Navigating The Nuances Of Scotch
How to really taste Scotch and decode its finer details
BALLnROLL.com
Navigating the nuances of Scotch—whether you’re a beginner or an intermediate drinker—is tough, especially if you don’t know what you’re looking for. To help, we enlisted Beth Havers, a whisky expert from the fine folks over at the Glenfiddich and Balvenie distilleries, to show us how to isolate the individual flavour profiles of her favourite whiskies by pairing them with the perfect foods—not to mention how to use the rest of your senses to decode the dram’s finer details. Read on, and soon you’ll be appreciating notes of vanilla, cinnamon and stewed apples like the pros.
 
 

Flavour Profile: Fruity
Scotch: Glenfiddich 12-year-old
Where it gets its flavour: “The predominant notes are notes of pear, a touch of vanilla and a little bit of spice. That pear note that you’re finding is something that’s developed through our distillation process, and as it develops as we age in the barrels, it turns into different types of fruit from a pear note into a baked apple and so on.”
Food pairings to isolate the fruity notes: “When thinking about Scotch and food, it can really pair with the vast majority of types of flavours. But something that would go with really nicely to start your evening off is a canape. A toasted crostini with Brie cheese and a slice of pear would be a beautiful compliment to the Glenfiddich 12-year-old.”
Why it works: “The saltiness of the cheese will really contrast the sweetness of the whisky, so you’re balancing the two flavours. You’re also complementing them by adding the flavour that your tasting as well, the slice of fresh pear.”

 
 
Flavour Profile: Spicy
Scotch: Glenfiddich 18-year-old
Where it gets its flavour: “70 per cent of [flavours] come from the wood. We use old sherry and bourbon barrels for our whiskies, and add other barrels for finishing purposes. As we age longer, you create a lot more depth of character. Something more robust would be the Glenfiddich 18. You use the same types of barrels to age the 12 and the 18, but those additional six years in the bourbon barrels and sherry has really mellowed the flavours. The taste profile becomes something more hearty… it has more robust, spicy notes of apple and that cinnamon-type spice.”
Food pairings to isolate the spicy notes: “This would be your red wine of whisky, your Cabernet Sauvignon. You could pair it with a nice beef tenderloin, or lamb; those kind of things really pair nicely with the Glenfiddich 18-year-old.”
Why it works: “It’s really quite different than the last whisky—the 12-year-old is bright and lively and really fresh, and this is a mellow, more robust kind of flavour that can stand against bigger, bolder tastes in your meal such as savoury red meat and hearty vegetables.”

 
 
Flavour Profile: Floral
Scotch: Balvenie 12-year-old Single Barrel
Where it gets its flavour: “What we’re about to launch in Canada is the Balvenie 12-year-old Single Barrel, which is already available in the US. What that means is it’s whisky that comes from one single cask, not a number of casks. It’s all done in bourbon barrels, that’s it. After 12 years, it is left with a really nice, light floral note, and after being done in just the bourbon barrels, it also has a lot of vanilla notes as well. It becomes more on the fresh and lively part of the spectrum.”
Food pairings to isolate the floral notes: “Those floral notes would really complement something almost honied—it would pair quite nicely with a lighter dessert, not something like a deep, heavy chocolate cake, like along the lines of [a creme fraiche with rose syrup] or a creme brulee.”
Why it works: “The creaminess of a creme brulee specifically would pair very well with the Balvenie 12-year-old Single Barrel, because it would complement the vanilla and floral notes that you’re getting with this whisky [without overpowering them].”

 
 
Flavour Profile: Smoky
Scotch: Glenfiddich 15-year-old Distillery Edition
Where it gets its flavour: “The Distillery Edition is unique to our portfolio because it has a higher alcohol by volume, it’s released at 51 per cent. We use two different types of barrels to age it, the bourbon and also the sherry. However, it doesn’t go through a certain process called chill filtration. It’s the way whisky was made 125 years ago when we first opened our distillery. That effect leaves you with that more smoky type of note; it’s not a smoke from the peat, but it’s smoke from the actual wood—smoky, slightly leathery, [it’s] more pronounced than the fruit.”
Food pairings to isolate the smoky notes: “It would really stand up to something like a blue cheese and fig salad, or something [similarly] smokey as well. A smoked salmon would especially pair well with this. It’s [also] very interesting to see what happens to it when you add a little bit of water, how those flavours change.”
Why it works: “As a slightly stronger type of whisky, it can stand up to any blue type of cheese, such as Blue Stilton, unlike the earlier Glenfiddich 15, which might need a lighter dessert.”

 
 
Flavour Profile: Sweet
Scotch: Glenfiddich 15-year-old Solera Reserve
Where it gets its flavour: “The Glenfiddich 15-year-old Solera Reserve, we only use three types of oak barrels to age it: bourbon, sherry and new oak. You’re getting a lot of vanilla flavours from the bourbon and you’re getting some fruit flavours from the sherry, and then you’re also incorporating spice from the new oak.”
Food pairings to isolate the smoky notes: “All those flavours meld together, and the taste profile is very sweet. We’ve partnered with a chocolate truffle make in Toronto called Stubbe Chocolate and Pastry, and they’ve made this gorgeous truffle incorporating this whisky. If you were doing something on your own and wanted something to pair with it, dark chocolate, a molten lava chocolate cake or typically anything on the dark side of the chocolate spectrum (over 70 per cent cocoa) would pair very well.”
Why it works: “Something sweet—but not too sweet—complements the whisky without overpowering it, raising the underlying sweet and spicy fruit, honey and sherry notes in the Scotch.”

 
 
Flavour Profile: Woody
Scotch: Balvenie 12-year-old Doublewood
Where it gets its flavour: “The 12-year-old Doublewood we age using two different types of barrels—bourbon and Oloroso sherry. First, we age it in bourbon for 12 years, and then switch that entire production over into casks that previously held Oloroso sherry, where we just allow it for a finishing period [of] about nine months. What we want to do is give it just a kiss of those sherry notes without becoming overly sherried, because sherry has a more powerful effect on whiskies than a bourbon barrel does. With the balance of those two, you’re getting lots of sweetness from the sherry and fruit components, which are complemented by the vanilla from the bourbon, and oakiness on the nose, because it has spent so much time in oak.”
Food pairings to isolate the woody notes: “For this one, you can definitely add water, just a drop often does change that nose significantly and open it up. You could pair it really nicely with any course of your meal, but this would be a good whisky paired with gorgonzola stuffed dates, or even prosciutto and melon.”
Why it works: “The Doublewood is really versatile, and you could pair it with oftentimes just with a dessert due to the sweet sherry and vanilla bourbon influences, but adding something salty or savoury can contrast the sweeter side while emphasizing its smokier notes as well.”

 
 
Flavour Profile: Winey
Scotch: Balvenie 21-year-old PortWood
Where it gets its flavour: “It’s aged first in bourbon for 21 years, and finished in port casks. Port casks to be used in whisky distilleries, they’re very, very large, and once we get them at the distillery, they’re often quite old. They’ve been in port production for 20 plus years, so they're really rich in flavour. We leave it in for about six months to get those really nice port notes, like fruit flavours, kissed upon the whisky. It’s extremely elegant, and after 21 years the flavours are so mellow.”
Food pairings to isolate the woody notes: “This would pair really well with a beef tenderloin, or a main course like filet mignon.”
Why it works: “It acts much like a wine due to its heaviness, meaning it can stand up to bigger flavours. Rather than a fresher grape profile, it would be more of a raisin or fortified wine taste, with a little bit of spice, nuts and honey that are subtly added.”

 
Photo: tienvijftien/Creative Commons

How to decode the finer details
Nosing: Nosing means taking a whiff, but Havers recommends not sticking your nose right into the glass. Whisky is typically made with a high alcohol by volume, to the tune of 40 to 46 per cent, so hold it about an inch away from your nose, leaving your mouth ajar, and take a deep breath through the nose. Alcohol will initially get in the way, but underneath, pay attention to notes belonging to the flavour profiles we’ve just covered. Start at identifying the more basic categories: vanilla, fruit and so on. Then, try to identify the notes, seeing if you can nose out the nuances of pear, apple, stewed fruit and more.

Colour: Colour can tell you a lot about where a whisky has been. A golden or straw hue usually comes from bourbon barrels, not unlike those Glenfiddich and Balvenie use in their production. That golden hue gets deeper over the years, giving you an idea of the Scotch’s age. Sherry casks will lend the Scotch a red colour that gets picked up by the whisky very quickly, and its redness also gets richer with age. However, if you added a few drops of distilled water to your dram and it suddenly turns cloudy, don’t worry—you didn’t break it. Whiskies with an ABV over 46 per cent that are not chill-filtered often become murky or oily as they interact with water.

Viscosity: As a rule of thumb, the older a whisky, the creamier and richer it feels on your palette. It helps you tell its age right off the bat, especially in blind tastings. However, the effect has been mimicked by younger whiskies, so don’t go by age when you’re choosing a favourite—find the one you enjoy.

Label: As both a new or intermediate whisky drinker, you might look at seemingly more commercial labels such as Johnnie Walker Blue, Highland Park or The Macallan and dismiss them in lieu of hard-to-pronounce labels such as Auchentoshan. Havers assured us that high quantity doesn’t necessarily mean low quality—so get out there, and try a few out uninhibited.
Posted on Dec 2, 2013




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