The tasting of whisky is about much more than just a collection of aromas on the nose and flavours on the palate (all of which will vary greatly from person to person). The texture of a whisky also has an important role to play. When we sample whisky (or anything else for that matter) we often think in terms of the five basic tastes – sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami – some of us, might even consider these in a particular order. However, it is likely that the first assessment that our brains will make before judging specific tastes will actually be mouthfeel.
Taste receptors in around the mouth and particularly on the tongue assess not just flavour, but also weight and texture – in short – how the whisky actually feels. As with taste itself, there’s a broad spectrum of options here – and these too will vary greatly between individuals. But, as a simplification, we might be considering texture along the lines of differentiating between thin and watery all the way through to thick and oily. There are many potential stops on the way – creamy, silky, viscous, and in some cases waxy.
The factors that determine this texture, and our perception of it are varied, but start with your own palates. If you drink a glass of water and then immediately move onto a whisky – you’ll find that pretty much any dram has a greater sense of texture and weight than the water. Likewise, actual mouth contact will make a big difference to your experience – try a little experiment:
In virtually all cases, no matter which whisky you’ve chosen, you’ll notice different sensations within the mouth and assessments of its texture based around which of these three tasting options you’ve chosen. N.B. I’d personally recommend option 3 as much as possible as the best method of allowing your mouth to extract the greatest experience from your whisky – in terms of both mouthfeel, and of flavour.
Beyond our own sense of texture (and how we approach the tasting experience), the actual viscosity of a whisky is, unsurprisingly determined by the processes employed to create it – volumes of vanillins, glycerol and polysaccharides (to name but a few) will all contribute to the physical differences that you’ll be able to detect in your mouth. These contributing compounds are not all equal, and likewise not all equally prevalent in a particular distillate from a particular distillery. Some of them are derived from the extraction processes which occur during maturation rather than distillation – as such, an identical initial spirit is going to have a different texture and mouthfeel when sampled at 10, 20 and 30 years of age. Likewise, cask type will have a significant influence on mouthfeel – it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that maturation in an ex-wine cask is going to impart some degree of tannins (from both the wine and wood) into a whisky – this too will affect the eventual mouthfeel of the final liquid.
Today’s review is of a whisky that I found to have a particularly excellent mouthfeel – a 20 year old Benrinnes from Elixir Distillers ‘The Single Malts of Scotland’ range. This one has been drawn from a single hogshead (#9057) which produced 281 bottles. It’s delivered at 51.1% and, despite being bottled back in August of 2016, is surprisingly still available via The Whisky Exchange for a shy over £90.
Nose: Bright and fresh with pronounced stone fruits (tinned apricots especially), honey, beeswax and a healthy drop of furniture polish. There’s a mixture of garden-fresh aromas – daffodils, pansies, fresh cotton alongside some greenhouse notes – both fruits and vegetables (oranges and citrus, with carrots). Underpinning is maltiness – toasted cereals with some touches of dried hay. The addition of water really enhances the floralness of this whisky – more cut flowers and touches of herbal tea infusions.
Taste: A lovely arrival with some real textural qualities – oily, almost waxy. Gummy bears lead off – sticky and a little saccharine – these quickly transform on the palate into more expansive juicy fruit – oranges and apricots with touches of lemons and limes. Deeper, there is maltiness (more pronounced than on the nose), dusty dunnage floors and some well-judged pepperiness. In the back palate, the fruits gradually sour and bring with them ginger and clove. Reduced, there’s still some texture here – fattiness becomes more syrupy like tinned fruit salad. Alongside, marzipan and oily wood.
Finish: Quite long, with dusty spices – particularly pepper.
This Benrinnes is a bit of a find having missed it first time around – honestly, I’m surprised it’s still available as it’s a high quality drop. There’s a lovely weight to the liquid which makes for a particularly good mouthfeel. When you add in some bright and crisp florals and fruits and a good sense of both age and maturity, you’re onto a real winner. Tasty ex-bourbon maturation done well – recommended.