The phrase Extreme Tasting isn’t quite what one associates with the relatively calm and benign world of spirits. In fact, maybe it is easier to say what extreme tasting isn’t. It’s not concerned with tasting in dangerous situations for starters. Neither is it simply about being someone who has tasted huge volumes. The fact that you have tasted 1,000 or 10,000 whiskies is no great import. Extreme tasting is concerned with a deep investigation into the inner life of spirits, finding a way in which to try and begin to understand the intricate workings of a brand, a distillery, a blend, a style. That might mean tasting 100 samples, it might mean tasting 10.
It’s clear that you can only begin to understand spirits through flavour, but identifying aromas is easy. My nine-year-old daughter can tell me that a whisky smells of vanilla and peaches and spice. What is important in any tasting, extreme or not, is knowing what these aromas and tastes mean and why they are there. This approach takes in production, history, cask influence, climate and all the other elements which make up that whisky’s personality. Maybe it should be called deep tasting not extreme.
It’s not about enjoyment either. It is analytical, intellectual, a world which is alien to whisky lovers but the norm for the professional extreme tasters such as distillers and blenders whose daily job it is to be think about whisky in a deep way. Their tasting abilities lie behind the whiskies which we all enjoy. This series is an entry into their world. They are the heroes.
My first exposure to this world came at the start of my writing career. I was the new features editor of a drinks trade weekly and had decided that, since few retailers bothered to train their staff, that we could help to do it through an ongoing series of educational articles. The start of a series on whisky led me to West Nile Street in Glasgow where Robertson & Baxter was located.
I entered into a world of dark wooden panels, deep sinks, marble-topped counters and bottles crowding every surface. Two white-coated men were there, nosing, writing, murmuring to each other. This clearly wasn’t the usual distillery visit. This looked like work.
I was introduced to the white-coated men, Alan Reid and John Ramsay, and explained the outline of the piece: “to find out what a blender does.” Alan Reid looked at me, frowned slightly as if to say “we’ve got a right one here,” and led me to a bench with five glasses on it. “OK,” he says. “Tell me what these are.”
They were clear. I had no experience of new make, little experience of whisky to be honest. There were no clues given. I hazarded a few guesses: region?Different distilleries? “Think about it,” said Alan. I nosed again. There were similarities, but they were still all distinct from each other.
“Correct. What one?”
I went in again, flummoxed.
“I’ll put you out of your misery,” he said. “North British, Monday to Friday last week.”
“But they’re all different,” I blurted out.
“Exactly. That’s why John and I are here. Now, let’s get started.”
I returned to that lab, and others like it, during the next two decades and every time learned a little more. Each visit also only demonstrated another layer of the intricacies of the blenders’ job.
Neither has extreme tasting been limited to whisky. I’ve been through Armagnac and Cognac, rum as well. My first experience of going deep into the last started with a vertical of vintages of rhum agricole from three producers: Clement, JM and Bally which demonstrated how there are clear vintage variations in the apparently constant climatic conditions of the Caribbean. This was followed by an immersion in the 14 ‘marks’ of rum made at Guyana’s extraordinary Diamond Distillery, giving me both a glimpse of the differences between its collection of stills and an opening up of the possibilities open to its blenders.
Thus emboldened, I paid a visit to E&A Scheer in Amsterdam, the world’s largest rum broker and one which has been blending since the late 18th century. You name the rum style, it is in Carsten Vlierboom’s lab. I was trying to get my head around the nature of high-ester rum so I was wondering if Carsten could help me.
Trying to discover about high ester rum production in Jamaica had become the stuff of high farce. No-one wanted to talk about it and once I had winkled out some of the details of the process I could see why. Distillers, not surprisingly, want any visitor to see the best side of their plant and high ester rum-making is not pleasant, starting with an ultra-long ferment of up to 14 days to produce a highly acidic wash. The fermenter is filled with molasses, cane juice, fruit and, vitally, spent wash which has been left to putrefy in ‘mock pits’ in the ground. It too is highly acidic.
This wash is then distilled in pot stills, sometimes redistilled to concentrate the esters still further. “It’s like making a good bouillon,” said Carsten, “though it looks and smells horrible! Still, even if you like sausages, would you want to go to a sausage factory?”
He proceeded to line up 14 glasses of new distillate, all from Jamaica, each with a different ester concentration. We started at the comfortable level (measured as being ‘10 esters’), all coconut and light sweet fruit.
Doubling the esters brought out more banana, multiplying them by 10 brought out pear drops and a hint of molasses.
On to the ‘Wedderburn’ styles (350 to 400 esters) where pineapples begin to emerge, alongside acetone and a distinct note of gloss paint. We kept on moving up the scale and by the time we had hit the 1000 ester mark things were becoming frankly unpleasant, think paint stripper and solvent. The famous DOK mark from the Hampden distillery (1600 esters) almost blew my head off with its pungent hit of paint, leather, vegetation and the artificial pineapple note that’s contained in chlorine. There were others, a 1600 from New Yarmouth which smelled of industrial glue on a linoleum floor and rotting vegetation, and one at the same level from Long Pond that was more akin to model glue.
Nose buzzing, I asked Carsten why on earth anyone would want to make such a extreme spirit and what use it might have? “Tobacco flavouring, patisserie use,” he answered, “and blending. Watch.” He took a dribble of the DOK and added 20 times as much water. “Now smell.” The chlorine had gone and out came the most beautiful fresh pineapple aroma. “They’re like Islay malts,” he explained. “A little drop in a blend gives a real aromatic lift and palate weight.” Another extreme lesson learned.
The most recent encounter with the extreme world came in the writing of my new book (he said shamelessly) a World Atlas of Whisky which looks at whisky not just by location, but also by individual flavour. Think of it as an examination of each individual distillery’s DNA.
I believe that we have missed out a vital part of flavour creation. All our tastings are done once the whisky has spent 10, 12 and 17 years in cask. To really understand a single malt whisky, I’d argue, you have to taste the new make. Then can you understand what the distillery is producing and from there extrapolate what happens to this character through its long involved conversation with oak.
So, I tasted every new make from every distillery in Scotland and became obsessed with them: the way that sulphur, deliberately created in some new makes, acts as a marker for the desired flavours which lurk underneath sometimes for 12 years; of how grassiness manifests itself in different ways; of the different natures of phenols; where fruitiness, waxiness or spiciness came from. How malty can mean either skeletal and dusty or the aroma of pot ale and soap; the way that different facets of the new make at Macallan (scene of many an extreme session with Bob Dalgarno) are either enhanced or suppressed, depending on what type of oak the spirit is aged in.
These investigations took me back to blending labs: to an enlightening session with Inver House’s Stuart Harvey, where he gave me a deep class on sulphur; of Brian Kinsman with the new spirits from Ailsa Bay and an autopsy of the components within Balvenie and Glenfiddich; of sessions with the Diageo team, or Bill Lumsden and back to West Nile Street, or rather to the lab which was taken, at John Ramsay’s insistence, from the old premises and reassembled in Edrington’s new Great Western Road plant. There I found Gordon Motion, surrounded by bottles pushing glasses at me, asking “what is it?” Another lesson in the deep thinking behind whisky is about to start. Join me on the journey.