A brand-new bottle of an old favourite is purchased. But the excited opening and return to the embrace of familiarity is…wait a minute…is…not as expected. The whisky’s composition is somehow different – and certainly not as remembered. “It must be a newer batch. A less good batch.” “The distillery has gone and lowered its standards. Again.” “No. That’s not it – the bottle just hasn’t been opened long enough, give it a week or two.” “Never judge a whisky by the first dram out - a little air in the neck is what’s required here”. When it comes to comparisons, I’ve heard all of these things, and countless more. But whilst occasionally the diagnosis for divergence has been correct – drinkers are always far too quick to assume that any changes they detect are a result of what’s actually in their bottles.
There are countless reasons for drinks to nose and taste differently. The style and shape of glassware can alter perceptions – directing the liquid across your mouth in a variety of different forms. The ambient temperature that a drink is served at will either reduce expression and mute flavours (one reason why I’ll always detest ‘freezer whiskies’) or, when warmed, send a stronger electrical signal to the brain and result in the perception of enhanced taste. Previous meals can play a significant role in affecting the palate – just try eating something salty and then drinking fresh orange juice. Mmm refreshing. But swap out the salt for toothpaste and you’ll find that the juice is now unpalatably bitter. You’ll likely only try this experiment the once. Then of course there’s our liquid memories – false or fond – moods either downplay the experience of a drink or rekindle a spark of a beautiful experience. Warehouse drams always taste better in warehouses.
But regardless of the wide array of environmental factors that can all affect your tasting experience – especially if you’re not cognisant of them – there’s one more significant reason why whiskies can taste differently over time. And that reason is you.
Your palate is not a fixed point in time. It changes. It develops. It can be trained. And with the onset of age, grey hairs and wrinkles – like the other senses it too also deteriorates.
The average person has 10,000 taste buds at birth. These are gathered together in the papillae (the little bumps) on the tongue and to a lesser degree across the roof of the mouth. Each papilla can have between 1 to 700 buds and each bud contains somewhere in the region of 50-80 specialised cells that work in harmony to identify tastes. These tastes: sweet; salty; bitty; sour and umami (savoury) should not be mixed up with flavour – flavour is more than the five basic categories and also incorporates our olfactory (smell) receptors. An easy example to highlight this distinction would be to eat a strawberry whilst holding your nose – you’ll still detect the taste – sweet – but you’ll find it much more difficult to identify the distinctive flavours that makes it a strawberry.
Our bodies evolve over time to identify the tastes and flavours necessary to provide us with adequate ingestion of a range of foods, drinks and nutrients – and also those that we’d associate with pleasure. But these are far from fixed throughout life – whilst our physiological memory will always retain the knowledge of what foods provide us with enough protein, or sodium etc – our tastes, outside of the essentials for survival are both individual and susceptible to change. The shaping of taste begins in the womb and stems from our genetics – but its development is lifelong and is shaped less by the specific number and physiology of our tastebuds, and much more by our experiences, learning and culture.
The adaption, development and decline in the senses over our lifetimes runs counter to our ongoing experiences. I.E. whilst our tastes change, we’re largely not conscious of this. Our sense memories, particularly for those of us who regularly, repeatedly and systematically taste (80 samples over a morning is still a stretch, let me tell you) works against our changing palates – compensating for differentials in the environment and any lessened abilities to nose out particular nuances. And, the more we taste, the larger the number of samples we experience, the more comparison points we have to conjure up new sense memories.
But bodies change. Fairly quickly too. Every two weeks our taste buds naturally expire and regenerate – similarly to all other cells in our bodies. At around 40 years of age (bugger – past it) this process slows down. Whilst cells continue to die, fewer grow back to replace them. Regardless of age, every time buds expire, our bodies have to use different combinations of activated cells to reorganise the receptors to interpret taste. So, if you’re wondering why all of a sudden you find broccoli tastes fantastic, after years of disliking it – this is quite possibly why. The same is true of whisky – the cells we taste a dram with are simply not the same ones we utilised when we sampled that same whisky last year. Perhaps the batch or recipe has indeed changed – but so too have we.
Of all the whisky tastes that I find ‘difficult’, wine casks are likely at the top of the pile. I’ve mused many times before about enjoying the richness and fruity flavours that wine casks can bring – but at the same time, often finding the over-exposure to tannins and indeed the integration of the precursor liquid with the distillate far from perfectly realised. However, over the past 12-18 months I’ve found myself enjoying a much wider array of wine matured whiskies – some full-term, some finished.
Are distilleries getting better at achieving consistency with their wine maturations? Are the casks they’re using better quality or the styles of distillate they’re selecting to pair with wine more sympathetic to its inherent nature? (I dare say all of these things)…or have my tastes been slowly changing and steadily pushing me inextricably towards becoming a whisky pariah – a wine cask pervert? <shudder>
Last year’s peated 14 year old tawny port finish was one of my favourite whiskies of 2020. 2021’s Glen Scotia Campbeltown Malts Festival release takes a different route – having been crafted from a selection of unpeated distillations that took place between 2009 and 2011. The liquid was initially matured in 1st fill ex-bourbon barrels which were then vatted together before being finished in 1st fill Bordeaux red wine hogsheads for 5 months. The resulting festival release is pleasingly accessibly priced and similarly pleasingly not described as being super limited in order to drive FOMO and demand. 20,000+ bottles (83 wine casks will result in a lot of whisky) at 56.1% ABV have been produced and are available from a selection of retailers for around £50. Currently you’ll find Robbie’s Whisky Merchants have this in stock for £49.99.
Nose: Boisterous berries – redcurrants, raspberries, plums and wild cherries. Developing further broadness over time – oranges, mirabelles and apple turnovers sprinkled with brown sugar, cinnamon and a squeeze of lemon. Running alongside – minerality – part coastal with chalky cliffs, part chef’s seasoning with palpable salt. Spice supports with anise, cloves and fresh red chilli pepper sitting with cider apples and salted caramel. A great nose. Reduction gives further prominence to the berry fruit by offering rich, sugary jams and preserves – alongside ginger ale, floral honey and brandy snap biscuits.
Taste: First up – an animated compote of red and black currants and berries – together with slap of saccharine sweetness. Then, a thwack from the underlying strength of the spirit – alcohol prickle and a greasy/oil chilli heat. Following all this up is an unexpected combination of earthiness with alluvial clays moving steadily into gravel and limestone before overt salinity comes to the fore. Vanilla is expressed alongside coffee grounds before drying, tannic oak once again delivers more berry fruit sweetness, alongside cracked leather. Dilution provides a far more controlled and evened-out experience with the fruitiness of the Bordeaux wine casks allowed to sparkle outside of the grip of biting oak – crushed fresh redcurrants alongside plum preserves.
Finish: Medium and favouring spices – ginger, pepper and anise with a final pinch of salt.
This year’s Glen Scotia Campbeltown Malts Festival is exceedingly thought-provoking. Whilst I (perhaps reassuredly?!) still find the wine cask integration a little awkward and overly drying at times – its interplay with the distillate is fascinating throughout. An expressive and exceptionally lovely nose is followed by a detailed palate that brings the liveliness of the wine cask berry fruit to bear on a spirit that is still very much the beating heart of the whisky. Scotia minerality pushes through consistently and provides an effervescent fizziness as a counter to both the sweetness and the prominent oak influence. If you’re generally adverse to wine casks, this is unlikely to convince you otherwise – but if you're already a card holding wine cask pervert, I'd imagine this would be a slam-dunk of a purchase for you. Eitherway, there's admirable complexity here - for less than £50.
With thanks to Brian (@MaltMusings) for the sample