Ben is back with another batch of MoM single cask bottlings, but really what he’s most excited to do is ask the question you saw in the title of this here blog: what on earth are ‘Christmas spices’, and how did they get in our whisky?
Oh yes, well a very merry Christmas to you as well. It’s nearly here, isn’t it? Hopefully, you’re all warm and cozy, your decorations are up and uneaten by naughty and broadly unapologetic labradors, and your health is untroubled by having caught covid and flu at the same bastard time*.
It’s a year-round observation this week, not just a seasonal one (and I can’t stress that enough), but the somewhat generic catch-all ‘Christmas spices’ is ubiquitous within the community of those who are responsible for the describing, demystifying, and, yes, marketing and sales of Scotch whisky the world over.
This week I’m going to try to pull apart not only the factual and chemical reason behind this phenomenon (spoiler, it’s pretty straightforward), but also the reason that the term even exists in the first place (spoiler, not so straightforward).
Those spices you associate with Christmas
Later, we’ve got some super Speyside drams for you including a hyper-rare Macallan tipping the scales at nearly a quarter of a century of age, balanced by half a dozen highly-affordable and utterly delicious counterpoints to this excess.
First though, Christmas spices.
What do we mean by that term in the 21st century? Well, the first to spring to mind is almost certainly cinnamon. Then clove. Then ginger. Then nutmeg. Then probably allspice**?.
From a flavour point of view, it’s clear to everyone that these spices all share similarities whilst the precise balance of flavour and aroma is unique to each of them. They all possess a common base note, a ‘clove-y’ one provided by one chemical. A phenylpropanoid named eugenol. Eugenol is a sub-compound of one of the phenol groups (guaiacol), which (to bring it back to whisky for just a second) is a product of pyrolisis (what happens to the complex chemicals in wood when you set barrels on fire, c’mon class, we covered this a couple of weeks back when we talked about vanilla). To come back to the image we had a look at a few weeks ago, guaiacol is there in the middle, and eugenol is bottom left:
A spot of Christmassy chemistry
Now, if you’ve ever made ramen broth, or even chicken stock, you’ll probably have come to a similar realisation as me. Introduce bay leaf, rosemary, thyme, or even star anise too early in the process, and by the time the broth/stock is complete and boiled down to a sufficient degree to be cubed up and frozen*** much of the intricacy of the original ingredient is lost. The more volatile and fragile chemical compounds responsible for differentiating rosemary from bay have been smashed to bits by the boisterous effects of heat and time, and they coalesce into a very unctuous and cohesive mid-palate.
What’s happening creation-wise via pyrolysis, then subsequently through interaction with ester-packed spirit and oxygen over significant periods of time, is sort of the opposite. Complex organic chemistry is conspiring to create these flavour compounds from constituent building blocks in ways that even people with extremely white and very-well-ironed lab coats with pens in – so many pens – struggle to fathom.
So if we had to bring it back to ‘why does my whisky taste of Christmas spices’, it’s quite a simple answer. The flavour compounds responsible for making your Christmas taste the way it does are actually physically present in your whisky. It’s not a trick of the mind, they’re really there.
The second part of the question becomes a bit more esoteric and self-referential. Why are these spices associated with Christmas in the first place?
Fascinating one, this, but we can do the job by focusing on two answers. One is economic and the other, probably less obvious is functional.
The economic answer is the one that gets rolled out most often, and has the benefit of being easy to tie back to Medieval>Dickensian>Victorian history (which acted very much as a template for the modern version of ‘Christmas’ for most of us). It goes something like this:
- Spices were from far
- Going far costs money
- People with money like to show off
- Highly-spiced things become desirable
- ‘Common folk’ spend more freely at Christmas
- Ta daaa: mince pies for all. Makes sense.
There’s another answer though which probably has just as much to credit it (at least once we get past the Medieval bit of history and into the Dickensian era when not only were trade routes better established, but the spice monopolies had more or less been broken which in turn made spices affordable for all), this answer (the functional one) can be brought back to our friend from earlier in the post. Eugenol.
See, as well as being a flavour compound massively valued by aficionados of Scotch, Scotch Pies, and mince pies respectively (see what I did there?), Eugenol is also both a highly effective anesthetic (as anyone who’s ever visited a dentist will know), and [drumroll] an antibacterial agent.
Onto whisky… after more mince pies
Snap back to the way-back-when origins of the mince pie for a second (bear with me). We all know what ‘mincemeat’ means, and we all know how it is distinct from ‘minced meat’, but back in the mists of time during the Crusades, mince pies would’ve been made very much from the latter. Dried fruits were certainly in the mix as well, but, in the same way one wouldn’t describe a tagine or a pilaf containing dried fruit as ‘pudding’, these were very much savoury, meat-based pies. Also in the mix would’ve been familiar spices prevalent to the swirling cultural hotch-potch of Aladdin and the opening scene of Robin Hood Prince of Thieves conjured up by the term ‘The Crusades’, probably as much to mask the flavour of meat which was somewhat less than ideal as to add flavour and subtle depth.
There will have been an additional effect though. Not only will the liberal doses of these spices have added a masking quality, but in very real terms they will have prevented spoilage at least to some degree, no doubt preserving not only the pies’ contents, but the very lives of the Crusaders who ate them (and by proxy the lives or at least recipes of their respective piemakers). Evolutionary, then, but the fondness for these ingredients will certainly have trickled down through the ages, albeit in more modest and less medicinal quantities.
So, let’s see how many of those Christmas spices we can pick out in this week’s drams. Nope? Not happy with that segue? Me either, but what’re you going to do? I haven’t slept in my own bed for well over a week and have genuinely created a permanent Ben-shaped divot in the sofa.
First, an incredible 24-year-old Macallan from a refill sherry hoggie. Don’t particularly need to say much more on this one, but the fact that it’s been good friends with sherry, as opposed to being drowned in it is a welcome relief, there’s something about the density of Macallan’s underlying spirit character at this sort of age, and this is a perfect way to explore it without having to unpick it from a powerhouse of a cask.
More Speyside powerhousery next from ‘The Beast of Dufftown’: Mortlach. So-named due to its powerful and somewhat meaty spirit character, this 20-year-old single cask is available to you, dear reader at under a hundred quid. Bargain.
Up a year in terms of age now to Glentauchers distillery. Matured full-term in a refill bourbon barrel, this is an amazingly fruit-forward dram displaying notes of red apple and bags of well-placed Vanilla. A veritable Tarte Tatin of a dram. Lovely stuff, and a snip at the price.
Next, to Benriach. Vanilla-rich, custardy-chocolatey goodness aplenty from a distillery with significant provenance in producing spirit which shines at a young age just as much as it does when settled into middle age.
Strathisla next, at a barely-believable 66.9%abv. These days casks are almost universally filled at 63.5%abv, and strength nearly always reduces over time in Scotland, so this is a relic from a bygone era, make no mistake. Unrestrained power, with enough finesse from the cask to make it a superb aperitif dram.
Continuing the theme of light, ‘aperitif-style’ whiskies, we have 6-year-old Aberlour next. A more approachable abv, but the same lightness and deftness remains. Wonderful sipped outdoors whilst observing snowdrops, or indeed snowdrops.
As promised last week we have an Islay smoke-bomb, and a great pretender. The pretender first, this Inchfad, distilled at the Loch Lomond distillery is positively brimming with industrial phenols – smoke, power, and a bruisingly creosote-rich character. Laphroaig, eat your heart out.
Finally, a single cask Caol Ila, 11 years of age and just beginning to settle into its wonderful second-maturation period where those phenols begin to fall over into fruit and perfumed notes. Superbly smoky richness.
So, until next week, this may well be the final opportunity for you to grab a MoM release prior to Christmas. I’d dearly love to be able to give you a steer on final shipping dates, but as you’ve all no doubt experienced by now, shipping at a national scale is chaotic, to say the least, and the weather casts an uncertainty over everything. The next releases will be live on December 22nd come what may, but I’m going to encourage you to either lock an order in now, or resign yourself to Magic 8-ball-ing it for next week.
*The latter not confirmed but it definitely was. It’s ‘out’’s fault. I blame ‘out’.
**Not, as I assumed when I was maybe 6 years old ‘all of the spices’, but a berry with notes of all of the aforementioned spices. Not a tasty berry either. Definitely not a dried blueberry or similar, as I was able to ascertain, age 6 when nicking one from the spice rack.
***Just me? Fine. I stand by it. You can’t get stock anywhere approaching good enough from any shop.