Describing flavour

Pip Hills penetrates the smokescreen surrounding the complexities of tasting, flavour and how to describe them in a way we can all understand …
By Pip Hills
Let’s begin by looking at wine. These days, lots of supermarket bottles carry a detailed description of the flavour of the wine on a back label. You may have noticed that the taste of the wine seldom, if ever, resembles this elegant description. When that happens, there are two possibilities: either you’re just not very good at tasting and miss what is obvious to the more educated palate of whoever wrote the notes on the label, or the description is wrong. If it’s the latter, then either the writers are simply mistaken or they are lying to make a sale. The big question is: how do you, as consumer, tell which is the correct explanation?We have a similar problem regarding whisky. Labels with tasting notes are not as common as they are in the wine industry, but in so far as the advertising of whisky appeals to rational self-interest it does so by implying the excellence of the flavour of the spirit. When companies offer us very old or rare whiskies, or whiskies matured in fish barrels, there is an implication that their wares taste better than the younger, more common whiskies, or those which aren’t fishy. Why else ask us to pay more? It’s difficult for the consumer to tell who is serious and who is not, or which firm is straight and which is, shall we say, misled by the extravagance of its own hyperbole. Price alone is no guide. As Dave Broom recently pointed out in his column (Whisky Magazine, Issue 18), the vogue for collecting whiskies has created a hiatus between price and utility which takes the whole thing into the realm of nonsense.Of course, you could always buy a bottle of every whisky. As a way of finding out which whiskies are good value for money, that’s expensive (negating any value-for-money discoveries you might make), given the proliferation of special bottlings. And not particularly reliable, for unless you have some very reliable way of describing and organising your preferences, you’re likely to end up with an information overload. A cellar book is useful, but only with a rational method of assessing and recording your perceptions.Now, you may ask: “Does it matter? So long as everyone enjoys themselves and the traders make a buck?” If that were all, there would indeed be no problem. But remember that if we are to continue to get really good whisky, then the distillers must continue to make the stuff and the customers to buy it. It’s with this last that we have a problem. For long-term continuity (which whisky needs above any other spirit) there must be consumers who value the stuff because of its intrinsic quality. If whisky is bought solely because it’s fashionable, then it will fall from grace as soon as a more appealing trend comes along. If you think this can’t happen to whisky, think again. Look at what has happened to brandy: the only spirit which compares with whisky in terms of quality is in long-term decline.So what do we do? It may be that we can rely on the combined wisdom of the Scotch whisky distillers, or rather, of the conglomerate corporations which own most of them. But I doubt it. The institutional investors who dominate the stock market typically require a rising share value. Add that to the fact that the tenure of the typical executive of a big conglomerate is much shorter than that of the people who used to run the industry and you get an institutional structure which is inimical to the kind of long strategy on which we depend for good whisky. Don’t forget, when a distiller offers very old, good, expensive whisky, it is not the outcome of prudent policy on the part of the distiller. Quite the opposite: good old whiskies often exist only because nobody cared about them enough to bottle them young. There are a few exceptions to this rule, but very few!There seems to be only one way to cut through this thicket in a way which benefits both consumer and producer. That is, by providing some objective, reliable and generally-agreed criterion by which whisky may be judged. We value any liquor for two main reasons: it gets us drunk and it tastes nice. We have a perfectly objective criterion of the former: the percentage of alcohol. It’s the latter which is not so easy. Let’s propose a solution …For some time now, I’ve been working on a book which is to be published in 2002 as The Scotch Whisky Directory. The idea is simple: provide an objective and accurate assessment of the flavour of all of the principal branded whiskies. It sounds easy when you say it that way. I will pass over the matter of getting samples of the whiskies, save to say that everyone has been most helpful, except for one very large corporation which shall remain un-named, at least for now. The serious problem is the objective and accurate part.As regards objectivity, I reckoned that if I were to do it, all you would get is my opinions, for what they’re worth. So I asked five whisky industry professionals, generally acknowledged as among the best in the business. All, I’m happy to say, agreed to do it, though they might not have, had they realised how much work was involved! Then there was the question of what criteria they would use to judge the whiskies. Those of you who have read Appreciating Whisky will recall that the book lists the principal flavour components to be found in a Scotch whisky. That list has now been refined: by far the greatest part of the flavour of a whisky can be allocated to one of the following categories. The terms listed in our flavour components column (see right of page) are intended only as examples and are unfortunately not exhaustive.Each of the tasters has rated over 300 whiskies according to the presence of these flavours, on a scale of one to 10. It’s a huge job, involving around 24,000 pieces of data. Once the data has been analysed statistically, we will have an adjusted mean of the judgements of the whole group – which is about as near to an objective and authoritative judgement of the flavour of a whisky as anyone is likely to achieve.Then there’s the question of how the information is presented. Although some will simply want the numbers, most people will prefer a more easily-digested format. I propose to do as follows. The flavour concentrations of each whisky are presented in the form of a bar chart, with the flavours arranged along the bottom (or ‘x axis’) and the strength of each flavour shown by the height of the bar. The shape of the chart depends on the positions of the flavours, so I have arranged them in three groups. The first group contains the flavours which most people like: fruity, floral, vanilla, caramel and nutty. The second group comprises flavours which may or may not be pleasing, depending on individual taste and on the concentration of the flavours. These are, respectively, sweet, sour, smoky, cereal, aldehydic, sulphurous, resinous and woody. There is no order of preference in either group. The last group contains the soapy and musty aromas which are, alas, found in whisky which is not as good as it could be.The bar chart of a fine Highland malt would show as follows: very high bars at the beginning, with low bars in the middle flavours and none at all at the end. To give you an idea of how these graphs work, three are included here for three very well-known and widely respected whiskies: Ardbeg 17-year-old, Cutty Sark and The Macallan 10-year-old.I should emphasise that the bar charts mentioned above are based solely upon my own judgements and therefore may not be assumed to be either accurate or impartial, but I hope they illustrate my points clearly. Flavour componentsFruity
Apples, pears, bananasFloral
Heather, rose, geraniums, violetsVanilla
Toffee, vanilla podsCaramel
Toffee, burnt sugar,treacleNutty
Coconut, almond, hazelSweet
Sugary, cloying, sicklySour
Vinegar, cheeseSmoky
Peaty, phenolic, medicinal, fishyCereal
Hay, grass, porridgeAldehydic
Grassy, leafySulphurous
Rubber, drains, asafoetidaResinous
Newly-sawn timber, resin, pine.Woody
Tannic, bitterSoapy
Candles, waxMusty
Cellars, cork, mothballsHarsh
Bitter, astringent