What gives the whisky its unique taste?
As we’ve covered earlier, whisky is a spirit made from distilling the fermented mash of grains such as wheat, barley, rye and corn. So, it’s basically yeasts, water, and grain mash aged in barrels. But which of these elements has the biggest impact on the final flavour profile? Is it all just about grain type and how long they have been sitting in the barrel? Let's see how some of the best whiskies on the market are produced and what makes their flavour profile special.
Grain is important
Whisky can be made of barley, corn, rye, or a blend of them. The type of grain, the percentage of grains used, and even the variety of grain can influence the resulting flavour of the spirit.
For example, Abasolo El Whisky De Mexico is the first and only corn whisky crafted and distilled from 100% Mexican ancestral corn. It has deep notes of roasted corn, honey, vanilla, black tea, and leather, revealed through nixtamalization, a traditional Mexican cooking technique.
Ragtime Rye Straight Whiskey Bottled in Bond is made with 75% rye, 13% corn and 12% malted barley mash bill. The resulting spirit is bursting with notes of plum, tropical aromas, and warm oak flavour.
Cotswolds whisky is made of locally grown Odyssey barley. Their staple Single Malt whisky has strong notes of tannin-rich malt, oils and dark sugar with lots of spice.
The place where whisky is produced has a huge impact on its taste — the location of the warehouse, water source, and weather conditions develop a unique flavour profile of the final product.
For example, you take whisky from one still and put it into two exactly the same oak barrels. One of them you send to mature to, let's say, Clonakilty distillery, located on the shore of the Atlantic ocean, the warehouse is open to the winds and fresh, salty ocean air. And the other is aged somewhere in Kentucky, with its predominantly warm and sunny weather.
Drastically different climates — exactly same whiskies, exactly same barrels. In the end, you will get two different tasting whiskies because where and how the whiskey is stored plays a role in the flavor. Whiskies stores in warm climates usually age faster than those that are left to mature in cold places.
A lot of people tend to think that 80% of the whisky flavour comes from wood. However, that is not the case for all whiskies. It depends on two factors: the type of the wood and how long the whisky was aged. For example, young, three-year whiskies haven’t that much time to interact with wood, especially if it wasn’t the first fill. So they have less of these oaky and toasty notes in comparison with those that spent 15 or 20 years in barrels.
As for the type of wood, whisky is usually aged in oak barrels. There are two types of oak barrels: American white oak casks and European white oak casks.
American white oak barrels give spirits a touch of coconut or vanilla notes. European white oak on the other hand, develops dried fruit taste in whisky and is more often used to mature wine.
The wood is dried and also can be seasoned by charring it. Charring of the casks helps release vanillins, gives toasty and caramelized notes, and brings colour to the final product.
Often whisky is aged in reused barrels to develop a unique flavour profile. For example, Clonakilty Single Batch Double Oak Finish is aged in ex-bourbon casks, and finished in virgin American oak, and shaved, toasted and re-charred ex-red wine European oak casks (NEOC, New Era of Cask) from the Bordeaux region of France. This whisky is rich in vanilla notes, soft spices, fresh-cut grass, hazelnut and almond notes.
Nc'nean Organic Single Malt Whisky is matured in specially treated red wine and American whiskey barrels to develop the spirit’s signature body and sweetness with warming notes of citrus, apricot and peach followed by slightly peppery kicks.
Cotswolds Founder's Choice Single Malt Whisky is aged shaved, toasted and re-charred American oak red wine casks. When whisky interacts with these barrels, they give Cotswolds Single Malt whisky a rich and intense flavour profile developing toffee, oak and red fruits notes and beautiful, deep amber colour.
Making whisky is a complicated process. Every single step of production: location, water, grain variety, and, of course, the craftsmanship of the distillers — influences the resulting flavour. And within these steps, there is a room for traditions, innovations, and experimenting. Every distillery has a secret weapon and unique methods of producing their water of life.
Now when you know a little bit more about where whisky gets its flavour from, there are a few more reasons to appreciate this unique spirit. Here's to all the best whisky makers on the planet. Cheers!