Whiskey Made from Apples? Roses?
Some time ago at a social gathering, someone asked me if I had tasted a particular whiskey. I said I had not and then he encouraged me to seek it out. He said, “It is really good, and it's distilled from apples.” After a moment’s pause, while I tried to find a friendly and polite way to correct his thinking, I said, “I thought all whiskey was distilled from grain.” He quickly pointed out that this whiskey was not, and he knew this because he had listened to an expert who could tell just by nosing the glass that the whiskey was made from apples. He even went further to specify “green apples.” Well, I let this slide, preferring instead to let him be content in his enjoyment of the beverage regardless whence it was birthed.
I have been asked as well, on several occasions, “when do distillers infuse their whiskey with spices, fruits or other aromatic components?" The simple answer is they do this only after the basic spirit has been distilled. American whiskey is distilled from grain, pure and simple. Corn, rye, barley, wheat, and other grains form the basis for whiskey making. They are joined by water and yeast as the only things that may be added to the mix--no apples, pears, bananas, etc.
OK, a fair question then is, “Why do whiskey experts nose a glass and say they get an aroma of vanilla, coconut, pine, lavender or even a campfire?” The answer can be found back in your high school chemistry class.
Consider your favorite variety of rose. It has a distinct smell produced by volatile molecules dispersed from the blossom. Some of us can tell a specific rose variety, others just know it is a rose. That smell is there because a distinct group of atoms have come together to form a molecular compound with that aroma. If one of the atoms is carbon then the compound becomes an “organic” compound (OK, now I'm just showing off about the only thing I remember from high school chemistry).
Hang with me, though--my point is that things smell the way they do because of their chemical makeup. And the atoms that combine and give us, say, a rose smell also might come together in whiskey to form a similar aroma. So, when my friend heard "green apples," his instructor was really saying that aroma compounds with the scent of green apples also were present in the whiskey being tasted--NOT actual apples (or roses).
In tasting sessions, some participants may nose a glass of whiskey and say they smell something floral or possibly dried fruit; or just starting out, some participants often may not be able to put a name to the aromas they smell. All good and normal.
In the top of the nasal cavity we have a group of smell receptors called olfactory nerves. The olfactory nerves signal the brain and, based on what scent impressions already are in our brains from past experiences, we make a connection that, for instance, says “Hey man, you're smelling hazelnuts.” Now if you're from New England, where I am told they roast hazelnuts all the time, you might immediately conjure up memories of, “Roasting hazelnuts over an open fire.” You make that connection and feel rather proud of yourself—and you should because you're on your way to becoming a skilled noser. I, on the other hand, have never smelled roasting hazelnuts, so I cannot possibly articulate something I have never experienced. I might not be able to name the aroma, or I may describe it differently based on a similar flavor or aroma that I had experienced.
I've been sounding very absolute and proper about whiskey ingredients, but there is another way to impart flavors to whiskeys, and that is how the whiskey is matured or "finished" in barrels. Additional tastes and scents can be imparted to the spirit by storing it in barrels or casks that have absorbed flavorful components from previous uses, such as casks used to store wine or sherry.
I recall sitting in the Bunnahabhain distillery in Scotland and being served a 13-year-old single-malt scotch finished in a Pedro Ximénez wine cask. It was absolutely delicious and immediately brought to mind visions of warm Christmas cake with raisins and figs.
Such finishing or second maturation in special casks is not a minor factor. David Wishart, in his Whisky Classified: Choosing Single Malts by Flavour (2014) notes that such processing has come to the fore over the last 20 years, to such an extent that:
The cask is king, and it has by far the greatest influence on the character of single malts today; contributing up to 80 per cent of the resulting flavor of the whisky. (p.6)
His focus is on Scotch and Irish single-malts, but in compiling the Guidebook to Whiskey and Other Distilled Spirits in Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming, we similarly found craft distillers—including Downslope Distilling (p. 106), Golden Moon Distillery (p. 108) and Stranahan's (p. 126)—finishing their malt whiskeys in wine and sherry casks for added flavors and complexity.
So, questions about where the flavors come from are important. The basic lesson, however, is that whatever their source, enjoying the aromas and flavor complexities in whiskey is a very personal experience based on an individual's life experiences. The good news is that our ability to recognize aromas and flavors in whiskey can be improved with practice. The more scents and tastes that we can reliably associate with favorite foods and other known sources, the easier it is to recognize and savor them in different whiskeys. Just do not expect to find bits of green apples floating in your tipple. If you do, you're not drinking whiskey.
By the way, does anyone know what marzipan smells like?
“Keep the wind to your back and a smile on your face.”
Howell F. Wright