Okay, hands up…who knows what “terroir” means? I know all you wine aficionados do…put your hands down, smarty-pants. In wine making, terroir refers to the character imparted to the wine based on the environment in which the grapes are grown (like the type of soil in the vineyard, the amount of sunshine and temperature during the growing season, the weather, etc.). Why am I talking about wine making, you might ask? Because my blog, my rules I might answer (No that’s rude — try again). Because terroir can be used to describe some of the variations in Scotch whisky based on the regions in which the whisky is produced.
When I was in culinary school several years ago, I took a wonderful class called “Food and Beverage Ops.” It was one of the lecture classes designed for people who would eventually run a restaurant, but for me (with no such aspirations), it was an eye-opening experience into the world of wine and spirits. Oh, I had dabbled in wine and eventually various spirits, but I knew very little as to how they were made. Well, let me tell you, this class filled in a lot of that knowledge gap, and then some! That first day we jumped into the world of brewing beer. I had no idea what went into making beer, and I was amazed. Here again was magic and science in action! And after the lecture and note taking was over, we popped open a few bottles of beer and had a tasting right there in class! At 11am! Luckily I had a break, then my Baking Science lab afterwards so I didn’t have to drive home.
We studied the distillation process of spirits next, then the rest of the term was devoted to wine production, with tastings and the end of each class. My palate was in its infancy, and I was in awe of our Chef Instructor (David Pratt, currently the Executive Chef and owner of BRICK pizzeria in San Clemente, CA) for his ability to discern the nuances of the different wines we tried. And I tried…I really did. Learning about what went into wine making, the regions worldwide, the grape varieties, and the terroir of the bottling filtered its way into my senses so that slowly I started to be able to get a hint of what qualities I tasted, which in turn told me what I kinds of wine I liked and what to order with dinner. My palate had reached at least toddlerhood (or maybe just late newborn-hood…it was still very under developed).
So what does that have to do with scotch tasting, you might ask? I’m getting to that (geez!).
Scotch to me has so much going on in the glass. That’s what captivated me in the first place. It’s like the wine of the spirit world (OOooohh…ghosts! Oh wait, wrong spirit world. Sorry). Prior to that I had been drinking mostly vodka, and that I had to doctor up into some sort of cocktail. But whisky…now here was a drink that needed no further embellishment. Outlander might have brought me in the door, but the liquid in the glass knocked me off my feet. There were so many aromas and flavors to try and name, and my Food & Bev Ops class that started to train me in the art of wine tasting was now coming in handy again.
That class also gave me an insight into how whisky and other spirits are made. I’ll probably talk about the distillation and production at some point (you know me by now…science! magic!), but for now I just want to focus on the regionality of Scotch whisky. There are 5 major regions in Scotland: the Highlands (with their honey and heather flavors), Speyside (can be light and grassy, or rich and sweet), the Lowlands (the lightest style with less flavor influences), Campbletown (smoky), and Islay & other islands (smoky and iodine from the ocean-influenced peat). Most people who have a lot more experience with whisky than me can tell where an offering has been produced at the first (or second) sip, maybe even just by the scent. Being new to this world, I’m still working out the aroma and flavor adjectives in the individual samples I’m tasting, but telling regional differences is in the works, too. However, I recently had a chance to taste scotch from 3 of the 5 different regions in Scotland, so the differences were more apparent.
And now…the tasting notes…(at last!)
2/8/17 — Chieftain’s Collection at Gordon’s DTX presented by Josh Hatton from Impex Beverage
Here’s how Gordon’s described them:
Chieftain’s is a independent bottling company that releases rare single malt whiskies in limited quantities from closed or mothballed distilleries.
Independent bottlers, like Exclusive Malts and Signatory, work with brokers to go around to distilleries and taste through casks of whiskies and choose the ones that they feel best fill their needs. From there they will purchase “X” number of casks to be aged for however long they decide.
These whiskies must meet their strict criteria, which In Chieftain’s case – is a standard set very high.
We tried 6 different offerings (visit the Chieftain’s Collection website to see their descriptions of these bottles):
Glen Grant 19yr (Speyside):
- Nose: wood, flowers, fruit
- Taste: light smoke, leather, vanilla, sweetness, malt, character
- Nice on the palate. I’d have this again
Glen Keith 23yr (Speyside):
- Nose- Apples, light, nutmeg
- Taste – creamy, spice middle, spicy finish, fruity, light leather
- I liked the Glen Grant better, but this was good as well
Bowmore 13yr (Islay):
- Nose: vanilla, sweet, campfire
- Taste: light peat, vanilla, light leather, spice up the nose, long finish
- If I’m going to have peat, I want PEAT. This was a little too light for me
Linkwood 24yr (Speyside):
- Nose: warm spice, vanilla
- Taste: creamy finish, smooth, not harsh, eases into the mouth, honey
- Very good!
Glenrothes 19yr (Speyside):
- Nose: vanilla, fruit
- Taste: eases in, so smooth, leather, maple, wood
Glenturret 25yr (Highland):
- Nose: sweet vanilla
- Taste: smooth like honey, high flavor finish
- Quite yummy
In addition, I tasted Ardbeg Airigh Nam Beist (Islay):
- Nose: smoke, wood, burnt toffee
- Taste: peat grew, smooth start, woody finish, subtle, little bit of iodine
- It doesn’t hit you in the face with the peat, but I did enjoy this one
The terroir of the different offerings was quite pronounced, and I could start putting “names to faces” (or maybe “regions to characteristics”) as the tasting went on. I also tried to first drink the sample neat, then I added a couple drops of water to see if that would help me discern the flavor profile better. (Remember, toddler palate.)
Now I know that regionality is but one aspect that goes into the aroma and taste of the whisky, but I find it interesting that it does have an almost predictable affect. If you have an Islay whisky, you’re most likely gonna have a peaty flavor mixed in with the rest of the profile, while a Highland scotch will be smoother, like honey. I like the knowledge that imparts — it’s another way of deciding what to try and what to buy.
Ok, I think this is quite enough to be going along with. Please leave comments about your experiences with whisky terroir, insights into specific scotches from regions you like (or don’t like, for that matter), or what you think about holding tastings at 11am (only for educational purposes, mind you). Also, I’m still looking for suggestions on other single malt whiskeys and bourbons to try,* so leave a comment with your choice. Thanks for reading!
Slainté! L’chaim! Cheers!
* As I am not able to buy full bottles just for myself to taste, I welcome help with tasting locations in the Boston area or places to buy the cute, little bottles of the brands you suggest (you know, the 50 ml ones you find on planes). Thanks!