A salt on the senses

Can you taste salt in whisky? Many say of course you can, but the suggestion incenses others. Peter Woodsputs the case against
By Peter Woods
Scotch malt whisky has come a long way in the past 25 years, and not just in the all-important aspect of availability. Educated drinkers now have access to a wealth of words about the history, manufacture and appreciation of whisky. No other spirit can match it for sheer quantity and quality. Sadly though, in the sea of information there are seductive but treacherous tides of misinformation. The most invidious of these is the bizarre concept that whisky can taste salty.The first use of ‘salty’ as a descriptor was in the Harrod’s Book of Whisky, a supplement to Decanter Magazine in 1978. The tasting team coined the phrase “Manzanilla of the North” for Old Pulteney, because it reminded them of allegedly salty manzanilla sherry, and was attributed to the use of sherry casks for maturation. Prior to 1978 no writer seems to have detected salt in any whisky.That is hardly surprising, as distillation is one of the best desalination techniques there is.However, in the mid-1980s, Michael Jackson cottoned on to the ‘Manzanilla of the North’ concept, but he attributed saltiness to the influence of the sea, and rapidly applied the descriptor to whiskies from every distillery within spitting distance of a high tide.No one dared gainsay the master, and now it is de rigueur to accredit saltiness to a distillery’s product if one can get even a fleeting glimpse of a Caledonian MacBrayne from the top of the pagoda.Flavour is the combination of aroma, mouth-feel and taste, and salt is one of the five basic tastes detected by receptors located mainly on the tongue.The chemical sense of taste is our sustenance survival kit. Bitter and sour tastes signal the poisonous and inedible; energy comes from metabolising sweet-tasting sugars, while the savoury taste recognises amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. Sodium ions trigger the salt taste, for common salt is a vital component of our body chemistry.Aroma is a more sensitive and diverse chemical sense, with no simple array of basic odours for us to call on. In fact, our nose can discriminate among many thousands of different aromas. This makes it difficult for us to identify odours precisely, yet perversely, aroma readily evokes memories and images of past experiences.I can forgive anyone for associating the reek of a Kildalton malt with the sea. One deep phenolic blast and there we are by the ebbing tide, with its rotting seaweed and gull-shattered shellfish.But then to say the liquid is salty is an attack on the precision of the English language, and unforgivable.But is whisky demonstrably unsalty? People’s sensitivity to salt varies, but as a rough guide, we can just about detect salt at sodium (Na) concentrations of 160 milligrams per litre (mg/L) of water.Last year, scientists at the University of Aberdeen published analyses of the metal contents of 31 malt whiskies. They ranged from 3 to 23 mg/L of sodium – neatly within the range of bottled pure Scottish spring waters.The most Na-rich of the whiskies? Glenfarclas – and I’ll bet it has been a while since storms threw tangle over its warehouses! No, you can forget those myths about the environment insinuating its salty tang into the casks. The littoral damp oozing through earthen floors, the wind-whipped spume on the peaty moors. So much romantic twaddle!You would need to pour five litres of pure sea water into a hoggie to raise the salt to even a barely detectable level.The neurophysiology of salt taste is well understood; sodium is the principal trigger. I once suggested to a flavour scientist that something in whisky might stand in for salt.If that is correct, he said, you’d need to identify this compound. If it is non-toxic, salty tasting and does not contain sodium, you will be a multimillionaire in no time, and save lives to boot.Even if malt distillation and oak cask maturation did produce such a chemical, it would be common to all whiskies, not just those from distilleries with a sea view.I wish I knew what Michael, Charlie and the others were on about. It is my impression that the salty current flowing through modern whisky literature is the consequence of romantic but totally misguided imagery.