There are few maps. When many people begin their journey of appreciating single malt whisky, there are plenty of guidebooks, but very little that describes the terrain of whisky in terms of taste and aromas. What should you look for in a dram?
If you described the aromas of a particular whisky to a friend, you may consider them to be legitimate notes - a milking parlour in late summer, a classic Speysider, my mother's kitchen at Christmas. But what do memories and metaphors mean to others? And how effective is it to communicate taste by region alone when there are many unique distilleries, variants or finishes out there and available?
These are the kinds of problems that the Whisky Magazine Tasting Wheel directly addresses. [View it in high resolution here.] It originally came to life through Charles MacLean, former editor of this publication and inductee number 37 to our Hall of Fame. It provides formalised tasting notes in an accessible manner - a common language that enthusiasts can use to describe the various compounds found in whisky and that arise out of production.
The wheel was not a wholly new concept. The Pentlands Scotch Whisky Research, now known as the Scotch Whisky Research Institute, created the first wheel in 1978. Purely aimed at the industry, it evaluated new-make spirit as well as single malt whisky, and also included 'off-notes'.
In 1992 Charles attended a sensory course run by Pentlands and encountered that wheel. "I set out to simplify it and make it more accessible to consumers," Charles adds. "But it is important to remember that the descriptors are for guidance only: smell is closely related to memory and personal experience. No two noses respond in precisely the same way to an odour. I would encourage devotees to re-invent their own wheels!"
The sectors of the wheel are based on two sections: flavours that arise during fermentation and distillation (1-6), and flavours from maturation (7-8).
Aromas from the malted barley, which are usually modified by the later stages of production (fermentation and distillation).
2. Fruity (or estery)
Desirable sweet, fragrant, fruity, solvent-like scents from fermentation and distillation.
3. Floral (or aldehydic)
Leafy, grassy or hay-like scents, sometimes like Parma Violets or gorse bushes.
4. Peaty (or phenolic)
Almost all phenols are imparted to the malt during kilning. The scents are famously abundant in Islay malts and range from wood-smoke to tar, iodine to carbolic.
Feints come in halfway through the spirit run, beginning as biscuity, toasted scents, then through tobacco-like and honeyed to sweaty. Feints are mellowed and transformed by maturation in good casks.
6. Sulphury (from organosulphur compounds)
Arise during distillation and maturation. Copper plays a crucial role in removing such aromas, which can be considered unpleasant.
The vanilla related aromas in this group derive from American white oak. Some aromas are directly related to age. Oak increases complexity, enhances fragrance and delicacy, lends colour and develops roundness.
8. Winey (or extractives)
If the cask has previously been filled with wine (mainly sherry, but sometimes others), the wood absorbs wine residues, which are extracted by the spirit and become part of its flavour.