There’s nothing shameful or embarrassing about having to admit you have no idea what you just tasted after sipping on a mouthful of whisky. If the only thought that ran through your mind was, “oh damn, it burns”, that’s perfectly understandable. Whisky profiles and flavours can be incomprehensible to the novice tongue.
It’s not hard to see why decoding whisky tastes may come off as an intimidating task considering how palates are so unique and individualised. And for most beginners, whisky might just taste like plain ol’ alcohol to them.
But contrary to that, did you know that whisky has multiple aromas and flavours that can measure up to that of a confection? To get you started and accustomed, here are six main flavours that are commonly found in most whiskies. We’ll guide you on how to identify them to see which one fancies your liking the most.
Whiskies with a woody profile have the ability to transport your mind to the later decades of the 1900s. Think sipping a dram by the fire as warm autumn leaves fall romantically outside while Frank Sinatra plays in the background. It’s an unlikely scene in Malaysia, but you get the idea.
Woody flavours are pretty self-explanatory. You can expect to taste hints of rustic wood, earthy spices, dark roast coffee, cigars, and surprisingly, pencil shavings too. Granted, pencil shavings do not exactly scream appetising, but you actually might find yourself developing an acquired preference for that rich, oaky flavour.
Some casks are even charred to unlock more flavours and season the wood. Different degrees of charring will result in significantly different flavours. As charing affects the levels of oak lactones in the wood, the released compounds give off a wooded or coconut flavour.
When someone remarks that a certain whisky profile tastes fruity, the first thought that pops into your head might be, “wait, what?” There might be some confusion as you try to imagine how a sharp spirit can share the same flavour note as a fruit punch.
Despite your initial disbelief, you’d be pleased to discover that drinking whisky can be a refreshing gastronomical experience, too.
Fruity whiskies get their flavour from their casks during the maturation process. There are a lot more nuances, factors, and determinants that come into play to truly explain how a whisky obtains its flavour, but most fruity profiles are the result of two attributes.
The first is derived from the leftover compounds of a cask that was previously used to mature sweeter spirits such as sherry, bourbon, and wine. The second comes from the ester—a group of compounds that forms during the fermentation process where yeast converts glucose to ethanol.
The result is a plethora of delectable fruity profiles from the likes of rich tropical fruits such as mangoes, apricots, and bananas, crisp and fresh apples and pears, refreshing citruses, and even dried fruits inclusive of raisins, prunes, and dates.
Whisky may come off as a strong, commanding spirit, but its floral profile proves that whisky has a demure side—brewed and crafted with elegance and seduction.
Akin to a fruity profile, whisky with floral flavours might sound downright contradictory and preposterous to some, but floral whisky is more than just the feminine notes. Sure, you’ll find subtle tastes of perfume, carnation, lavender, coconut, rosewater, honey, vanilla, and the like, but there are also inklings of crisp green leaves, fir trees, roasted pine nuts, herbs, and sage.
Perfect for a cocktail concoction or as an aperitif, floral whiskies are sophisticated and delicate spirits with a subtle fragrance that may take some time to emerge and discern.
Unlike woody profiles where the flavours develop from the casks, floral notes transpire during the distillation process. The beta-damascenone and phenylethyl alcohol—compounds which are commonly found in roses—materialise during distillation and contribute to a whisky’s floral aroma.
No, we’re not talking about cornflakes. The word cereal in the whisky profile vocab actually encapsulates a range of flavours that go beyond the grainy realm.
As whisky is primarily produced from grains—with barley, rye, wheat, and corn being the main sources—it’s a prerequisite for cereal to be a common note as it’s widely found in most whiskies.
Over the years of extensive experimenting, other grains have come into the picture. Through that, whisky-makers learned that the type of grain plays a significant role in influencing the final flavour of the whisky.
A recommended method to induce the cereal aroma includes adding a few drops of water into your dram and leaving it for a couple of minutes. When you return to it, you’re likely able to sniff out a subtle hay flavour.
Taking on a savoury taste, whiskies with cereal profiles can come off tasting like porridge, malted milk, bran, whole wheat bread, and fresh hay.
Malaysians are no stranger to the spicy sensation. After all, we do love our nasi lemak sambal, chilli pan mee, and various curries to dip our roti canai into. But the spicy definition differs slightly in terms of whisky profiles.
When whisky drinkers describe a dram as spicy, they usually mean that they can taste distinctive, sharp spices such as cinnamon, cloves, star anise, nutmeg, pepper, and the like; not so much a burning spice
Spicy flavours can be attributed to the outermost charred and toasted layers of oak casks. Intense, aromatic compounds are released as the oak decomposes during seasoning and when heat is applied to it.
The length of fermentation also plays a part in creating the spicy profile. Fermentation that only takes place for less than two days is said to create a nutty, spicy flavour in the spirit after distillation.
For the best spicy whisky drinking experience, pause for a few seconds after taking a sip to let the spices slowly emerge on the palate.
Peaty is not a flavour adjective we normally use to describe or review food, but when it comes to the world of whisky, peaty has racked up a pretty brazen reputation of its own. Some love it with a resounding hell yes, some hate it, some just love to hate it.
Peaty is essentially a smoky or burned taste that accompanies well, peated whisky. Used as a fuel source for drying barley during the malting process, peat is a type of soil that’s made up of partially decayed vegetable matter.
The higher the amount of peat used to malt the barley, the smokier the whisky will be. When peat smoke gets absorbed into the grains, it creates a musty flavour in the liquid as a result.
It’s hard to fathom a smoky beverage, but a few anecdotes used to describe the taste include pipe tobacco, barbecued meat, candied bacon, charcoal, and to the credit of some highly descriptive whisky drinkers: gear oil, diesel smoke, tar and ash, and even hospital—whatever that could mean.
It will definitely take some time to get accustomed to the peaty flavour, as it won’t start off as everyone’s dram of whisky. But once you do, you might find yourself strangely loving it and longing to have that sharpness trickling down your throat again. It’s like getting tattoos or going back to an ex—painful, but pleasurable.
What does your choice of whisky flavour say about you?
Absolutely nothing! Some of these whisky profiles and flavours are easily discernible, others take a little bit more time and practice to identify.
It all comes down to your personal enjoyment though, so don’t get too worked up if you can’t seem to differentiate the tastes or if you don’t enjoy a particular flavour that other whisky enthusiasts seem to be raving about.
After all, there’s no steadfast rule on how you should like your whisky, and there are different types of whiskies available, so we say to each his own.
If this is your first time drinking whisky, we wrote a beginner’s guide to help you sip it right. So, why not hop on over, and we’ll see you on the other page!