Some whiskies can be said to have a ‘coastal’ or ‘maritime’ character, and invariably these are also whiskies that I absolutely love. In fact, these seaside malts are the reason I became interested in whisky in the first place, and the very best examples are still probably my favourite spirits in the world. This is personal taste, of course, and whilst I love most of the gods’ rich tapestry of whisky flavour profiles, I just happen to be a sucker for the Neptunian ones. So, consider me your Neil Oliver as we embark on a journey of discovery and also consider exactly how is it that some malts seemingly take on the very taste of the coast. This, is whisky on the edge… *Cue music*
‘Coastal’? (Click to enlarge.)
If you’re looking for examples, one place you could start is with the names given to certain expressions – from the no longer available Bruichladdich Waves and Rocks bottlings, to Islay (or indeed now Talisker) Storm and Douglas Laing’s new Rock Oyster. Better still would be to take a look at the much more directly tasting note derived names of Wemyss Malts single casks. Here you’ll find ‘Bench With A Sea View’ (Clynelish), ‘Beach Bonfires’ (Laphroaig), ‘Smoke On The Water’ (Caol Ila), ‘Merchant’s Mahogany Chest’ (Glen Scotia), ‘Peat Smoked Herring’ and ‘Smoke on the Sea Shore’ (both Bowmore), as well as ‘Oysters with Lemon Pearls’, ‘The Bosun’s Dram’, ‘Driftwood’, ‘Sandy Seaweed’ and ‘Maritime Embrace’ (all Bunnahabhain). Anyone else thirsty already?
Nosing, tasting or ‘sensory evaluating’ is, of course, inherently hugely subjective though. Our noses cannot perform mass spectrometry, and, in fact, our olfactory systems (used for the sense of smell) are wired to our brains entirely differently to our other senses, just a synapse away from the regions used for memory and emotion. That’s why aromas can be so evocative, and why the way we each interpret them is a hugely personal experience, often taking us back to our childhoods.
The ten coastal pics just above may seem like a random assortment of coastal snaps for example, but that isn’t the case. Each photo was taken in places I’ve visited throughout my life and that are particularly important to me (namely Cornwall and in particular St. Ives, Whitby, the Isle of Man and, of course, Islay).
(A free ‘coastal’ dram for the first person who can recognise where this background is taken from…)
Everyone brings their own memories and experiences to whisky tasting, and therefore has their own take, coming at it from their own unique angle. With practice, this can then lead to an intricate and deeply personal vocabulary to describe what’s in your glass. Some people are also simply more sensitive to smells than others, whilst many (most? all?) of us also have certain olfactory ‘blind’ spots too (specific anosmia). All of this is important when it comes to defining the fringes of what can be described as ‘coastal’ character, and which distilleries and expressions it should or perhaps more importantly could encompass. (We’ll come to autosuggestion later.)
The romantic and long accepted view has been that ‘coastal’ whiskies gain the coastal aspect of their character during maturation by the shore, sat in casks that are exposed to the sea air for years on end (ideally within dunnage warehouses). Laphroaig tell us that their “whisky maturation warehouses directly face the sea, which contributes to the very characterful whisky it produces”, whilst below you can hear Bowmore Distillery Manager Eddie MacAffer mention (around 2:40) the “saltiness in the air… adds to the characteristic in the whisky” matured within their famous No.1 Vaults.
Visiting my mate Peat at work.
Responsible for the complex smokiness of many whiskies produced on Islay and beyond, the make up of the peat used is critical to the whisky that’s created. Before explaining further though – have you ever asked yourself what makes the sea smell like the sea? It’s not just salt, or even sea salt. According to Popular Science, the seaside smells mostly of seashore funk (dimethyl sulphide), the smell of seaweed sex (dictyopterenes) and the fact that fish ‘are what they eat’ (bromophenols)!
Peat is made up of the decayed and concentrated organic matter and vegetation from thousands of years ago, and the local peat from Islay (unlike the more woody Highland peat or the heather rich peat of Orkney) has a distinct marine character. It’s been suggested that the time Islay spent submerged after the last ice age may play a key part here – as Norman S. Newton notes in Islay, A Geological Guide, the “the peat moss between Port Ellen and Bowmore would have been flooded”, with post-glacial rebound now placing former beaches on the island up to 30m above sea level. The last ice age ended 12,000 years ago though, whilst peat takes around 1,000 to 5,000 years to form. Whatever the exact explanation, the organic matter and vegetation that’s made up Islay’s peat appears to have contained more ‘seashore funk’, ‘seaweed sex’, ‘sea fed fish’, etc. than elsewhere.
“I got da funk… I’m Old Gregg!”
Heavily peated Islay malts can provide us with pungent, iodine rich phenolic notes reminiscent of fishing boats, thick seaweed and kippers, whilst a medium to more lightly peated approach (i.e. Caol Ila) can still transport us straight to the harbour, with touches of seaweed as well as refreshing sea breeze even if the whisky didn’t spend a single day maturing by the coast! So the peat done it, it’s all about peat, right? Well, not so fast…
Like many distilleries, they note the “fresh aroma of the sea breeze” alongside factors such as humidity when describing the maturation conditions required to create their whiskies (the 12 year old especially having a “briny hint of sea air”). To Pulteney we can add the likes of Clynelish, Scapa, perhaps Glen Scotia and even Balblair to a list of distilleries whose character is sometimes described as coastal on account of a perceived seaside salinity.
Old Pulteney Navigator setting sail.
To come at the Caol Ila example from the other direction, you also don’t generally find coastal notes from inland distilleries that use mainland peat such as Ardmore, or in peated Benromach or BenRiach (rather we get more wood smoke and earthy notes, smoked cheese and tobacco etc.). Pleasingly then, it may be possible to attribute all of this ‘coastal’ business to the actual coast itself – from concentrated marine peat and/or coastal maturation. The latter source remains highly contested though – the truth is that unlike most notes found in whiskies, nobody really knows where these apparently ‘briney’ notes in unpeated whiskies come from.
Enter Springbank to further muddy the waters. To my mind, Springbank can be hugely evocative of the coast, including some phenolic seaweed, far beyond a hint of brine. It is lightly peated, of course, but the peat used is neither local nor from Islay (or any other island). It’s from Speyside. So has the peat nonetheless led to appreciable volatile compounds (stuff you can smell) after distillation that are reminiscent of the sea, even if the provenance, character and makeup of the peat has little or nothing to do with it? Is it all just an unromantic combination of phenols, guaiacols and carbonyls unrelated to the coast itself? All perfectly possible – we don’t get ‘fruity’ notes from fruit do we? – although, as mentioned above, this wouldn’t be the ordinary experience with mainland peat.
Springbank’s Peter Currie (now Duncan Taylor’s Global Sales Manager) added the following comment to a forum discussion a few years back: “We don’t find any maritime or salty notes in new make of Springbank, Longrow, Hazelburn or Kilkerran, yet after a few years in oak, in our warehouses, in Campbeltown, there it is. Everyone here knows that the Campbeltown micro-climate gives our whisky its salty tang. We even find differences between dunnage and racking warehouses. Of course we don’t have any science to back this up, just a few years of experience.”
It’s an especially interesting comment as it’s able to cover heavily peated (Longrow) right through to unpeated (Hazelburn) spirit, but again we’ve gone back to salinity here. There’s no reason to think any congeners (chemicals responsible for aromas and tastes) that are a result of the peat and whatever’s causing this ‘salty tang’ would be mutually exclusive – they may even work together to create what I perceive to be the coastal side of Springbank’s character. Another consideration would be that Springbank do their own maltings – is it possible that the sea air affects the malted barley? (Malt is particularly susceptible to taint and sorption.) If Peter is correct, however, then any ‘salty tang’ in these four malts only appears months and years after the spirit enters the cask i.e. during maturation.
Steel washbacks at Pulteney
If he’s right, searching for the origin of these notes earlier in the production process, (whether you suspect the material of the washbacks or the shape and size of the stills, for example, may have an effect), may seem pointless, but maturation is such a complex process and so little is known as to what causes these notes that nobody can say exactly how they develop. I find it interesting, for example, that dimethyl sulphide (responsible for ‘seashore funk’) can actually be created, lost and created once again during mashing and fermentation (with total amounts depending on kilning regime). In the beer industry, however, an excess of dimethyl sulphide from malt is known to cause undesirable notes more akin to blackcurrant or tinned sweetcorn.
What we don’t see, is coastal distillery character in unpeated, inland whiskies. That said, there is the occasional ‘salty’ single cask and perhaps even the occasional expression, but when ‘saltiness’ is one of the five basic tastes our tongues can recognise, that’s hardly surprising, and it’s usually Sherry casks that are responsible for these examples.
Bajo de Guía Manzanilla
Richard here at MoM Towers (who’s much more au fait with his wines than I am) suggested that a salty coastal character can be achieved by using Fino casks, and that a lot of Fino casks are used at Pulteney. Certainly interesting, but as their 12 year old (probably the most ‘coastal’) is matured exclusively in ex-bourbon casks, it’s far from being the secret to their maritime character. This did get me thinking though – how does the Sherry industry explain the saltiness of Manzanilla produced by the sea around Sanlúcar de Barrameda? (Any whisky fan who tried the partly Manzanilla cask matured Ardbog from Ardbeg Day 2013 will be able to attest to this saltiness!)
Fino and Manzanilla are biologically aged Sherry, meaning they mature under a layer of flor yeast in the cask, which leads to increased acetaldehydes and as a result salty notes. Totally different to whisky maturation, but the interesting thing here is that it’s the very particular climatic coastal conditions that allows the flor to develop. The coast indirectly drives the flavour profile. Going back to what the seaside actually smells like though, I still think it takes more to evoke the coast than just salt notes per se.
There are, of course, some distilleries that have to be considered coastal geographically, which don’t exhibit the kind of notes you may expect. Glenglassaugh, Macduff, erm… Ladyburn? Glenury Royal? When you start ticking them off on a map, it starts to make you wonder if it’s a west coast/northern highlands thing…
Don’t pay too much attention to this – it may well be utter bollocks…
Feel free to file under ‘Things That Make You Go Hmmm…’ though.
I’ve intentionally left Glenmorangie off of the list above as whilst I don’t think of it as being a ‘coastal’ malt, Michael Jackson assures me that there is “the faintest hint of seaweed” in their malts, as well as “a whiff of the sea” in the 10 year old. Having tried older bottlings, it’s not something I can ever recall putting my finger on. You’ll notice I’ve placed the line on the map above to run through Glenmorangie (and Balblair), as well as Arran. Going back to Mr. Jackson briefly, he noted that Arran’s whiskies had “no obvious island character”, whilst I definitely find some sea air in certain Arrans, sometimes akin to sand dunes (when combined with tropical fruit notes it can be more tropical island than maritime, but still…). Here’s where the subjectivity becomes painfully apparent. Also, if you count Inchgower as ‘coastal’ in character (again, Jackson does) then that map above probably falls apart completely (I did warn you it was quite possibly total bollocks).
One explanation I’m yet to explore is the possibility that these notes may simply not be there in some, or even many, cases. ‘Autosuggestion’, as it’s usually referred to, is where we’ve manage to dupe ourselves into smelling what we expect, or have been told to expect (taking in specific sensory suggestion, autosuggestion and confirmation bias on concious and subconscious levels). It happens all the time when we taste whisky. Somebody can suggest a note you haven’t noticed and then suddenly it’s all you get. Was it there all along? Are you a suggestible fool? (Don’t worry, we all do it.) It can sometimes be extremely difficult to know which notes are actually definitely there. On a separate occasion imagine you’re tasting a whisky alone – except you still have your own knowledge of a distillery’s location, generally accepted character and your own opinions about it as well as potentially images of waves or boats all over the packaging. The same thing can happen in that situation without you even realising it.
I caught myself doing this whilst tasting last year’s Diageo Special Releases – I’d managed to include “clean ship deck aromas” and “clean seashell” in a tasting note for the unpeated Caol Ila release before realising that it wasn’t ‘coastal’ at all – the inclusion of “clean” both times betraying the fact that all I was describing was oak and calcium carbonate. My brain was in ‘Coal Ila mode’ though, and had already gone off to the sea before the glass even reached my nose!
So there you have it. More pondering than you perhaps ever wanted on the subject of ‘coastal’ and/or ‘maritime’ whiskies. Certainly marine peat can offer notes of the seaside, as seen in Islay peated whiskies that aren’t even matured by the sea. Does a coastal maturation also have a direct effect? That remains a complicated subject. There’s evidence to suggest it does – (unpeated) coastal style whiskies aren’t found inland. There are also exceptions and facts that make you question it. Clynelish can seem wonderfully coastal, but is located over a mile inland. Glenmorangie meanwhile, which isn’t generally considered coastal by comparison, has warehouses right beside the shore. Perhaps one day scientists will get to the bottom of this complicated issue, until then whatever your hunch may be, the best thing is probably to simply enjoy the fantastic whisky!