new make spirit of various malts, but it is temporarily masked by the whisky’s other characteristics. When maturing spirit first begins to show marine character isn’t easy to chart. That’s partly because various distilleries don’t routinely sample casks until several years after filling.“Generally we wouldn’t look at a cask until it’s five to six years old, and the sea character is evident then,” says John MacLellan. A similar schedule applies to other Islay malts.“I probably start to pick up a minimal influence after four to five years,” says Stuart Thomson, while Allied Distillers’ master blender Robert Hicks adds: “With Laphroaig it’s about five years of aging before the ozone note starts to come through.” Frank McHardy’s experience is that,“we start to pick up salt in spirit aged between 10-15 years.”During that time casks aged in island and coastal locations do of course experience a distinctive microclimate.“You can smell seaweed in the air and there is a slightly dank atmosphere in the warehouses, so you feel the impression of salt,” says Laphroaig’s Robin Shields.Visual indications of the ‘salt effect’ are a high degree of rust, with cask hoops replaced at a far greater rate than their inland counterparts.Frank McHardy has a similar view: “Glass windows in the aging warehouses need regular cleaning in winter because of a build-up of salt in the air.”The real question is, what actual influence does this have on the maturing spirit ? Can sea air create marine character, or does it consolidate marine notes already present in the spirit, which may have been instigated by peating ?“I think sea air helps to enhance the seaweed, ozone character, particularly in the cask strength Laphroaig,” says Robin Shields.. “We talk about saltiness but is there enough absorption during maturation to achieve this ?“I think you’ve got to have something there to start off with and to be enhanced, but I haven’t had the chance to study the chemistry of this yet.”Meanwhile, another way to try and quantify the influence of sea air, and its relationship with peating, is to look at a lightly peated malt such as Bunnahabhain, or unpeated example such as Scapa.“There’s an essence of the sea in Bunnahabhain, more ozone than salt. At the peak it’s part of the main flavour profile. I think it has to be the sea air,” says John MacLellan. Robert Hicks concurs.“Some people have said there’s a trace of salt in Scapa, and a slight ozone taste. Scapa is unpeated, but matured on a cliff-side overlooking Scapa flow, so I can only think it comes from the air.”So, if we’re back to the original theory that sea air can create marine character, then this air needs a closer inspection. While salt isn’t volatile (meaning it can’t evaporate and travel as vapour), salt dissolved in water can be carried as fine droplets in the air, ie. within a ‘liquid’ format.However, the extent to which ‘liquid salt’ may penetrate casks, and how influential this may be, is unknown. One school of thought states it’s unlikely that sea air carries flavour influence directly into the cask, and that if sea air does impart an influence it’s a subtle one.Sea air may, nevertheless, be influential regardless of the salt question. Volatile chemicals that provide ‘sea breeze’ odours within the air, such as the aroma of seaweed, may be able to penetrate the cask.Quantifying this potential influence would of course be a major development. But for that we’ll have to wait.Another way to try and quantify the influence of sea air, is by comparing the same malts aged in different locations.“Saying it doesn’t make a difference where a malt is aged is disingenuous, but I can’t show you scientific proof, yet,” says Bruichladdich’s Mark Reynier. “There is a difference between Bruichladdich aged on the mainland and on the island, on the basis of taste perception. There wasn’t nearly the same level of marine character.”Since Murray McDavid acquired Bruichladdich in 2000, the entire inventory has been Islay-aged, which involved repatriating some stocks the previous owners had consigned to the mainland.“We mature some Laphroaig on the mainland, but that’s earmarked for blends,” adds Robert Hicks. “Stock aged on the mainland still has the iodine flavour, but it’s a gentler version. I’m happy using that in blends as I want something softer.”Meanwhile, alternative warehouse locations for the same malt needn’t preclude maritime influences. “We can’t physically store all Lagavulin on site. On the mainland most Lagavulin is stored at Blackgrange, beside the Firth of Forth, and so warehoused in a maritime microclimate,” says Nicholas Morgan.Another aspect to consider is how marine character evolves during maturation.Longer aging, for example, enables casks to breathe in sea air over an extended period.But this doesn’t result in a more pronounced marine character.“Up to 12-14 years it’s there, 16-17 years onwards it generally starts to dissapear and cask extractives start to take over the seaside character,” says John MacLellan.Michael Heads, master distiller at Isle of Jura continues this theme.“You don’t really pick up saltiness in the 21 year old, maybe because the wood influence is getting stronger,” he says.In fact, the influence of oak plays a significant role in the evolution, or rather visibility, of marine character.“Maturation can take things out and allow maritime character to shine through, which may be masked in the new make spirit, and become more apparent after three to five years. I think it’s wood taking things out, rather than the marine element adding,” says Nicholas Morgan.Another factor is that bourbon barrels show marine character more clearly than sherry casks (which contribute richer flavours). Correspondingly, a third fill American oak barrel promotes marine character more clearly than a first fill.Consequently, the influence of the cask may be a significant catalyst, initially unmasking marine character by removing ‘immaturity’ from the new make spirit, before masking it again as the level of wood extractives rises.So, where does that leave the debate? The essential question is actually a combination of questions: quantifying the role that peat plays in creating marine character; the influence of sea air in creating or enhancing existing marine character, and the role of oak aging in unmasking and masking marine character.With various opinions on each element of the debate, the only conclusion is that there is no consensus.And in the absence of any scientific decrees, we’ll have to keep exchanging views, and keep an open mind, in order to take the whole debate further.