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Whisky Flavour: A Fullproof Guide

For many, whisky is associated with a smoky, medicinal, burning flavour that is only palatable by an older, rotund, cigar smoking population. This is an outdated misconception as the reality is that many diverse groups are discovering that whisky has many different flavours that are created throughout the malting, distillation, maturation and finishing processes to create a spirit so diverse and complex that you could get lost.

This guide aims to give you a brief overview of the many flavours found in whisky and where they come from, so you can start to sniff them out of your next dram.

The great thing about tasting whisky, is that your senses are personal to you; all the smells and tastes you discover are your own, so you can never be wrong. We try to help you identify some of these key characteristics, but leave plenty of room for personal interpretation, so use this purely as a guide and not as gospel.

To Peat, or not to Peat...

For too many people their first and lasting experience with whisky is an Islay (eye-la), which are typically oily, peated whiskies that can often come across as very smoky or medicinal. Back in the day, peat was the most abundant source of fuel for fires and was therefore used in all whisky production. With improved supply routes and access to other materials, this changed and it is now Islay that is synonymous with peated whisky. When kilning the malted Barley, it is the type of fuel for the fire that determines whether you have a peated or non-peated whisky. The phenols from the peat smoke will attach themselves to the wet barley, with the type of peat, the peating regime and the length of exposure all impacting the PPM (parts per million) of phenols that are on the barley. There are various phenolics that can all contribute to varying flavours in the final distillate, including peat, smoke, meat and spice.

Some distilleries are playing with the use of Peat and instead of using peated barley, they will use an ex-Islay cask to mature or finish their whisky, imparting some wonderful smokiness to the whisky without overpowering it. If you are newer to whisky or not a current peated whisky fan, we would definitely recommend you start here.

I Need a Little Time...

Fermentation is the next key stage of the process where different flavours can be imparted on the spirit. Yeast is added to the Wort (the sugary liquid made of water and ground barley), which metabolises the sugars to release ethanol (alcohol). This usually takes around 48 hours, but many distilleries now ferment for over 90 hours, which relies on bacteria and wild yeasts that are in the mixture; a process known as secondary fermentation. This longer fermentation time is helping distilleries to create a much sweeter and fruiter spirit.

Copper Contact

The distillation phase is all about copper contact; with the liquid being heated in a copper still, turning in to a vapour, then cooling and condensing back to a liquid. This is a purification process, with the copper helping to clean the spirit and remove the harsher esthers (flavours). There are different types of stills (Pot or continuous column), there are different shapes (Plain, Ball, Lantern) and varying features, such as neck length and Lyne arm angle that all contribute to the amount of reflux (the number of times the spirit turns to vapour and condenses back to liquid). Understanding the 'mouth-feel' of the whisky can help to explain this part of the process; with more reflux and greater copper contact resulting in a lighter and more refined spirit. Inversely, lower levels of reflux and therefore reduced copper contact, produces a heavier, denser and oilier spirit.

The Stills at M&H Distillery in Tel Aviv, Israel

Making The Cut

The final part of the distillation process is where the master distiller uses their skills and experience to capture the heart of the spirit that contains all the flavours they have worked to create during the entire process. The early part of the spirit, the foreshots, contain unpleasant flavours and are dangerous. The later part of the spirit, the faints, are heavy, oily and also not desirable. The Head or Heart of the spirit is what the master distiller wants to capture and it is this sprit that will then be matured and becomes whisky.

Time To Grow Up

The new make spirit that is created through the distillation process will have captured the key characteristics desired by the master distiller, but it now needs to mature; sitting in wood for 3-years to become a whisky. It is this time in wood that adds desirable flavours and removes unwanted ones and allows the spirit to interact with its environment. The size of the cask, type of wood, previous inhabitant and number of previous uses of the cask, along with the type of storage facility and its surrounding geography and climate can all impact on how much the spirit and the wood interact. Distilleries are also finishing whiskies; using one type of cask to mature the whisky, then using another type for around 6-18 months to provide extra flavours, or a different finish.

American Oak barrels impart notes of vanilla, toffee, honey, spice and nuts, whilst European Oak will add flavours of caramel, wood, dried fruits and spice.

The casks previous inhabitant will be leeched in to the spirit and impart flavours, the more common ones are listed below:

  • Bourbon - Vanilla, cream and caramel

  • Port - Dried fruit, sweet and spice

  • Sherry - dark fruits, sweet spice and nuts

  • Wine - Citrus and tropical fruits, tannins and sweetness

Cask Storage for maturing whisky

New World of Whisky Recommendations

Below are some of our favourite whiskies that demonstrate the characteristics created during the whisky-making process, as set out in this post, which we definitely recommend you try:

Peated Whisky - Mackmyra Svensk Rok

Soft Smoke Whisky - M&H Elements Peated Cask

Long Fermentation Whisky - Lindores Single Malt Whisky

Light and Fruity whisky - Starward Left-field

Bourbon Cask - The Cardrona Growing Wings Single Cask Release - Old Forester

Port Cask - The Lakes The One Ports Cask Finish

Sherry Cask - The Lakes Whiskymakers Reserve No.5

Wine Cask - Starward Fortis

STR Cask - Filey Bay STR Finish


The Flavour Nest

Hopefully, you can now appreciate there are many flavours in whisky that are all created during the entire whisky-making process. It is a lot and we are simple people, so have created the Flavour Nest to group whiskies under their key characteristics and act as a guide in our journey of discovery. Every whisky on The Whisky Nest will have a profile and for a full description of each flavour profile check out our Flavour Nest Post.

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