Nearly all of the taste of whisky comes from its contact with oak casks. Though every whisky has its peak maturation point, the general rule is: younger whisky has more distillery character, older whisky more cask influence. There is, however, much more to it than that.
The perceptions of fruity flavours differ slightly around the world, but can often be split into four areas; tropical fruits such as mango and banana, orchard fruits such as apples and pears, citrus fruits such as grapefruit and lime, and dried fruits such as raisins and dates.
To some, smoky flavours all taste the same. To others, smoky flavours can be split into two different areas; fresh woody flavours, and more earthy flavours such as peat smoke, dark roast coffee and cigars.
Sweet flavours typically fall into three areas; confectionary sweetness such as honey, chocolate and pie crust, caramelised sweetness such as toffee apples, golden syrup and fudge, and vanilla sweetness such as custard, marshmallows and vanilla ice cream.
Virtually every stage of the production process influences the final product
The stills, the location, the craft and skill of the people who work in the distillery, and – in the past – even the shape of the rooms: all of these contribute to a distillery’s character and whisky’s flavour.
Whether the distillery burns peat to dry its barley will have one of the most dramatic influences on the final flavour.
The length of time the liquid is fermented before affects the final flavour. For example, a fermentation lasting under two days creates a very nutty, spicy character once the liquid is distilled.
Small stills mean more contact with the copper, creating a lighter, fruity note. Larger stills mean a heavier, meaty flavour. The number of times a liquid is distilled also plays its part.
Whether it’s a European or American oak cask, held another liquid, and was toasted for reuse all play their part. As for time – each whisky has its peak point, and older isn’t always better.
The skills of blenders and distillers allow brands to hold true to traditional flavours, and offer new, exciting expressions.