WHAT DOES WHISKEY TASTE LIKE?
Let’s start with the bad news: It’s impossible to give a definitive answer about how whiskey tastes because the world of whiskey is so vastly diverse. There are literally dozens of different types of whiskey, and each one offers a completely different sensory experience.
You don’t have to take our word for it, either. Just try two different pours of Barrell Craft Spirits’ award-winning whiskeys side by side. No matter which two you choose, you’ll notice an incredible difference between them.
How can two bottles of whiskey taste so different? Whiskey has one of the widest flavor ranges of any spirit because there are so many variables in its production. It can be made from any grain, on any type of still. The grains can be smoked, or unsmoked. Distillers can use any kind of yeast, and a huge variety of barrels.
Yet there are still some overlaps between all the various different styles. That’s because many aspects of a whiskey’s flavor can be traced back to one of the following three factors shared by all whiskeys:
● The grain
● Fermentation and distillation
● The casks
Let’s look at each one in depth.
All whiskey is made out of grain. But any grain can be used to make whiskey, from traditional choices like corn, rye, or malted barley to out-there heirloom grains like triticale, spelt, and millet.
Different styles, of course, call for different grain recipes (often called a “mash bill”). Bourbon, famously, must be at least 51% corn, but the remainder can be made up of any other grain. Single malt Scotch whisky can contain no other grain except malted barley, but Scottish blended whisky can use any grain at all.
Just like cornbread tastes different than a pumpernickel bagel, different grains give whiskey different flavors. Rye whiskey is often described as spicy, with flavors ranging from black pepper and cinnamon to cut grass and dill. Corn whiskey is sweet, fruity, and vegetal.
Wheat is soft and sweet, giving spirits a gentle, round mouthfeel. Malted barley, which is widely used in Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey, makes a rich, oily spirit with toasty, cereal flavors. To taste that richness for yourself, try a pour of Barrell American Vatted Malt, a blend of American single malt whiskeys. It’s smoky, malty, and briny, with deep complexity.
But the flavors of the grain are just one part of what makes up a whiskey’s final flavor. How those grains are fermented, distilled, and aged will transform their primary flavor characteristics into a sensory experience far more complex than your morning slice of breakfast toast.
FERMENTATION AND DISTILLATION
Fermentation and distillation aren’t just a way to create and concentrate alcohol. They’re also important flavor-making steps in their own right.
“In my opinion, yeast is one of the most overlooked pieces of the puzzle when it comes to making whisky,” says Tripp Stimson, Barrell Craft Spirits’ director of distillery operations and chief whiskey scientist. Different yeasts and fermentation strategies can actually create different flavor experiences in the final whiskey, ranging from dry and spicy to lushly fruity and perfumed.
The size, shape, and type of still—pot, column, or hybrid—also has a big impact on flavor, although that’s not always as straightforward as it’s made out to be. It’s often said that pot stills make rich, full-flavored spirits, while column stills make lighter and more delicate ones. That’s sometimes true, but exceptions abound.
Bourbon, for instance, is one of the most flavorful whiskeys, but it’s usually distilled on a column still. That’s because other fine distinctions, like how the plumbing on a still is configured and how hot it gets, are also important.
Want to try bourbon’s big flavor for yourself? Check out Barrell’s award-winning series of blended straight bourbon whiskeys. We craft each batch to bring out the best of each component in the blend. No two batches are exactly alike.
Around the world, distillers agree that oak is the best wood for aging whiskey. Why? Flavor. Oak is full of compounds that evoke that classic whiskey flavor, like caramel, vanilla, toasted almond, coconut, maple syrup, and baking spice.
“Barrels are a very large contributor to flavor and aroma,” says Tripp. But not all barrels are created alike. Where the oak comes from has a major impact on its flavor.
American oak tends to be sweet and spicy, giving whiskey flavors like coconut, caramel, vanilla, cinnamon, and brown sugar. European oak can be drier—think toasted almonds and nutmeg along with vanilla and toffee.
Whether a barrel’s interior is charred, toasted, or both also plays a part. Charred oak barrels, like those used for bourbon, can contribute roasty, smoky flavors, while toasted barrels bring out sweetness.
Yet another potential variable is what the cask held before. Barrel staves soak up liquid, imparting its flavor into the next resident of the cask. At Barrell Craft Spirits, we’ve been inspired by the blending opportunities posed by barrels that previously held other liquids, like Islay whisky casks or rum casks. Barrell’s Dovetail, for instance, showcases the influence of rum, Port, and Cabernet wine casks. Armida takes a different tack, turning to pear brandy, rum, and Sicilian amaro barrels for some of its character.
“It’s all about capitalizing on the different flavors and the unique characteristics of the different casks and how they interact together, so one doesn’t overshadow the other but they complement each other,” explains Tripp. “We often say that the whole is better than the sum of its parts.”
Of course, the parts can be pretty good, too. When we find an exceptionally good cask, we bottle it as part of our single barrel program, which includes bourbons, ryes, and whiskeys. We’re constantly amazed at how much flavor variety can be found among single barrels, even in the same batch from the same producer. Some casks are extra-spicy, others are lushly fruity, and some elevate oak characteristics to an entirely new level. Even after decades in the industry, we’re still discovering new facets of the many flavors of whiskey.