Production

Something fishy or a salt on the senses?

Ian Wisniewski explores the phenomenon of marine characteristics and asks why we can taste the sea when we drink some malts
By Ian Wisniewski
The flavours we find in malts are inevitably a personal matter, reflecting the individuality of our palates, though the question of marine characteristics in malts is an increasingly public, and controversial debate.Variously manifested as briny, sea breeze, seaweed, iodine, sea spray, and salty lemon notes, marine characteristics have been identified in various island and coastal malts, by numerous master distillers, specialist retailers, writers and devotees. A couple of evocative tasting notes I recently heard are: ‘like eating fish and chips at the end of Oban pier,’ and ‘stepping off the plane at Islay airport.’Typically grouped under the heading of ‘salty,’ references to ‘salt’ or ‘saltiness’ in this article are used for ease of reference. This doesn’t indicate the type of flavours that result from adding salt to food, but the characteristics associated with saltiness.Explaining how marine character develops in malt whisky has, traditionally, been a straightforward process. The influence of sea air, breathed in by the casks during maturation, received all the credit. That’s certainly one aspect to consider, but it doesn’t cover all the possibilities.Water can pick up various characteristics en route to the distillery, including peatiness, but which particular notes water may contribute to the resulting flavour of a malt is uncertain. Studying separate production cycles using different water sources would help to quantify this, but it’s hardly going to happen.Even if water does acquire any saltiness from peat, the level would be insufficient to ‘season’ the barley. Nor would any possible saltiness within process water (used during steeping or mashing) survive distillation.Similarly, if any phenolic characteristics from process water make it through the stills, the influence would be minimal compared to flavours resulting from the malt, peat (if used), yeast and distillation regime. However, it is unknown whether, or how, any possible marine character picked up by process water may influence new make spirit.As marine character tends to be associated with peated malts, an initial consideration is whether peat can contribute to, or even create this flavour profile. That in turn depends on which characteristics the peat has to offer, raising the question of where it is cut.Coastal and inland peat certainly have individual characteristics, which yield a varying range of phenolic compounds.Even the same peat bog can show significant variations in character, reflecting different concentrations of plant material, rainfall and history.Inland peat typically features higher levels of forestation and bracken, including Scotch pine, roots, heather and spagnum moss. Closer to the coast a higher level of sand creates a looser texture, with coastal peat bogs, particularly on the west coast, also characterised by seaweed.Islay peat comprises pine trees, grasses, bog myrtle, heather and mosses, a significant level of seaweed and sea spray influences, with sand contributing additional saltiness (being historic ‘ocean sand’). The result is a lightly oily peat with iodine, medicinal, salty and even tarry notes. How influential this element of ‘terroir’ is in the resulting new make spirit depends on who you ask (particularly as peating levels reduce during production, typically by 10-40 per cent).“We made a conscious decision last year to source local peat, and it’s made a difference to the new make spirit compared to using Tomintoul peat,” says Frank McHardy, Springbank’s distillery manager.“We’re on the eastern side so prevailing winds from the west bring salt and sea air across the peat fields.”A possible ‘peat theory’ also benefits from the fact that the new make spirit of peated malts can reflect particular characteristics found within peat.“Our new make spirit is quite sweet, floral and peaty,” says Highland Park’s Russell Anderson.“But there are very subtle notes that the team picks up and sometimes write down as ‘salty.’ It’s very subtle and catches you at the back of the throat.”Dr Nicholas Morgan of Classic Malts adds, “You can certainly taste marine character in Talisker new make spirit.”However, this is hardly a uniform experience. Some peated malts that show marine character in maturity, don’t show it in the stillhouse.“I don’t pick up anything in Springbank’s new make spirit to suggest salt is getting in,” says Frank McHardy. Ardbeg’s distillery manager Stuart Thomson concurs.“There aren’t any salty, sea spray notes in Ardbeg’s new make spirit,”he says. This also raises the pertinent question of whether unpeated and very lightly peated malts such as Old Pulteney and Bunnahabhain, show any marine character at all prior to maturation.“There’s nothing there in the new make spirit, though you’d certainly find it in our 12 year old,” says Fred Sinclair, Old Pulteney’s distillery manager. John MacLellan. Bunnahabhain’s distillery manager follows suit: “I always find the new make spirit to be more floral, bluebells and meadow flowers.However, the sea character is in the finished product.” Meanwhile, another possibility to consider is that marine character may be present in the
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.