Separated by a common language

Separated by a common language

Heather is director of education for the Flatiron Whisky School

Thoughts from... | 26 Apr 2013 | Issue 111 | By Heather Greene

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Recently, the Flatiron Room Whiskey School hosted a dynamic master blender from a well-known Scottish distillery to showcase an array of his new tasty expressions. "On this whisky, please notice the lush notes of Christmas Cake and spice," he announced while wafting one of the drams delicately under his nose. I scanned the whisky-curious crowd eagerly for confused brows over mention of a Christmas-specific cake. You see, there is no such thing for most of us here in the United States. I spent a good deal of time in the UK sleuthing-out this mysterious Christmas Cake off-season in 2005, and eventually found one presented in a tin. I knew that to understand the comparison between this dessert, ahem, pudding, and a whisky note, I needed to find out for myself what the fuss was all about. So did this crowd. After noticing a few puzzled looks among my fellow countrymen, I chimed in, "Does anyone here know what Christmas Cake is?" Radio Silence. Cake to most Americans means a baked flour-and-egg-based concoction offered up in a chocolate or vanilla flavour and slathered in thick pink or blue gooey frosting. Often, "Happy Birthday!" is written messily across the top, with a few finger marks swiped somewhere along the side, indicating a stolen lick. Naturally, the idea of an elegant whisky being compared to cake of any kind brings forth this sort of image. My advice to any British whisky educator wanting to use the adjective "Christmas Cake" when referring to a whisky note is to provide a show-and tell photo of that brown and round thing we've seen you serve on holiday television specials once or twice. But be prepared: our excitement for it will soon pass. We love our sickly sweet and brightly coloured birthday cakes. While we're on the topic of British adjectives with regards to whisky, can we talk about pear drops? Pear drops are far more rare than the elusive Christmas Cake. In fact, I'm going out on Naturally, the idea of an elegant whisky being compared to cake brings forth this image a limb to say that there is not one single store in the United States that sells pear drops. When we trick-or-treat for Halloween, not once in the history of this odd practice has a pear drop been dropped into a plastic pumpkin. Quite frankly, when I first spotted a package of them at the corner store where I lived in Edinburgh, they looked just as foreign as they sounded. Pears? In candy form? But what does that mean? I popped one into my mouth and I am still confused. I guess you could say it is a sweet and slightly acidic sort of sucking candy akin to a lemon drop. Except it's not lemon, it's pear. Sort of. In the UK where I honed my whisky nosing and tasting skills, even the word "sweet" threw me for a loop. It was very often used to identify whisky that might have a pronounced sherry note. I couldn't for the life of me taste sherry as sweet. It just went on tasting like sherry to me. But certainly not sweet like Skittles (google it) or maple sugar. Even the Scotch Whisky Association flavour wheel indicates sherry as being "sweet." Scottish brand ambassadors hosting events as well as many marketing materials also identify sherry influenced whiskies as sweet, too. But sherry-influenced Scotches are often perceived here as much "dryer" when compared to whiskies that have a higher percentage Bourbon barrel maturation. If you were to put a sherry influenced whisky next to an American Bourbon, the Bourbon sweet-factor would be off the charts. I've even had many patrons mistake that sherry note for peat, they've experienced neither, so how would they know? Who drinks sherry? Now when a customer asks for a recommendation for a "sweet" Scotch, I will most likely start with something with less sherry-influence. The reverse is a case for dryness, ask for a drier Scotch and I'll most likely reach for the sherry cask matured bottle. Now you know what we expect of when we hear the word cake (yum), pear drops (what?) sweet (pure sugar) and sherry (nothing). We're all on the same page. So when you come visit me and ask me to find you a Christmas Cake-y whisky with hints of pear drops and a sherry sweetness, I will serve you a Coke, just for fun. Oh, and please send some Pear Drops courtesy to Whisky Magazine by October 31.
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