When writing about whisky, there are times when aromas and flavours are challengingly stubborn to try to describe. They might be a little unformed and unfocussed, they might straddle two or more different aromas and flavours – making honing in tricky. Or they might simply just be ‘funky’. There are a few distillates which are often described as possessing a ‘funk’ about them. In my view, the word is bandied around all too often – usually when the writer is having an moment of inability to adequately describe something. Nevertheless, ‘funk’ can have meaning when defined in context.
Let me bookend this by highlighting the obvious – everyone’s palate is different. But similarly, individuals have a varying aptitude for describing their personal palates. Some can be highly florid – utilising a near human thesaurus of adjectives. Others more primitive, but no less effective. And yet, no matter the capacities and propensities, there are always aromas and flavours which have a certain je ne sais quoi. But, ‘funk’ shouldn’t simply be used to paper over an anomalous tasting note.
To my mind ‘funkiness’ is not necessarily identical across distillate styles. In terms of Ben Nevis, I’d ascribe it to seemingly random notes of cured and cooked meats alongside rancio and an interplay between sweet and sour. A strange combination which when on paper doesn’t sound like it should harmonise, but often, in the case of the liquid itself does.
Where does this funk derive from? I’m not sure you’ll get a definitive answer on that one. But to my mind, a lot of early flavour creation occurs long before maturation, or even distillation. It occurs during fermentation. Ben Nevis is one of very few distilleries utilising brewer’s yeast. This widely considered more characterful yeast ferments slower and less efficiently than distiller’s yeast – hence why, in this age of efficiency it does not see wider adoption. But, its impact on flavour formation has already been studied - check out this 1994 paper.
The short of it – brewer’s yeast resulted in both larger volumes of ethyl esters (carproate, caprylate, caprate and laurate) as well as long-chain fatty acids – both of which assist in the growth of lactic acid bacteria in fermentation. These impact a greater proportion of sweeter ester-driven flavours, but also are attributed to sour, wort-like flavours – quite possiblly, once distillation and maturation have taken place the precursor of the mysterious funk.
The penultimate dram in the 2019 Boutique-y Whisky 2019 Advent calendar offers us our second visit to Ben Nevis (Door 13 – 23 year old Batch 10 being one of our favourites from this year’s calendar). This time we’re presented with 21 year old batch 8 – which has spent its life slumbering in ex-oloroso casks. 931 bottles have been produced at an ABV of 48.9%. They’ll set you back £147.95 from Master of Malt.
Nose: Immediate chocolate gateaux – dense cocoa sponge packed full of dried cherries, raspberries and cranberries, and with a jammy plum preserve running through the middle. Additional richness from sherry trifle sits with cherry brandy, liquorice, chocolate bonbons and walnut oil. Water expresses overt oloroso – alongside Eton mess and rich tea biscuits.
Taste: Fruit-forward. Assorted berries sit with an array of tropicals – blackcurrants, blackberries maraschino cherries and raspberries (all quite jammy) with mango slices and pineapple chunks on top. Chocolate is never far behind – rich, dark and sauce-like. It sits with chopped almonds, cookie dough and polished new leather. Dilution softens things up with unfined brown sugars, a touch of creaminess, whilst fruits start to interplay between sweet and sour.
Finish: Medium to long with yet more chocolate, berry liqueurs and old oak dryness.
Ben Nevis 21 year old Batch 8 is both chocolate and fruit focussed – whilst the oloroso sherry hasn’t dominated the spirit entirely, it has certainly left its mark throughout. It’s rather the chimera – not a full on sherry bomb – not a particular funky little number either. Nevertheless, sitting somewhere in between suits this two-decade old Nevis – it’s really very enjoyable stuff.