add a 'Trusted Traders' section to Malt Maniacs with the stores that get the 'Malt Maniacs Seal of Approval'. This would entail the trader would provide certain guarantees - like a full and immediate refund should a bottle prove to be fake.
And speaking of fakes...
There are some disturbing signs that the Malt Mafia is active again on eBay.
We don't have definitive proof yet, but it might be very possible that Sergio Borroni
from Italy is at it again. I'm usually a fairly moderate (*) person, but in this case I
find myself torn between two extreme positions. Part of me feels that anybody that
is brave and/or stupid enough to buy bottles like this on eBay deserves any fate that
befalls him, while another part of me feels that Mr. Borroni should be hung, drawn and
quartered for cynically taking advantage of some gullable geeks that dwell in the dark
dungeons of the internet... Ah, well, since some of these pinheads are fellow maniacs
I'll allow my good side to take over this time. So here's an OFFICIAL WARNING...
We have reason to believe that the seller 'japan67189' on eBay is another fragment
from Sergio's fragmented personality. Interestingly enough, the fact that he lists an
item's location as 'Italy, , Sweden' offers us a telling glance into his disturbed and
devious mind... With so many virtual identities he doesn't know where he is anymore.
If you are (or know) 'japan67189' please drop me a note so I can retract the warning.
Until then I'd strongly advise all eBay geeks reading this to stay away from this seller.
(The fact that the seller doesn't accept paypal should be warning enough, though.)
(*) To be more precise: I'm usually considered a fairly moderate person, but that's a misconception.
I'm actually an extreme extremist! It just so happens that my extremisms (as well as my extremities)
point in many opposing directions and 'grosso modo' it all evens out somewhere in the middle.
While visiting the huge Torres wine operation (75 million bottles of Cava-Spanish bottle fermented sparkling wine alone) in Spain in 2005 with the local oenologist association, we eventually ended up in their huge laboratory. I
say huge, because I could count at least 30 researchers working in a building bigger than my own winery. I couldn't understand the need for such an investment before we were told that they specialize in analysing corks, both
for the wine industry and cork manufacturers. Why? Well, it is today well known that an insidious molecule 'TCA' is responsible for a very disagreeable cork taint. Torres lab reckons that an average of 6% of the corks has a
detectable TCA level, and some 'poorer' batches up to 30%. Is this the same for whisky or other spirits with cork seals? Only once have I been able to detect with absolute certainty a cork taint in a whisky, so it would seem
that it isn't as much of a problem regarding TCA in spirits. But is natural cork still the best seal for higher strength spirits?
What is TCA?
Chloroanisoles have been shown to be capable of imparting a musty taint to a variety of foods and beverages, including wine. The most potent of the chloroanisoles is 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA). The aroma detection threshold of TCA in wine has been determined as ranging from 1.4 ng/L to 4 ng/L depending on wine type, while 2,3,4,6-tetrachloroanisole (TeCA) has a somewhat higher aroma detection threshold than TCA (reported as 14 ng/L in a Pinot Noir wine). These two compounds are responsible for most incidences of musty taint in wines encountered by the Institute. Unfortunately, each person has a different detection level. One wine –or whisky- could be perfect for me an awfully tainted for another person with a lower detection level!
Recently, 2,4,6-tribromoanisole (TBA) has been reported in wine with an aroma threshold similar to that of TCA.
The most common causes of musty taint in wine are generally the cork seal or contaminated oak products. In virtually every case of cork taint investigated, TCA has been shown to be the compound responsible for the musty odour. When musty taint in wines has been derived from contaminated oak products (both barrels and chips, but also from any wood surface, roof, beams…), both TCA and TeCA, sometimes in combination, have been shown to be responsible for the taint.
What is the origin of TCA?
My chemistry knowledge isn't strong enough to explain the correct reactions involved.
In short, a chlorine molecule gets in contact with some mould and/or bacteria and ends up in a TCA molecule. I theory, if no chlorine gets in contact with bark, there should be no TCA produced. Chlorinated water, even pure chlorine, was used in the past to rinse, sterilize the barks. Today, this isn't the case anymore of course. Bark planks used to be piled up for months in humid warm rooms, with no surveillance, allowing for massive mould development… and again such practices are now from the past! Peroxyde (oxygenated water), ultra waves, micro waves… and god know whatever other techniques have replaced the use of chlorine. Even fresh spring water is now used in the manufacturing of corks. Freshly cut barks are now quickly dried up in ovens and stored in sterilized rooms… but the problem of TCA still remains and is actually getting worse.
It appears that now the barks are directly contaminated in the forests.
The chlorine comes from air and rain pollution (acid rain), and there is little that the industry can do against this!
So, what about the mould? Well, in the past, forest used to be cleaned naturally by wild pigs (ever tried Patanegra ham?) or wild grass growing between trees. Today, most forests see herbicides. The rains hit harder the ground and spills earth on the trees… and bacteria and mould… In the past (source: my own cork supplier), trees were cropped only every 15 to 25 years, and only 3 to 4 feet above ground. Today, for more productivity, the trees are cropped down to the roots, which are guaranteed to be soiled, every 8 years. See the connection with more TCA in corks today?
Lastly, I am not convinced that TCA is the only faulty aroma one can find from the corks.
Again, in the past, natural barks used to be left in the rain and sun for over a year so they would be perfectly dry. This would lower a lot the risk to find 'green' phenolic components in the barks, and certainly help to reduce (by evaporation?) thent of TCA. Today, barks are immediately artificially dried in ovens. They remove the water, but do not allow a further maturation of the bark in order to lower the 'green' components. I think that some TCA taints are in fact green sap left in the corks.
Natural cork or alternative seals?
I am not trying to find any excuse for a wine or whisky which is tainted: it is always an unpleasant
experience and sad moment, but is it reasonable to switch to alternative seals? Jamie Goode gives
us all the right reasons why one should be careful at www.wineanorak.com/alternativeclosures.htm.
Regarding higher strength spirits, I would be more careful and perhaps consider some more
aspects: spirits are kept standing up, so there should be less transfer from the cork to the spirit.
Being lucky enough to have opened a few older whiskies, I have to admit that in general levels
are less good in natural cork seals (evaporation) and often corks would crumble badly. My worst
memory was when trying to open a bottle of Highland Park 18yo 1960 43% dumpy green bottle
from J. Grant: the cork literally disintegrated and I had to filter the whisky in order to be able to
drink it without spitting bits of corks at each sip! Thank god the whisky was absolutely perfect.
I do believe that there is a bottle age effect on spirits, especially for higher quality single malts
worth ageing (i.e my previous example) and I always wonder if this effect is not accentuated
with a natural cork seal. How? More oxygen?
If in general I find that screw caps show less evaporation and are definitely less fragile, I also
had a few bad experiences with faulty screw caps, often not tight enough, that would allow an
abnormal evaporation. I would sometimes go through a few older bottles and check the caps to
see if they are tight enough. It is not rare that it is possible to tighten some of them of a quarter
turn once a while. It appears that either the join or the metal 'gives' with age. Hardly good news!
Natural Cork - A cork seal is a cylinder of cork cut from the bark
of Portuguese oak trees, which after treating, is inserted into the
neck of the bottle to prevent excessive interaction of the wine
with air, which leads to a gentle oxidation of wine.
Sadly, TCA can give a bad taste to the wine and spirit.
Technically, natural cork creates a perfect seal that would allow
only a very small amount of O2 in the bottle, but also has a 'limited'
life and might have to be replaced after a certain numbers of years.
Question: has the whisky industry thought about this?
How would the people at Highland Park distillery react if I would go
and see them with an old bottle whose cork need to be changed?
I imagine they would be quite surprised to see me at the door...
Synthetic Cork - A synthetic cork seal is a porous product,
man-made from polymers, designed to emulate the qualities of
a natural cork, without imparting traces of product. This seal is
also lodged into the neck of the bottle, as per a natural cork.
Early examples showed actually even more odd aromas (due to
the action of acid/alcohol/sugar on the polymers) problems and
even more oxidation. Today, such seals are only used for quick
drinking wines (less than 5 years). In the spirit industry, they
are made to look like corks.
There is little experience on their resistance to higher strength
alcohol for a long period of time (over 30 years).
Screw Cap - The Screw cap seal is fitted to the outside of the wine bottle, to provide
an air tight seal between the wine and the outside environment. The screw cap consists
of a piece of wadding that is compressed onto the lip of the bottle and held in place by
the metal lined screw cap.
Stelvin (Pechiney) is perhaps today the leader in the screw cap segment.
They propose two types of liner in order to give customers an element of control over
the desired permeability of the seal. The Saranex liner is made from layers of polyethylene,
PVDC (polyvinylidene chloride) and expanded polyethylene, whereas the Saran film etain
has a layer of tin sandwiched between PVDC, white kraft and expanded polyethylene.
This tin layer means that it is much less permeable than the Saranex liner and less oxygen
is allowed to enter the bottle. Pechiney's customers tend to use the Saran film etain liner for
wines stored for longer periods of up to 10 years, with the Saranex intended for storage of
between two and five years. So, which one do you have on your much beloved bottles?
If it is the Saran etain, will your bottle develop a much looked after bottle age character?
Crown Seal - The crown seal seal is an alternative to cork that is used
for sparkling wines and other carbonated beverages such as beer or cola.
The metal caps are applied to the top of the bottles, and the lining within
the cap provides a seal against both the carbonation escaping from the
bottle and outside air entering the bottle. An excellent alternative to the
screw cap, never seen it on a whisky though!
Glass corks - Is this the end of all our worries, no more TCA or green
tannins, no difficulties in opening the bottles, ageless, pretty… the glass
cork is slowly starting to replace some more conventional seal systems.
Learn more: http://www.vino-lok.de/
IMHO: glass is fragile! Glass on glass isn't airtight, so there is again a rubber (?)
seal to guarantee that the bottle is perfectly closed. What are the characteristic
of this seal? How long will it be efficient? The fact is that no one knows today.
Zork - This is what Captain Kirk used to seal his bottles on starship Enterprise!
See http://www.zork.com.au/ Very easy to use: you just pull the bottom part
and the whole thing unwraps. How efficient? I've seen some, it looks weird but
the bottle is properly closed. How will react to 92.8% Bruichladdich, no idea!
In conclusion, I would say that it would be highly informative to be able to
compare a similar whisky aged in a screw cap bottle and natural cork.
Both have advantages and drawbacks. There is only one thing to do:
check your bottles regularly, open them and then call me!
The Industry View - Part 1 (Nick Morgan)
Maybe the best way to know more about corks and seals on whiskies is to ask
the people who use them! Dr Nick Morgan, Global Marketing Director for the
Classic Malts, was kind enough to answer my questions. Here are his answers:
Olivier: Do you use natural corks, synthetic cork and/or screw caps?
Which type of seals if you use screw caps - and in which proportions?
Nick: Natural corks - of a higher specification than winemakers would use. We don't use any screw cap seals on our single malts, 'though we do of course on many of the blends. We will trial a synthetic cork on a blended product as a test later this year.
Olivier: what are the reasons for your choice: quality, image, simplicity?
Nick: Well, I prefer them, which is always a good starting point. But consumers do too - as we hear time after time in research groups. The cork denotes quality, and 'premiumness', it says that the people who made the whisky care about it. And taking the cork out of the bottle is a significant ritual for consumers - there seems to be something about this that is very special - particularly when you're opening a bottle with a group of friends.
Olivier: What are the drawbacks/advantages of each system? Do you feel that one system is better?
Which one is the best for the collectors who want to keep their bottles a long time?
Nick: I am told by packaging experts that one of the best seals we ever used was the old 'cork n seal' seal - used on blends such as Dewar's. But the corks we use are of a quality that should keep whisky as long as anyone might reasonably expect to. But remember, we do produce whisky for drinking. Olivier: that's for sure!
Olivier: Does whisky continue to develop/change in the bottle, and if so, how do the seals participate?
Nick: The seal should be neutral at all times. Of course whisky 'develops' once a bottle is opened (I guess you didn't mean that). It really 'shouldn't' change in the bottle if it remains sealed, unless it's subject to extreme temperature changes, sunlight etc. You know all this stuff.
Olivier: Are you concerned with TCA in natural corks? If yes, what are the statistics?
Nick: Yes, it's something we look at on a regular basis, and of course we monitor what we call 'customer concerns' very closely. But having said that the real problem I've found here is trying to get some feel for the likely scale of TCA in spirit corks. I tried to set up a robust study about five years ago but it was hideously complex and very costly - the business, as we say, walked away from it. And probably rightly so - that was in 2001, and between 1997 (Guinness merges with Grand Met) and 2001 we had 246 'customer concerns' about taste or smell, a proportion of which might have been TCA related. (You have to remember that the majority of taste complaints we get relate to Lagavulin, normally from consumers who have never tasted it before. We actually decided that we would use a consistent level of complaints as a benchmark of Lagavulin quality). So it's not that many who actually complain. But - do many consumers complain - or do they simply vote with their feet and decide not to buy a product they dislike again? (which of course is potentially hugely damaging). And can they actually notice TCA in whiskies - and does TCA appear in the same way in every whisky (our hypotheses is that the same level of taint would be more evident in Cragganmore than Lagavulin)? Many questions - and not many good answers.
Olivier: Even if those bottles were tainted, it is an amazing low percentage compared to the wine trade!
But I imagine that it is true that a 'full flavoured' single malt like Lagavulin should in fact hide more such 'faults'.
Nick: To be honest we did have a minor problem with a batch of corks about five or six years ago which we traced back to a supplier problem. At the time we looked at a number of alternatives but were focussing on a natural cork alternative - we did a lot of work on the Altop cork, which according to our tests certainly had a reduced risk of cork taint, by as much as 60% as I recall. But there were a number of issues with it, one of which was cost. So then I decided that we needed to understand the scale of the problem, and we scoped the very expensive research .......etc etc. Since then we don't seem to have had any noticeable problems, partly I think because I know we have improved our supply lines and are getting a more consistent quality of cork to work with. But I do get worried when I read about the 10% plus occurrence of TCA in wine ...
Olivier: Yeah yeah… ;-) Thank you for taking the time to answer those questions!
We will ask somebody who actually likes wine next ;-)
The Industry View - Part 2 (Mark Reynier)
Olivier: Mark Reynier, (managing director of Bruichladdich distillery), we all know that you 'estate' or 'Château' bottle Bruichladdich single malts. While installing your bottling line, were you concerned by
various seal systems? Did you have many options when you bought your equipment or did you ask for a specific method?
Mark: We actually have a new bottling system going in next week (mid March 2006). Up to now, putting the corks on the bottles has been done by hand. Next week it will be automatic with a dedicated machine adapted to our cork seal.
Olivier: Which system did you choose? Natural cork, screw caps? Why?
Mark: We exclusively use cork for tradition, quality, image and simplicity reasons – and I like the sound it makes! We have no screw caps. I am concerned about TCA in general but I have never encountered TCA in our type of enseal nor have I heard of any in the whisky trade; why not? I cannot say unless the type of cork is treated differently, or a different part, or does not react with higher alcohol?
Olivier: Mark, you know that more and more whisky lovers develop a passion for older bottlings.
That's for their quality but also because there seems to be a certain evolution of whisky in the bottle over time.
Do you agree? Would the seal system influence the evolution of the bottle?
Mark: We have no actual evidence of a change in our whisky in bottle apart from the recovery from bottle shock and transportation. I have an open mind on it and do not see why it cannot occur bearing in mind the permeability of cork/wood albeit under a capsule. It would be great if it did – but hard to prove. As far as collectors are concerned – I would not have thought the enclose would have mattered one jot as long as the bottle is sealed, has not leaked and is un-tampered with, the value of the bottle will be retained – assuming the rest of the presentation is correct. A collector, I would have thought, is primarily interested in the presentation aspect, and is less interested in the taste/quality of the spirit, or whether it has actually changed for better or for worse in bottle. I doubt the collector's market is sophisticated or large enough to mimic the fine wine trade by embracing the concept that whisky could improve in bottle and consequently improve in value. The better a fine wine gets, the more people drink it, the less there is on the market, the higher the price of the remaining stock. The value peaks when the wine starts to deteriorate and the value falls. You could argue that for fine Burgundy this appreciation does not apply owing to miniscule quantities and thus the lack of a true market. Top Burgundy, rarer than Bordeaux, is bought for consumption – there is not enough for speculation – so surplus does not feed a market. For whisky collecting, in my view, it is more a kin to stamps, The value will be affected by original rarity – not primarily because someone shorts the market by starting to send letters after 20 years! But who knows, it could become more like the Burgundy market if it was demonstrably provable that whisky improved over years in bottle. But how could you show that bearing in mind the variables over time?
Olivier: OK, maybe I should have specified: 'drinking collectors'!
Have you done experimentation with different systems or will you?
Mark: We have never done any experimentation with alternative seals and are not inclined to do so – unless something startling turns up...
Olivier: Thank's Mark and good luck with your new plant.
I know very well what it means to have new machine that allows you to work more smoothly…
No problem. We are very excited indeed! New toys….
The (final?) analysis
Mark kindly showed me the result of TCA analysis from their cork supplier (Amorim), and out of over 250 samples, only one reached 3.3ng/l, which still is under human detection possibility. Apparently, according to the manufacturer, the level needed to detect TCA in a whisky is much higher than for wine. So TCA should not be a concern.
[Influence of the seal on the amount of Oxygen in the bottle]
The university of oenology of Bordeaux is comparing 9 different seals techniques on wines for now 2 years. I thought that it would be informative to present the results of their experimentations. The screw cap systems are similar in wines and whisky, but the natural cork is different: shorter for whisky and almost always heavily coated with old style paraffin.
Amount of oxygen that enter the bottle (microL/day)
(Saucier & Lopes, University of Bordeaux, Average measures on a 12 months study)
Total amount of O2 in a bottle of red wine
(75cl, lying horizontal, after 20 months)
In conclusion: if horizontal, screw caps (saran seal) are the most airtight seals, vertical: natural corks could be the most airtight. Of course, for wines, some O2 is necessary for a certain 'evolution' with time. Wine should also be less aggressive than a cask strength whisky (?) on a seal, technical cork or natural cork. This is why whiskies are kept standing up, and in this case, natural corks seems to be the best choice in terms of O2 entering the bottle, or, in alcohol vapours coming out of the bottle?
Personally, I have seen old bottles in poor condition with both screw caps (low levels/evaporation and caps that become loose) and natural corks (again low levels and corks that fall apart when opened). I have never seen whisky bottles kept horizontal for a long time and would not encourage people to do so unless for an experiment. It seems that there is only one good solution: open up the bottles before it's too late!
Olivier Humbrecht, Certified Malt Maniac
Dear whisky lovers,
There are whisky writers who claim that one only needs three ingredients
to make whisky: water, malted barley, and yeast. Other people say: it takes
four ingredients: also the people who make it. My question to all the above is:
Aren't we forgetting a MAIN ingredient? What ingredient defines for example
the colour of a whisky (except for caramel off course), what ingredient gives
certain bottlings a 'touch' that no other bottling of the same brand can have?
I can hear you thinking, and you are thinking correctly: the cask is a MAJOR
ingredient in the production of whisky as well. I would even put it like this:
the cask can make a good spirit even better, but can also ruin a good spirit.
It can turn a lousy spirit better, and can make a lousy spirit a total fiasco.
The maniacs have written about the casks before, in E-pistle #12/01 about
finishing casks and in E-pistle #12/18 about the different species of oak that
are used for the cask, but I wanted to take a closer look at the subject.
If we take a closer look at casks, we can see that they are ALL made of oak wood.
What reasons could there be for choosing oak above other woods? Oak has unique physical & chemical features:
- Oak is a very strong wood, so it makes the cask very strong to be able to 'rest' for many years with whisky in it.
- Oak is a very 'pure' wood, without resin canals that can give strong flavours to the whisky.
- There are the oak-lactones, These give good flavours to the whisky. These are the so-called cis- and trans-isomers of 5-butyl-4-methyl-4,5-dihydro-2(3H)-furanone. These are derived from oakwood, and the cis -isomer is an important contributor to wine and/or whisky flavour. For now, I won't go any deeper in this lactone-story, because we're talking casks in general now. These lactones will be treated in a next article.
Generally spoken, the oak cask does three things to whisky:
- It adds good things (flavours, colour, …): additive.
- It takes away bad things (sulphury notes, immatureness): subtractive.
- It interacts with the wood by converting good elements from the wood to good elements for the whisky: interactive.
Oak is constituted by the following elements:
• Hemi Cellulose
• Oak Tannins
• Lipids & Oak Lactones
How do these elements contribute to the whisky?
- Cellulose: Holds the wood together.
- Hemi Cellulose: Consists of sugars that to the following when heated (toasted or charred).
They give body to the whisky, they give sweeter aromas to whisky, and they give colour.
- Lignin: The 'building blocks' that give the following things after being heated: vanilla, and sweet, smoky, and spicy flavours.
- Oak Tanins: Give complexity and delicacy to the spirit. Without these, the spirit would be 'boring'.
- Lipids & Lactones: Lactones are a derived product from the lipids in the oak. They strongly increase by toasting the cask. They are responsible for the woody, coconut character, and give for example bourbon its typical character. There are higher concentrations of lactones in American oak than in European oak.
We can distinguish the following kinds of oak, with the following characteristics:
Quercus alba, "White Oak" (America)
Most used wood for whisky casks.
Has more vanilla and more lactones than European oak.
Quercus petraea, "Sessile Oak" (Europe)
Mostly found in France, so mostly used in wine production.
Grows slowly, and has more vanilla than the other European variation.
Quercus robur, "Pedunculate Oak" (Europe)
Mostly found in France, but this one is more used in cognac industry.
Grows faster and has more tanins than the Sessile.
You must have noticed that I wrote about fast or slow growing oak. Is this of any importance? Let's have a quick look:
Winemakers are convinced that slowly growing oak has a much better influence on their products. Whiskymakers don't consider this. If we take a closer look, we see that there are indeed more 'good elements' in slow growing wood, especially vanillas and oak lactones.
Another CAPITAL element is the drying of the wood. By drying the wood, there are certain chemical compounds of the wood that will be converted to more 'wanted' types. Wood for wine casks will dry for 24 months, wood for whisky casks will dry for 6 – 12 months, and sometimes even less... The easy air-drying is better than the quicker and less natural kiln drying: it reduces tannic astringency and releases more vanilla.
One other thing we should take a look at, is the heating of the wood before using it for maturing whisky.
The heat-treatment before using the cask has an important (maybe even a key-) influence. There are two types of heating, being toasting and charring. Toasting (intensively heating the wood) transforms the tastes the oak can give to the whisky. Depending on the specific toasting technique, vanillas, lactones, toastiness, spice characters and tannins can be more or less provided by the wood itself. Charring means physically 'burning' the cask with a flame. Charring takes place after toasting, and is by law to be done for 'Bourbon'. It does the following to the wood: 1) The char is a kind of filter for sulphuric notes and notes of immaturity from the spirit. 2) Is traditionally done for 40 seconds to 1 minute, but some experiments up to 3-4 minutes are done lately. 3) Creates dramatic changes at surfaces; effectively toasts layers beneath.
I hope this article has been useful to learn something more on the influence of cask maturing, and more specific the influence of the oak on the road 'from spirit to whisky' …
Johannes - Remember the 'Barley Strains' discussion we had a while ago?
Well, as a matter of fact part of the discussion veered in a different - but perhaps even more interesting - direction after Craig made some comments about a phenomenon some other maniacs simply call 'Old Bottle Effect' (OBE). This might be particulary interesting in relation to Bert Bruyneel's Martin Green interview published just above this E-pistle. See my 'editorial note' at the end of the interview for a few comments that shed a slightly different light on the 'fakes' situation that was so conveniently side-stepped. To tell you the truth, I'm now so paranoid about these old bottles that I'm almost inclined to avoid them altogether. One of the main reasons for my uncanny ability to overcome such inclinations is the fact that 'antique' whiskies can have a richness, depth and character simply not found in the modern stuff. And since 'antique' whiskies will only get rarer (and therefor probably more expensive), chances to taste them will get rarer as well. Which brings us to the cause of this 'old bottle effect'...
Craig - I'm in the camp that thinks the barley makes a difference. I don't find any other convincing explanation for why the mouthfeel and richness of malts distilled in the 1970's are different (and superior to ) someimes older malts from the same distillery distilled in the late 1980's and 1990's. Probably can't prove it scientifically, but its a strong gut feel based on over 15 years consumption experience.
Charlie - Right, Craig. Macallan always maintained that Golden Promise barley gave an 'oilines' to their make.
More important, I think, for texture is the move from worm tubs to shell-and-tube condensers, which provide more copper contact and therefore produce a lighter spirit. All but a dozen distilleries converted their worms to condensers during the 1960s and '70s.
Here is a list of conversion dates:
Ardmore (1955 and 1976)
Balvenie (1965 and 1971)
Benromach (1966, 1974)
Blair Athol (1959)
Caol Ila (1972-74)
Dufftown (1967 and 1979)
Glen Elgin (1964)
Glenfarclas (1960 and 1976)
Glen Grant (1973)
Glen Moray (1958)
Glen Ord (1966)
Imperial (1955 and 1965)
Longmorn (1972, 1974)
Port Ellen (1966/67)
Royal Brackla (1965/66)
Dalwhinnie was converted in 1965/66, then converted back to worms in 1996, since the make had changed!
New distilleries were all equipped with condensers, e.g.: Clynelish (1967/68), Teaninich (1970), Glenlossie/Mannochmore (1971), Linkwood (1971), Glendullan (1971/72). All were equipped with condensers.
So if you like a rich, oily, 'old fashioned' style of malt, seek out those made before the distilleries were converted!
Ulf - It is my belief that not only the changes on the cooling department and, hence, increased copper contacts, but also the rapidly introducing of indirect heating in parallel are the major reasons for the change in texture, post 1980s, but also the lesser level of presence of organoleptic sensations described as malty. Charles, kudos for a clever and very useful compilation. Why not include the dates when indirect heating was introduced as well?
Johannes - Still haven't read all of Malt Maniacs, have you Ulf? ;-)
Check out Charlie's excellent E-pistle in MM#13 on the topic of the direct firing of stills...
It also lists the dates of conversion to indirect heating for most distilleries.
Ulf - With blushing cheeks I must admit; No, I haven't read all of MM yet ;-)
Charlie - Spot on, Ulf. The move to indirect firing was also an important contributor. I think it safe to suppose that the removal of direct firing took place at the same time as the conversion to condensers.
Robert - I think this discussion is really really interesting and I've had many in the past with local whisky -writers and enthusiasts. The topic that I'm talking about is the difference between old and "modern" malts. Most people seem to believe that older malts are superior in quality. When I ask why I seldom get as elaborate an answer as the one from you Charles, however. It's more an undefined "feeling" or similar, most often they have no concrete arguments whatsoever. Except that they believe a 30yo Macallan is better than an 8yo (which I sometimes argue isn't always true, but that's another topic in its self).
So. How can anyone in their right mind argue that a whisky which has been in contact with wood for 30-50 years can be compared with a modern 12yo of the same distillery? Obviously they cant. So, why not pick up a bunch of 12yo's bottled in the sixties and compare them to modern versions of the same malt? Ok, some of us can do that although it's not very common nor friendly to our bank accounts. But these old 12yo's... are they untouched by time? I'd say most likely not! I many cases such bottles have lost a lot of content caused by several reason. This loss of content must within all reason affect the remaining content, aye? And even if they haven't lost content, how have they been stored? Perhaps a widow used them for showing off to her friends so she placed it in a window exposed to the sun for a few years in the seventies, who knows? Noone knows...
Just to be crystal clear, I'm not questioning Craig here! I'm questioning the general argument that older whisky is better without proper testing nor proper reasoning - thereby not saying that anyone of you would do that. I am in total agreement that any other way of comparing whiskies is indeed superflouous, that was the point I was trying to make. And, to be crystal clear again! I don't mistrust whisky enthusiasts, why in the name of the holy hand grenade would I do that? I simply argue that time would have an effect on the 12yo bottled in the fifties and is thus near impossible to compare to a 12yo bottled 56 years later. If I buy a bottle on an auction (as I wasn't around in the 50's I dont have much choice) I have little idea how many widows, enthusiasts etc is has passed by throughout time.
BUT, if you can find a bunch of wax-sealed old 12yo's and can even more or less guarantee they have been stored in a undisturbed and proper manner for all those very long years I presume you could make a somewhat relevant comparions. Although I am not at all certain about that either as time (within reason) should have an affect, perhaps miniscule, perhaps not, on the content no matter how properly it has been stored. That wine changes in a bottle is part of the deal and a natural process, who knows for certain what goes in a whisky bottle over a time period of half a century or so?
So what's the conclusion of a test such as this? That it was different (not necessarily better, I stand corrected) due to a new method of heating the stills? Or changed barley? Or changed water source? Or simply by the years it has spent on the bottle? Difficult! Perhaps it wasn't different at all when bottled from now? Ofcourse it was different but I think we may have a problem proving that.
Oh well. Now I ramble.. but it's an interesting discussion! Still I have problems identifying a truly proper method of really, once and for all, determining if the malt whisky of the undefined old days were better than those of today. Do you guys have a patented method for this?
Michel - Hi Robbert and all! Me thinks it's wrong to assume that older whisky is better whisky.
However, lots of the antique bottles I tried seem to be of higher standard than most of today's. There could be much reasons for that. Different techniques of distilling. The worm tubs are mentioned before, direct firing, kinds of yeasts, speed of distilling and so on. Another thing, I'm the kind of romantic which follows this path, could be a much more stricter cask selection. Distilleries could (perhaps) keep the better casks to themselves, the indepeandants had a wider choice of casks available. Uniformity of the product perhaps not the neurotic issue like it is today, so less than great casks were more easily dumped towards the blenders...
Let's not forget there must have been plain afwull whiskies on the market those days. We don't see them anymore because they were never collected in the first place and what we sample today might very well have been the 'highly recomendebles' of their days, thus explaining their relative high scoring... I do think whisky changes in the bottle. As far as I know, the first chemical reaction (as distilling is) that can be completely fixed within 'normal live parameters' has yet to be 'invented'. Perhaps Klaus knows a bit more on this subject. All goes without saying I do wonder what that certain bottle would have tasted like 20 or 30 years ago when it was fresh on the shelves. Since I did not master the noble art of time travel I will never know and the only thing left to do is enjoying the moment like hell!!
Klaus - Certainly whisky changes in the bottle. The question is, how large is the effect.
There are still chemical reactions going on, because equilibrium is never reached. When no fresh air comes into the bottle and the available energy is low (no light, low temperture), the reactions are very very slow and happen only very rarely. On the other hand there are 2 cases when time might have an influence. 1) multi step-reactions : from substance A to B to C to D. In such a case it might take a long time until equilibium is almost reached. 2) chemical reactions (affecting compounds with strong influence on the nose/ taste) which are initially rather slow. In this case changes might also appear over a quite long period.
Just from my belly I would say, that differences in the production methods have more influence on the change of taste and nose than aging in the bottle. Since the time machine has not yet been invented the final answer to thequestion will remain a matter of speculations.
Serge - I think the big question is also whether we accept changes or not, in our minds.
I guess some of us think that whisky is made following a long process including maturation, vatting etc. and that it has to get "100% frozen" once bottled (and they get stressed when they hear it's not obligatorily the case).
Others may think whisky can (or has to, like Samaroli who writes on some labels "further matures in its bottle" or something like that) change until it's consumed, like wine. It's a matter of POV's and expectations. For instance, imagine we just open a bottle of Laphroaig 10yo bottled in the 1970's. You'll have two ways of considering the whisky: 1) Some anoraks will say: let's see whether Laphroaig was better 30 years ago (or peatier, for that matter ;-)). And then the fact that the whisky may have evolved in its bottle becomes a huge problem - in their minds. A sort of catastrophe, even if the whisky's absolutely great . 2) Some others will just say: hey, let's see if an old Laphroaig that's been in its bottle for 30 years is any good, basta.
It makes me think of boxed foie gras, or sardines. True aficionados stock up those for years, expecting them to improve (and we all know they are perfectly sealed and not exposed to light). Regular consumers, on the other hand, expect those products to stay just like they are once they are boxed. There are even freaks out there who love old corned beef brought by the GI's during WWII. I've heard it's excellent - provided the box is in good shape, of course. So, time, including the time that flew since the products have been 'supposedly frozen' can be 'part of' the product.
Frankly, I don't know whether some of us MM's stock up whiskies whilst expecting they'll improve (not just because those won't be available anymore in, say 10 years), but I guess some people do, somewhere. Maybe it's going to be the next trend???
Lex - My tuppence ....
I agree with Klaus that it is highly likely that whisky will change after being bottled. There will be chemical reactions as energy goes in and there is no reason to suppose all is in perfect equilibrium at the time of bottling. The big question is of course, as Klaus said, how much and the crunch point is whether it is enough for humans to pick up. Now unless we have a time machine, we will simply never know. Comparing a 12yo from 50 years ago to one of the same age bottled yesterday is invalid, because production methods will have changed. So don't believe those writers who wax lyrically about picking up bottle-ageing in malts bottled long ago, especially not when they claim to do so in a 19th century Macallan which later turned out to be a modern fake ....
Johannes - Whoa!!!! Now I feel I have to chime in. In fact, I've found 'old bottle effect' on many occasions.
Maybe I've labeled the experience wrong and the aroma is indeed the effect of different production methods, but any correlations I've found so far indicate that many bottles that were bottled before 1990 show this trait, regardless of the distillery. I think most of the 'big' changes in production methods happened in the 70's and early 1980's - in which case bottlings from the late 1980's wouldn't be expected to show the effect, no? Interesting topic!
Lex - To bring it right back to where this thread started ....
Johannes, maybe the fact that you pick it up in a range of bottles points to a switch in the barley strain being used??
Too many confounding variables to be able to pin it on one factor ....
Davin - Lex, Barley is important, but yeast is more improtant in flavour profile. OK, fire away!!
Serge - Well Lex, As for the taste of 'bottle ageing', and after having tasted quite a few really old bottles, I have the impression that it can be of three sorts (when it happens, it's not always the case, far from it): 1) Enhanced notes of tropical fruits on the nose (good) - often with whiskies that lost their supposed peatiness (not unlike the old recent Bowmores but it's still different), 2) Palate getting very tea-ish and lacking roundness and sweetness (bad) and 3 ) Palate getting slightly metallic - not only with twist caps ;-) (not obligatorily bad) ... and of course any combinations of those.
Johannes - Aha....I noticed you mentioned tropical fruits before, Serge.
For me it's clearly 'maggi' and sellery - and other fragrances in the spicy side of the spectrum.
Serge - As for comparing 12yo's; Well Lex, I suppose all that depends on your purposes.
I've done that several times. I agree there's no point in trying to find out about whether the whiskies was 'better' or 'worse' in the old days. And I agree 'differences' don't mean a thing, except if what you're comparing is a 12yo Glenthis bottled in 2005 and a 12yo Glenthis bottled in 1970 and that's been in its bottle for 35 years (and not just a 12yo Glenthis bottled in 1970).
BUT what's thrilling is to discover the similarities, not the differences, and I guess that's much more valid.
Parts of the whiskies can't be similar just by chance, can they? I tried for instance a Talisker 1913 (I think it wasn't a fake but of course I can't be 100% sure, even if 'everything' looked very old, I was there when the bottle has been opened) vs a current 10yo. I've been stunned by the similarities (let's talk about 'profiles') even if, as you rightly pointed out:
- Talisker wasn't at the same place in 1913 (right?)
- Talisker was triple-distilled back then.
And yes, the old really tasted like a very old 'stuff'.
Lex - Serge, don't get me wrong, OF COURSE it's fun to taste an old bottling of whisky from the same distillery head to head with a modern bottling. All I'm saying is that a difference between the two can't be 'blamed' on bottle ageing.
Serge - Absolutely Lex, when that happens once (or twice etc.)
But when you get the same kinds of differences during many 'old' vs 'new' tastings, it must be something that all these old malts have/had in common. We can discard what was obviously different I think (shape of stills, years, regions, barley varieties I guess, water etc.) and focus on what is/was common. What's obviously common is the 'bottle ageing' but I agree there can be other factors...
BUT (erm...) These factors must have postponed effects then. Why?... (obligatory drum roll ;-)...
Because when you taste NEW bottlings of OLD malts (from the same years) you never get these flavours/smells!
So what!? (as miles ones said...)
Davin - Yes Serge, Thanks for this.
The new bottlings of old whiskies lack the bottle effects of old bottlings from same years of distillation?
Most likely yes. You and Oliver probably remember our discussion with Robert Hicks at The Old Kiln where he told us that he can taste 'glass,' i.e. aging, in whisky that has been on the shelf for only a few years and he will withdraw his unsold whisky after a few years and re-blend it into new batches. Now Charlie told us Robert is a bit of a showman and the story may be apocraphyl, but here is a life-long blender telling us, in the presence of knowledgeable luminaries, his whisky does change noticibly after it has been bottled.
Serge - Yes, Davin, I remember...
I must say the way the big companies manage their products' 'shelf life' is often tainted with a bit of marketing (especially with yoghurts but not only with yoghurts ;-)) Let me go straighter to my point: If it's something else than the 'old bottle effect', it must be found in newly bottled malts from the same vintages, except if the 'old cask effect' wipes it out. Err...
Ulf - Lex wrote; 'Comparing a 12yo from 50 years ago to one of the same age bottled yesterday is invalid, because production methods will have changed.' But this was the kernel of the poodle, the possibility of studying the influence of the different production methods now, and in the past. Is this possible or not, I believe it is. Put forward to debate in this context was also the question; Is the change of production methods and construction of apparatus recognizable or does the fluid in the bottle change in such a way that time will mask its heritage and making such comparisons to be nonsense? To note, no one claimed that the content in a bottle was pure static over time. Further, the question was initially raised by the hypothesis that the flavour profile from different barley strains was identifiable in the end product. Which I doubt. Someone included bere which Dave pointed out is an oddity similar to make whisky from, as an example, oat (and hence recognizable, my comment).
Are there any recognizable differences in older, bottled, whiskies related to shift in production methods or introduction of new barley strains, or both? Difference is in this case is not understood as subjective 'better'. Is it meaningless to perform such exercises, comparing modern bottled versions with older bottled versions of the same age, as heritage is lost, changed or masked by the time factor which some believes?
Robert - As long as it's fun it's hardly meaningless :). But as long as we're out of time machines we have no original original to compare it to until I'm proven otherwise (I look forward to a bunch of samples in my mail in the near future)! Hehe, no seriously. I'm sure tests like these can be conducted with various likelyhood of success and once again, for the record, I'm not implying that a majority of whisky enthusiasts are widows. I'm just saying to some may be or have been or may become widows. Back on-topic. One test that has a likelier probability to hold up in court is comparing bottlings that has occured recently from the month/year before and after a change in production. It doesn't take a very skilled whisky taster to realize that something happened at Ardbeg in 1978 for instance.
Serge - Ulf, this is really fascinating, thanks.
I guess we should forget about a '100% scientific' method – Lex and other scientists would not agree and I guess they would be right. On the other hand, marketing people tend to think it's better to be more or less right than exactly wrong (I'm a sucker for blurry reasoning – do you say that in English?) and maybe it would be interesting to work on this (I guess for instance Diageo could help): Trying to sort all different aromas and flavours and try to come up with categories
1) Aromas and flavours that come only from the maturation. Useless here.
2) Aromas and flavours that were already there right after the distillation.
a) that do change with time – whichever the 'container' (relatively useless again)
b) that don't change – or not much - with time (yes!)
I guess if we train to recognize all 2.b) aromas and flavours in a malt, we could well 'try' to find out whether a malt was any different – and to which extend – 30 or 40 years ago. This is not perfect at all and addresses only part of a whisky's profile, but maybe that would be interesting – just for the sake of the experiment... Or is it really far-fetched or too blurrily logical?
Who can be against a little empiricism? ;-)
Charlie - Interested to hear about the 'tropical fruits', 'maggi' (is this the food flavouring, Johannes?) and 'celery'...
My trigger-descriptor for an old whisky, nosed blind, is 'rancio'. But I am not sure exactly what rancio is or smells like! I know the term is used by brandy makers, and the aroma esteemed, but I am probably using the wrong word. Can anyone advise - Olivier, Serge?
Johannes - Yes, Charlie - Maggi is the liquid food flavouring I mentioned last year on Islay.
I've seen it in Holland, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland. It's mostly used in soups I think, quite salty and not unlike soy sauce. Sometimes a bit meaty - and like celery as well. The next time you're in Campbeltown and they take you to that tasting room behind the Cadenhead's / Springbank corner store, pull a leaf from the celery plant next to the door to the patio and rub it between your fingers - you'll get a slightly 'fresher' version of the aroma I now associate with 'antiquity'. Is that 'Rancio'?
Serge - Oh my God,
We could go on just on Maggi! Johannes, are you suggesting there's this kind of celery in Maggi? In fact, I always thought Maggi did contain lots of lovage (it's that plant, right?) because it just smells the same. But there's none! Actually, I think Maggi is primarily made out of soy sauce. Now, if you go towards 'antiquity', you'll also find 'old books' (I know Craig loves that), antiques shop, furniture polish, old clothes (wardrobe), maybe beehive in a certain way...
Charlie - In old bottles - whiskies made pre WWII, and bottled then, or in the 1950s - I have often detected 'sandalwood'. Of course, I don't know whether the mature make had this aroma, or whether it developed in the bottle, but I suspect the former. Wherever it came from, it is delicious, and only occasionally found today - and that in very old whiskies.
Serge - Rancio is perfect as a descriptor and spot-on.
The word itself comes from 'rancid' as you guessed it, although it's not negative. Rancios are red wines that are (well, were because it's really out of fashion - a shame if you ask me) matured in contact with oxygen, which gave them these smells and tastes of 'oldness', sometimes close to Madeira. They don't, I believe, count on a 'yeast veil' like with some white wines (dry sherry, vins jaunes etc.) Rancios are/were made in Spain and South of France, and buggers would say they can last for very long, as they are already oxidised. Winemakers often leave the casks under the sun to provoke the 'maderization' (oxidising). If I had to add descriptors that would describe 'rancio', I'd say soy sauce, meat sauce, Chinese plum sauce (they serve it with Peking ducks), balsamic vinegar, 'genuine' cocoa and yes, Johannes' Maggi. You could add for instance old walnuts but that's more characteristic of dry sherries etc.
Johannes - YES, Serge!!!
I should have mentioned soy sauce / oyster sauce as well. In fact, it's near to the 'oriental spices' group in my mind as well. So, I'd say we're definitely talking about the same thing then. Very nice - I've found a 'click' with some other people's tasting notes. Meanwhile, this is turning into a very interesting discussion - and I actually wrote a column about this very same topic for 'Whisky Etc.' The conclusion of that piece: 'The jury is still out on whether the fact that old bottles are often 'different' lies in 'bottle aging' or different ingredients and / or production methods in the past'. Maybe this discussion will deliver some answers... Maybe we could even try to reach some sort of consensus (if at all possible) about the importance of each of the ingredients / steps in the production process for the end result. I know that will be tough - and possibly a fool's errand - but the discussion alone would be intriguing I think. But let's not get ahead of ourselves... back on topic: with the range of aroma's Serge described in relation to 'ranchio' - are there others who link this to possible 'bottle aging'?
Klaus - Maniacs, I think it would be a good idea to research, which chemicals give the typical bottle aging flavour (tropical fruits (Serge), Maggi and celery (Johannes). Then we can try to find out if these chemicals are end-products of very slow reactions which occur in whisky.
Charlie - Serge et al, This is comforting for me as well as very useful.
I was tasting a flight of 15 whiskies today, blind, for a competition (Scottish Field 'Merchants Challenge').
They were all pretty decent, but one had that characteristic that I immediately call 'rancio' (I would bet my bottom dollar that it's a very old whisky, and if it ain't I'll buy up the stock!) - and although I wouldn't use the term in a tasting note (unless I wanted to be obscure and tantalising!), I will now go back and try to deconstruct it, using your other descriptors as a guide.
Oxidation is interesting. Clearly this takes place in the cask, with whisky - and maybe the solution to the current MM thread is simply whether it takes place in the (sealed) bottle (of whisky). I suspect it may do (although unproveable). I met a German chemist once who lectured me for an hour on the development of acetals in cask and bottle. Klaus, Lex, Ho-cheng, Olivier - do acetals lend rancio characteristics? What flavours (in whisky) are developed by oxidation? Can they develop in the bottle? What do the wine/cognac makers say? Keep it going!
Serge - Well Charlie, I guess 'rancio' can also come from the cask itself, especially when the latter did contain some 'rancioed' (ouch) wine. Madeira and some kinds of port spring to mind, as well as probably solera casks (but are there any used in whisky maturing?) And maybe Marsala? Several of these wines aren't really 'rancios' but can certainly get a 'rancio' profile. I've even heard 'ce vin ranciote' (this wine is rancioing) meaning, just like Ulf said, that a red wine is getting an unwanted rancio character. The precursor, I believe, is cooked strawberries (or jam). Variant for the whites: madeirization.
Your remark about obscure and tantalising tasting notes is very interesting as well. We all have various experiences with food and nature and I guess what's common for you can be unknown to me - and maybe reversely just a few times (remember the argan oil?) But you're very right, the aim is to communicate about impressions, not to display a vain array of food knowledge. In short, I think we should publish our own, common MM catalogue of descriptors one day!
Johannes - Yes, this is an EXCELLENT discussion, maniacs.
And this might foreshadow a future discussion on yet another 'pipe dream' of mine - the Maly Maniacs aroma wheel - or maybe a collection of 'rainbows'. I feel that you often find certain aroma's grouped together but in different constellations. For example, if we take the 'rancio' character as a main trait, some malts lean in one direction towards 'herbal' (further in that 'direction' you could find menthol, camphor, eucalyptus - maybe followed by oily notes) while the malt could lean to the 'spicy' side as well; oriental spices, nutmeg and maybe a little further in that 'direction' cinnamon and nutty notes, back to oily again. I know this is a bad example and the 'circle isn't complete (for instance, there's a group that usually includes peat, smoke, liquorice, salmiak, chloride and salt as well - maybe wet dog) but you get the general idea.
Anyway, that's me getting ahead of myself again.
I like Klaus' idea of a 'scientific' approach as well - but I fear that way madness lies...
The question at hand: What is the cause of the difference between 'old' and 'new' bottles?
And could it be that you can find it so some extent in bottles that have been on the cask for a LONG time sometimes show this trait as well? In fact, I think I found traces of 'rancio' in 'The Whisky That Cannot Be Named' that Charlie and I shared on Texel in February - but that's not the best example. I've used the nifty 'find' function on the MM main page to see which whiskies had the 'antiquity' trait. Here's a selection - some whiskies were tasted blind, some not;
Ambassador 25yo (43%, Pedro Domecq, Taylor & Fergusson, blend, Bottled 1970's)
Balblair NAS (70 Proof, Gordon & MacPhail, Bottled 1970's)
Bowmore 16yo 1972 (43%, The Prestonfield, Sherry casks #1036-1039)
Clynelish 12yo (43%, OB, Di Chiano Import, Small cap, Regular neck, Bottled +/- 1970).
Glenfarclas 5yo (40%, OB, Frattina Import, Bottled +/- 1975)
Glenfarclas 25yo (43%, OB, Frattina Import, Bottled +/- 1979)
Glen Gordon 15yo (40%, G&M, 75cl, 'Bastard Malt', Bottled Mid 1980's)
Glenlivet 19yo (80 Proof, Cadenhead's Black Label, 26 2/3 Flozs, Bottled 1970's)
Highland Park 17yo 'No Vintage' (43%, OB, James Grant, Green dumpy bottle, Bottled 1970's)
Old Mull NAS (40%, John Hopkins & Co, Essivi Import, Bottled 1960's, 75cl)
See a pattern here? My notes on two of the finest examples;
Highland Park 1957/1977 (70 Proof, Berry Brothers, 26 Floz.)
Nose: Lovely fruit. Balsamico vinegar. Spices. Very complex. Maggi. Sellery. Excellent!!!
Taste: Antiquity. Smoke. Dry. Not terribly complex, but very enjoyable indeed.
Glen Brora NAS (40%, Carradale Company, 75cl, Bottled early 70's)
Nose: Faint antiquity. Sellery. Organics. Mushrooms. Vegetable stock. 'Foody'. Brilliant & unique.
Taste: Fruity start, slightly watery centre, dry finish. Very enjoyable, but it pulls it from the 90's.
Score: 88 points - but I was initially inclined to go for 90 points based on the unique nose.
However, I also found some of these 'rancio' notes (but much more subtle) in more recent bottlings, including a few of the awards malts; For example;
Strathmill 11yo 1992/2004 (59.7%, Cadenhead's, Bourbon Barrel, January 2004, 84 Bottles)
Nose: Old coffee and dust followed by weird organics. Smells a bit like 'antiquity'.
Taste: Mocca. Feels a bit like a rhum - a gritty smoothness, if than makes any sense.
Score: 84 points - Strange, but I like that. Well, not always...
Highland Park 36yo 1967/200X (49.7%, OB for The Whisky Exchange, Cask #10252, 138 bottles)
Nose: Light and sweet. Bakery aroma's. It quickly grows bigger and more complex. Organics. Odd peaty notes.
Oooh, this is quite lovely! Hint of antiquity. Quite a spectacular nose. Ladies & gentemen, we have a winner!
Oh yes, this is a beauty! Peat and fruits. All the good stuff is still there after some time - and more, it seems.
Taste: Lovely mouth feel. Old peat, a bit like the OMC Ardbegs from the early 1970's. Smoky drought. Lovely!
Maybe just a tad thin in the centre. Brillaint tannins in the peaty finish - this is extremely chewable. Excellent!
Score: 94 points - but it needs some time to get there. Seems like a sure-fire candidate for a gold medal.
So, I'd say it may not be EXCLUSIVE to antique bottlings, although I've never found it as obvious as in these antique bottlings.
Michel - Celery and Lovage are quite close connected...
Cellery deals with vegetal sweets (with a pinch of anis).
Lovage deals with vegetal salts (with a pinch of licorice) and indeed is sometimes called 'maggi-plant'.
Cellery leaves (oh yes, another one...) are the way to go if you don't want the licorice 'aura'. Use them in herbal broth :-))
I totally agree on old books (being musty woody card board) Antiques shop (sweet, dusty aroma, resin and linseed based cellulose varnish), beehive (sweet waxyness). Some times I find silver polish as well..
Lex - Going off at a tangent a bit now (and relying on poor Johannes to keep all the discussion neatly organised)...
Mentioning soy sauce, Maggi, 'meaty' flavours reminds me of the 5th principal taste that humans can detect (after salt, sweet, bitter and sour): umami. Can rancio actually be linked to umami somehow? If so, that's intriguing, because umami detection is thought to have evolved in humans in response to presence of essential amino acids (the other 4 tastes also have clear survival value: salt and sweet to detect essential nutrients, bitter and sour to warn for poisons and 'things which have gone bad').
I'm probably rambling way off topic now ....
P.S. Be careful to keep 'taste' and 'flavour' separate. They are very different things. Tastes are detected by receptors on the tongue, flavours by receptors in the nose.
Davin - Hi Lex, I think umami is most easily detected in pollack that has been processed to taste like crab.
Mark - Malts are bottled at a specific strength, and labelled with that specific a.b.v. Over time, some malts may mellow somewhat in the bottle, or in some way change. Alcohol evaporates to some degree when oxidation occurs. One scientific test which *could* be easily performed would be the testing of various bottles for their a.b.v. I have thought of this in regard to letting malts rest in the glass before nosing, too. But, as relating to these rancio notes, maggi, celery or celeriac, and Charlie's sandalwood, I wonder if these elements of aroma may have been in the bottle all the while, and really become noticable when the alcohol has mellowed a bit over time in the bottle due to whatever amount of oxidation. Am I right to think that an a.b.v. test of freshly opened whiskies would be fairly easy to do?
Davin - Serge, I had always thought rancio was mushroom-like.
I don't remember mushrooms in Madeira, but we only get young ones here.
I have tasted mushroom in old whiskies though.
Serge - You mean, magic mushrooms? ;-)
For me 'mushrooms' is much fresher, vegetal, like a walk in the forest, close to moss, fern, humus... Or do you mean mustiness? That's more to be found in old red Bourgognes for instance - pinot noir - I believe than in rancios, but again, I know 'rancio' is sometimes used as a common, yet improper I'd say, descriptor for all timeworn red wines.
Or cooked mushrooms - could that be sort of 'meaty'?
Davin - Serge, Hey man! ;-)
I was thinking of raw mushrooms, musty yes, but meaty as well....
Craig - Hi Johannes et al. First of all - I was comparing apples with apples earlier.
I do have whiskies bottled in the 1970's and 1980's that we have put up (masked) against whiskies bottled at the same or similar age (Glengoyne 12, Glen Elgin 12, Glendullan 12), more than a decade later. Also the Adelaide malt club to which I belong (the Earls of Zetland Malt Tasting Club) habitually programmed "old versus New" nights and put whiskies like the Balvenie 10, Longmorn 15 and Aberlour 10. There are distinct differences. Interesting when nosed and tasted masked only the modern Aberlour 10 scored higher than the older version. The difference between the Longmorns was profound and the older Balvenie 10 has a richness that the newer version lacks.
What I wasn't claiming was that barley was the only reason for change, because this would be as logically absurd as stating with complete authority that barley couldn't make a difference. One would be guilty of the same logical fallacy as David Cox was in defending the antique Macallan's against the arguments of the sceptics like our own Lex. There are a stack of variables that could contribute to any difference between batches from a distillery, as anyone who tasted Bowmore Legend from 1996 and from 2000 would confirm. Different beast altogether. My point was only that I believe the changes to the barley could make a difference. I guess that was why I wrote believe (article of faith) rather than know (scientifically proven). I don't claim to know that barley makes a difference, just that I think it could be a contributing factor.
Davin - There are so many variables here that we are comparing, not apples and pears, but apples and tuna.
I am certain each family of tuna has it's own subtle flavours, just like barley does, but when it is bulk processed and all mashed together in a sandwich who can tell? Same with barley. If Bruichladdich wants to do a small batch of whisky made from organic barley they can, because their business model allows them to make money from 200 or 300 bottles. But the average bottle of whisky comes from many batches of barley, origins unknown, which are distilled into many batches of whisky which are matured in many different casks which are aged for different time periods, which are then vatted to get a certain pre-determined flavour profile. Yes, barley contributes to the flavour and can be the major variable, but on average it is just too expensive and complicated to try to control it. Remember our best Lowland whisky this year was a GRAIN whisky so at least part of the mash bill was made up of something other than barley altogether, and no one suspected it.
As for comparing whiskies of different ages, if your thesis is that mouthfeel comes from the barley used, then age is secondary. If you say aging is the major contributor, then you must use bottles the same age, but then we get into the 'did this change in the bottle' argument so that's not going to work either. Probably best to try many approaches and comparisons before inferring any correlations.
As for collectors maintaining their bottles, we must remember that they were not the only custodians. If the retail stores the bottles lying down, as other report and as I have seen, there is the possibility of dissolving cork flavours (yes Ulf I have tasted a cork - it's not inert). Also, I remember seeing bottles stored in the bright window of a liquor store in Cape Cod and the contents were decidedly lighter in colour than similar bottles on the shelves, but eventually some one will buy them. The truth is you don't know where a bottle has been before you get it and it may not have been in ideal conditions. Alcohol is a very good solvent - perhaps good enough to dissolve flavours out of the wax sealing the collector's bottles. Yes parafilm is super, but so is clingy, self sealing food wrap, and I do use that on some of my bottles that I am saving for retirement.
Mark - As for alcohol's solvent properties, I would agree with Davin's guess that a whisky's alcohol could possibly pull in other flavors, either from the cork, or parafilm, gasses, or whatever other sealing medium employed. There is a certain high-end cheese shop here from whom I will never again buy cheese because the film they use to wrap the cheese reaks to high heaven, leaving the cheddars, brie, and camembert, or cheve whatever, all laced with this heavy chemical odor. The show workers claim to not smell it. Must be my nose, they said. Anyway, yes, parafilms can be pungent.
Davin - Mark, What you are describing is called nasal fatigue. Did I say nasal fatigue?? OLFACTORY FATIGUE, please!!
Our noses have evolved to become unable to smell odours which we live with so they probably really can't smell it. Makes you wonder about the professional noses and what they drink when no one is looking!
Klaus - Acetals, - the first step in the oxidation of alcohols. An interesting topic. According to normal
university level chemistry it is impossible for ethanol to oxidize to acetaldehyd. The energy to activate that reaction is simply too high. It can only happen with tricks like the help of bacteria (wine) or via catalaysis
with copper (whisky, info of Dr. Swan). The reaction might be easier when heavier alcohols are affected. I do not know how acetaldehyd smells ( I am physicist not chemicist), but Michael, a whisky buddy and
chemist, says that it is very characterestic and unique. Maybe the maniacs with experience of how bottle aged malts smell and taste, should try to get get a sampleof acetaldehyde (with a little luck available at a
Don't drink the stuff, - I have heard that it is responsible for a hangover.
For long term storage of bottles I would prefer parafilm, a polyimid by Du Pont also known as Kapton. This polymer is very inert and does not react with ethanol. It is perfect when you use teflon tapeto fix the foil over the neck of the bottle. Other foils like PP, PE, PS or PET are not that stable and can react with the things which want to come out of the whisky bottle.
Davin - I am surprised no one has mentioned bottle aging of eau de vie and other distilled fruit spirits. It seems to me that if eau de vie is deliberately placed in glass bottles to age (albeit with much more porous stoppers) and it is observed to change in the bottle, and these change are perceived to be a good thing, then we should not expect whisky to remain unchanged over time when stored in glass. We could also not be surprised if these changes are also a good thing in whisky, We know that whisky bottles breathe and there have been numerous discussions on numerous whisky boards about how to stop ullage in sealed bottles and how to prevent ullage in bottles that are being stored for 'drink or collect' etc. It seems to be every newbie's first worry - that their bottles will evaporate or change before they can drink them. The difference between whisky and eau de vie are likely fairly small chemically and the observed behavior of one must be at least somewhat predictive of the other.
Charlie - Johannes, Developing our own (international) vocabulary and linking it to colour bands is a BRILLIANT idea!
Fun, but also very useful. I can't yet see it graphically - maybe this is Serge's department - can we break with the wheel?
You will be aware I'm sure that the current 'cardinal aromatic groups', as agreed by the SWRI - 'The Revised Scotch Whisky Flavour Wheel for Industrial Purposes' [see Whisky: Technology, Production and Marketing', p .295] - and note the 'industrial purposes', not 'for consumers' - are: Peaty, Grainy, Grassy, Fruity, Floral, Feints, Woody, Sweet, Stale, Sulphury, Cheesy, Oily.
Maybe this gives us a starting point?
Johannes - Hiya, Charlie & al,
I was indeed aware that something like an 'official' aroma wheel existed but I've never seen it so far. From what I've heard the division of traits didn't match my own experience, though. For example, I've often found oily and nutty to be close together. And indeed, I wasn't sure we would be able to find a complete 'wheel' or 'circle' - so maybe we'll have to split it up into several 'rainbows'? I know this discussion seems to meander aimlessly, but this could be a great project...
- Here is the wheel... I always had trouble with the "Sulphury" part
of this Whisky Flavour wheel......is Sulphury even supposed to be there
in the first place....isn't sulphury an off-note... Just MHO......
Johannes - Aha!!!! Well, that wheel is a bit bogus, isn't it?
It seems to me that the top two descriptors (intensity and complexity) don't
really fit 'logically' with the other items which describe actual scent groups.
An example of trying too hard to stuff reality into a convenient simple model?
Serge - Cool Luc, but that's the basic wheel, exactly.
What would be even cooler would be to come up with the ultimate Malt
maniacs tool, that would address all nuances and that would not only allow
to describe a malt, but also to learn to 'catch' many flavours and aromas.
That will probably lead us to a bit of maltoporn but hey, it should be fun!
Luc - Johannes, another aroma wheel discerns between these twelve scent groups:
Peaty, Grainy, Grassy, Fruity, Floral, Feints, Woody, Sweet, Stale, Sulphury, Cheesy and Oily..
Serge - Charlie, all, I share your enthusiasm about this 'rainbows' project.
I'll try to help on the graphic side if needed (as long as it's not too urgent). The first main issues, I believe, are:
1 - Should we stick with a circular tool, and wouldn't that be too close to Diageo's popular wheel? Could we go 3D-ish?
2 - Should we divide the tool into two (or more) sub-tools, at least nose and palate, maybe also other aspects such as finish and general feeling?
3 - Should we indeed start from scratch or elaborate on the main 'clusters' you mentioned? (SWRI).
4 - Could that be translated into an online tool that would allow either us or the general public to come up with tasting notes (you know, just a few clicks and presto!)
Johannes - Oh YES!
I think this could be an extremely useful enterprise, maybe linked to coming up with a new 'classification' for styles of whisky. And I'd prefer to start from scratch - like I said in an earlier message they tried to stuff reality in too small a box with the current 'wheel'. 3D is a splendid idea, but I guess 2D would be easier...
Serge - Well, for instance, we could try to analyze all tasting notes we have on our website and collect all descriptors we have. It would be cool to keep track of all whiskies each descriptor was related to but that might be too much work. I guess there's some text software somewhere, that would allow us to do this:
- We'd copy and paste all our texts in one (or more) text files.
- The software would list all words and occurrences (so that we get what's common and what's rarer).
- We'd delete anything that's not a descriptor (like 'holly cow!' etc.)
- We'd then have a list of all descriptors we have and an indication of their 'importance'.
- The 10 (or 15, or 20...) most common terms will probably constitute our main 'clusters'.
- We could then decide on what's 'typically nose', 'typically palate' and 'both'. I mean that some aromas can be found on the nose but not on the palate (for instance because we never eat it). Like, say kerosene or incense. Same the other way round: for instance sugar, which is almost odourless I think. That's 'typically palate'. And finally you have 'mixed' aromas and flavours, that you can get both on the nose and the palate, like, say lemon.
- I believe it's going to be rather easy to rank all other descriptors by 'weight'.
Maybe we can have 3 levels (like 1. flowery - 2. flowers from the fields - 3. buttercup)
- Then we'd sort everything so that we can have the closest aromas next to each other (like maybe sulphur, burnt sulphur, sulphured rubber, rubber band, tyre inner tube, new tyre, burnt tyre, hot tarmac, tar... Just an example, we'd have to discuss all that. A long work but an interesting one).
We'd then have all the 'content' we need and we can focus on the tool itself, graphics etc.
So, the first question would be: who's got such a text-analysis software?
Klaus - I always found the aroma wheel in Charlie's book "malt whisky" excellent. There is a copy of it in my little black book for tasting notes in it help a lot when I want to identify a bouquet of different aromas.
Thomas - I used Charlie's tasting wheel as a starting point a few months ago as well as Serge's and other's
tasting sheets to create my own colour coded excel-based tasting template. Too bad it ended up in a mess. It's way from finished, it's mostly in German and partly in English and looks like crap. Oh, well.. So the idea
to create a new tasting tool sounds absolutely fantastic to me.
Whatever I can do to help let me know. BTW, IMO a wheel won't be big (and practical) enough to absorb all the aromas we will probably come up with...
Serge - I'd say the next step would be to find a maniac who's got a text-analysis software that can list all words contained in a huge text plus their occurrences. Like: Peat 389, Sherry 287, Smoke 185, Etc. It's only when we'll have a good idea of the amount of data that we can start to discuss the 'physical' aspect of the tool. (my take). From wheel to forms, squares or mappings, colours, matrices, satellite flow charts... We have many options. I guess we have enough Web wizards to come up with the best solution then. I tried to build a Filemaker 'thing' once, that did write some automated tasting notes. You just had to check boxes and the 'thing' did add random connexion sentences. It did work! (but the results were very basic because I didn't take the time to develop it any further and then I dropped it because it was a 'Mac-only' thing - too bad.)
Johannes - I don't know about specific software, but I found a site that might be useful for text analysis.
The on-line checker at http://textalyser.net seems to check only one page, so I had it check my Little Black Book with notes on +/- 500 malts. Interesting results! Of course, the black book only contains notes until the end of 2003 - my vocabulary will probably have expanded quite a bit since then. However, we can use these 500 malts as a 'test batch' to see how it works.
The most common descriptors on that page were sweet (310), dry (235), sherry (225 - but note that also indications like 'sherry cask' in the description of a bottling are counted here), smoke (188), fruity (183), malty (166), peat (165), sweetness (136), oily (133), bitter (117), woody (109), sherried (97), organics (97), salt (95), fruits (82), wood (80), liquorice (73), spicy (67), sour (64), nutty (63), sweetish (58), toffee (58), fruit (58), smoky (56), peaty (48), spices (47), citrus (47), grainy (47), salty (46), gritty (43), hot (41), dusty (39), pepper (38), oak (37), fresh (35), coffee (34), oil (34), chloride (34), honey (33), menthol (32), creamy (31), flowery (30), winey (29), peppery (28), lemon (28), apples (26), iodine (26), port (25), soap (24), eucalyptus (22), pine (22), sweets (22), chocolate (20), grassy (19), apple (18), watery (18), mint (18) , rum (17), beer (17), medicinal (17), marzipan (16), veggy (16), tobacco (16), leather (16), dust (15), melon (14), bitterness (14), orange (13), etc., etc...
So, the first few issues we'd need to tackle are obvious.
A) First of all, there are many 'synonyms' in the list. For example, I think we can add up peat and peaty. The same goes for smoke and smoky; spices and spicy, etc. If we want to develop a 'system', we may have to develop a vocabulary with a number of 'standard' options. For example, always use 'peaty' instead of 'peat'. B) Secondly, I guess that some descriptors could be used twice or more in the notes for a certain malt; for example, we could find smoke both in the nose and the taste. How do we deal with that? C) Also, there could be 'negatives' in the description. When I would write something like 'not smoky like the younger expressions' the malt would get a hit for the word 'smoky'. D) Another practical problem could be descriptors that use two or more words, like 'string beans' or 'pipe tobacco'. We would get hits for the seperate words, but not the combination. E) Last but not least: I think Serge made an excellent point when he suggested 'levels' like: fruity - apple - granny smith. However, I imagine this would also mean we would have to invent a range of 'standard' descriptors - at least at the higher level(s)...
Davin - Has anyone seen the book Macallan published with each of their whiskies flavour wheel?
Very interesting and very easy to compare whiskies.
Johannes - Oh yes! I don't know if it's the same book, but I got a 'guide to collecting vintage Macallans' from Krishna but they also have the 'spider diagrams'. Unfortunately, they just don't work for me because the arrangement of aroma's doesn't fit my own experience with 'related' aroma's. Maybe I'm alone in this, but it could also be time for an entirely new approach - and maybe an alternative 'wheel' or 'rainbow' for those who feel the same as I do.
Klaus - I think a 3-D solution is to complicated to operate.
Johannes - A malt arome continent! What a brilliant idea, Klaus! I'd personally prefer to make it a country (maltland, perhaps?) but other than that this idea is just perfect; highly original!!!
Ulf - David Wishart came up an interesting
classification, see: www.whiskyclassified.com.
Enclosed is the complete and official Scotch
Whisky Research Institute's 'Pentland Wheel'.
Sorry for the bad resolution...
Charlie - Yes, but this Pentland Wheel has now
been super-ceded by the SWRI Wheel I mentioned
earlier. Also, I would remind you that the Pentland
Wheel was designed for both new make as well as
mature whisky. It caused some embarrassment
when consumers took it up and started looking
for off-notes (feinty, sulphury - oh no! - etc).
Lex - And if you compare the two, you'll see that
they give very different results, despite both being
based on tasting notes and using cluster analysis.
Serge - Thanks Ulf, Wishart's is interesting but
with all the 'deviant' single casks popping around,
it's hard to use it. I think it's fine as long as large
batch OB's are considered, but otherwise I think
it's simplifying things too much. In fact our aim is
more to come up with a very rich, complete and
nicely organized catalogue of aromas and flavours,
that would also get translated into some sort of
tasting tool. With all 24 malt maniacs (with various
backgrounds) having written about whisky on our
site, we should be able to produce something very
accurate and complete – should I say 'ultimate'?
The third step, why not, could be to add explanations
and experiences next to each descriptor. We could do that in 2015 ;-)
But the aim isn't, like Wishart's, to build kind of an iterative buying guide and to 'classify' whiskies – rather the flavours!
Charlie - Love it, Serge!
When David Wishart was putting together his 'Classification' he gathered tasting descriptors from a number of books - including two of my own (published 1992 and 1997). I told him that while his statistical methodology was no doubt sound, the raw material (descriptors) was deeply flawed. I look back at some of my own tasting notes from 10 years ago with embarrassment, as I've no doubt Dave and Martine and Michael Jackson do - not to mention Mr. Murray (actually, he is un-embarrassable!). He got further tasting notes from the producers and in the end produced a better 'clustering' - still not entirely reliable, but a nice idea.
The maniacs come at this with long experience and an international spectrum of words. Our descriptors will be wide and varied, and I love the idea of the nuances of related odours. (Here's another: gorse bushes - dessicated coconut - coconut milk - coconut flesh - macaroon biscuits - Bounty Bars - coconut tanning oil). Fun and useful, as I said at the start of this long correspondence! I am sure we can find a book publisher for it, if you want. On-line, we could invite consumers to add their own descriptors. If someone can come up with software that can weed out descriptors, I would love to dump all my tasting notes from the last 20-odd years into the system! (except that I lost about 10 years worth!)
Once we have assimilated them, we can, as you say, decide on the 'cardinal/primary' aromatic groups; the 'secondary', 'tertiary' and even whakky fourth tier terms. All being 'artistic', rather than 'scientific' - 'hedonic' rather than 'analytical', 'subjective' rather than strictly 'objective' (although I am sure that the chemists among us will be able to explain which chemical groups - phenols, esters, aldehydes, etc - each band of aromas derives from. Weighting is what is used in the spider diagrams (intelligently promoted by David Robertson for Macallan, although a standard tool, I think): on a score of five (or ten, etc) how smoky, how fruity, how floral, etc.
Johannes - Phew!!! Thanks a lot, maniacs...
We may have drifted off topic a bit, but this has been one of our 'meatiest' E-pistles so far.
And it seems we have our work cut out for us.... In fact, this could very well become one of our 'main' projects like the matrix and the monitor... However, given the major overhaul of MM I have planned for this year it might take some time before you'll see the first practical application of our ideas on these pages...
And that's (probably) it for this issue of Malt Maniacs...
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