Dark spirits are much more complex than those that are clear and with long ageing in wooden casks Scotch whisky is the most complex of them all. In order to be classified as Scotch whisky, the spirit must remain in an oak cask for at least three years. However, it is rare to see bottled whisky that has spent less than 10 years maturing in oak, as such a period gives it time to develop its complex character and to smooth out some of the more abrupt elements.
The importance of the cask
Prior to being placed into casks, the newly distilled spirit is clear, so all the colour you see in the dram you pour is gleaned entirely from the wood. Not only do the casks impart colour, they also impart much of the flavour, constantly interacting with the spirit - adding compounds from the wood while filtering out tannins from the spirit. The older the wooden casks, the more exhausted they become, losing their ability to interact. Therefore, spirit that is placed in an older cask can generally stay there longer before reaching the vital cut-off point when it reaches its maximum potential. By this we mean the time when it is at its most complex, without being over-dominated by a woody taste.
Interestingly, the Scotch whisky industry also insists on using “second hand” casks, that is to say casks that have already been used to mature a previous alcoholic liquid. Call them canny in using second hand casks, but the real benefit is that the wood has had a chance to mellow, enabling the whisky to remain longer in the cask. The majority of casks tend to have held either Bourbon or sherry, although casks that have held other spirits and wines are also used from time to time. Naturally, the cask’s former contents also influence the maturing spirit and generally darker, more reddish whiskies have matured in ex-sherry casks. The sherry is also detectable in the taste of the whisky.
In some cases, the sherry becomes the dominant flavour attribute, while whisky matured in ex-Bourbon casks tend to reveal a greater flavour profile. Maturation in ex-rum and wine casks imparts different characteristics and so an ongoing programme of experimentation is carried out by many of the more enterprising distillers.
However, cask life is not quite so straight forward, as some distillers implement “cask finishing” programmes. After a period of maturation in one cask the whisky is transferred to a cask which previously held a different wine or spirit, in order to impart additional flavour attributes. This usually results in a more complex spirit, so is sometimes used to impart more life to whisky which has initially been matured in somewhat ‘bland’ casks.
While casks and wood policy may appear rather academic and superfluous, they are vital to Scotch whisky’s complexity, resulting in a truly varied range of styles. Understanding and appreciating this process is important to appreciating what is in the glass. There are other factors that affect the flavour of whisky but they are for another time.
While there are plenty of ‘do’s and don’ts’ surrounding how to drink whisky, there is also the view that it doesn’t matter how you drink your whisky as long as you enjoy it. However, as with most things there are times when it makes sense to follow the convention, resulting in a better experience.
The perfect whisky glass
Sipping a whisky from a conventional flat-based crystal tumbler gives a real feeling of opulence and luxury, enhancing the experience and creating a sense of occasion. At the other end of the spectrum is the nosing glass, similar in appearance to a small white wine glass or sherry glass. Nosing glasses are, as the name suggests, designed with a large emphasis on smelling the whisky. Since a great deal of pleasure can be attained from “nosing” whisky, one is often being short-changed by merely drinking it. When smelling a whisky, at first your sensory system is being attuned and you will often detect different element to those you will taste. Nosing glasses are relatively narrow and have a bowl-like base with a tulip-shaped mouth. This allows the liquid to be swirled around in the base of the glass, releasing the aromas which are then held within the body of the vessel and gradually channelled up to the rim. Although ideal for sampling a new bottle, they are not the most convenient of glasses and are best for more serious tastings.
My preferred is a cross between the two: one that is wider than the nosing glass, although not necessarily as wide as the conventional tumbler, and one that also has a bowl-shaped base which curves in toward the rim, then tapers back out again. These glasses still allow the liquids to be swirled around and retain the aromas but are easier to drink from. Although similar to brandy glasses without the stem, they crucially do not converge in so sharply at the rim, allowing the whisky greater opportunity to breathe.
Just like a good red wine, whisky benefits considerably by having a chance to breathe and my guidance is to allow a minute for each year the whisky has matured. So a 10 year old whisky ought to be given 10 minutes, while a 40 year old whisky really needs 40 minutes or more. This breathing time give the whisky the opportunity to interact with the vapours in the air and to open up fully. This is particularly noticeable in older whisky.
There really is no hard and fast rule here and it comes down to personal preference as to how much, if any, water is added. However, in adding just a single drop or maybe two of water, the interaction breaks the molecular structure of the whisky, opening it up and helping to release its full character. Too much water and the flavour may be drowned out. As not all whisky is bottled at the same strength, and some are bottled at cask strength, the amount of water to add is really about trial and error.
Ice and temperature
Whisky can be enjoyed cold and even with ice; however, in cooling down the spirit, the flavours are suppressed, which is surely a waste of a well-matured whisky. Alternatively, holding the base of the glass as with brandy to accelerate and accentuate the heating process can also be counter-productive, causing the flavours to be released too early. Therefore, room temperature is the ideal.
Now all you need to do is find a good dram, sit back, relax, unwind and take your mind of the day.
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