A new cohort of our own independent bottlings is here and this week we’re focusing on that flavour that definitely isn’t boring: vanilla. Prepare to reconsider everything you know. Or just grab some lovely whisky.
Now I’ll be honest – I’ve been down a bit of a rabbit hole for the last hour or two.
I had lodged firmly in my mind that vanilla was a near-universally loved flavour because of its presence in breast milk. Turns out, several quite punchy scientific papers later, that this was in fact a misremembery* on my part. Any presence of vanilla (or vanillin – the key aromatic component in vanilla) in breast milk will likely be due to pass-through from mum having ingested a cupcake at some point, rather than as a biologically-produced constituent.
What I did discover has basically the same effect anyway though. Breast milk has a lot of aromatic components in common with vanilla. They may come from different individual chemical constituents, but they build back up to an aroma profile which is very similar. A bit of a rambly start to the post this week, but I guess what I’m driving at is that the link isn’t causal. People don’t like vanilla because it’s in breast milk, they like it because it’s yummy (in much the same way as babies are fond of breast milk).
Essence vs. Extract
There’s a funny thing about vanilla (and vanillin by proxy) though. If you get a bottle of vanilla extract, and a bottle of vanilla essence, and nose the two side by side, it’ll become gallopingly apparent what the difference is.
Vanilla extract is a natural product. It’s produced by macerating vanilla pods (one of the world’s most difficult-to-produce crops) in ethanol, to extract the full gamut of flavour and aroma from them. It was expensive. Really expensive.
Vanilla essence is a synthetic product (broadly speaking) produced on an industrial scale in one of two ways. It’s either (in the case of ‘natural’ flavouring) synthesised from eugenol (obtained from clove oil), or more commonly (in the case of ‘artificial’ flavouring) synthesised either from lignin (the ‘strong stuff’ present in cell walls within the wood, and most plants) or more commonly these days petroleum. Yep. For realsies.
Whisky’s most prominent tasting note
When nosing the two products separately the essence (whilst smelling undeniably vanilla-ish) smells overtly ‘artificial’. Weirdly, this is absolutely nothing to do with any residual compounds from the industrial process which made it, nor is it a function of the fact that it’s invariably been stored in a clicky-clacky plastic bottle, it’s actually its purity that’s the problem.
The artificial essence contains just vanillin. Nothing else. It’s a pharmaceutical-grade product produced in an exacting manner. The extract on the other hand is awash with dozens of other compounds whose influence, whilst undeniably peripheral and incredibly subtle, is essential to the flavour/aroma we instinctively recognise as ‘vanilla’.
The impurity of the natural substance is unmistakable, and also essential to the experience. You may have spotted where I’m going with this already, and if you have, bravo. You see, when discussing bourbon (or indeed whisky aged in bourbon casks) there’s one tasting note which comes up more than any other: vanilla.
The variety of impurities
By definition, bourbon must be matured in a brand-new, freshly-toasted oak cask. Whereas it’s really quite uncommon to find Scotch whisky matured in a fresh cask. Why would you pay hundreds of pounds for a new one when there’re millions of second-hand bourbon casks being generated by Messrs Daniel and Beam alone every year and which are available for peanuts?
Introduce the lignins in the oak to the fire used to char the inside of the barrels and one of the biggest results (as the diagram below illustrates) is a surfeit of vanillin. Whiskey (or as it is when it hits the barrel, white dog) is an absolutely fabulous solvent, and over the three+ years it spends in that cask, it will rip out most of the flavour compounds generated by the charring, allowing them to meld and mellow together, through exposure to oxygen and time.
As with our natural vanilla extract, and as with breast milk (accuracy of analogy on the latter aside), it’s not just the vanillin/vanilla which is appealing. The supporting cast of aroma and flavour compounds play an indispensable role, and depending on how they interact with the spirit, how much char was applied to the cask, and indeed the age of the tree from which it was made and where it grew.
The finished whiskey can be startlingly different from one produced in ostensibly similar stills and by law matured in a cask which is designed to be as ‘standard’ as possible. The results can be utterly beguiling. It’s the subtle differences, the impurities if you like, which create the variety we all crave.
So, to our first dram this week. It’s our first American single malt whiskey (as distinct from bourbon which must contain at least 51% corn). This beauty has been matured in one of them-there freshly-charred casks for 3 years, after having been distilled from wash made for the copperworks team at Seattle’s Elysian brewery. No hops were harmed in the making of this whisky, but at least one of our team swears blind that they can detect a lick on the nose. Possible, of course, given that it’ll have been brewed in the same equipment… Hugely flavourful and packed with bags and bags of character due to a barely believable seven-day fermentation at 21c, and subsequent two weeks of lagering at 2c. They’re not messing about this lot, and this bottling serves as a powerful reminder of how the same ingredients can produce very different results given a distinctive process.
Back to Scotland next and to Braeval. Confusingly the same distillery as Braes of Glenlivet, Braeval is just the name given to latter-day production so as to reduce any danger of confusion with Glenlivet Glenlivet. At 8 years of age, this whisky is proudly wearing its cereal-rich character on its sleeve, but when combined with an extended finish in a Pedro Ximénez hogshead cask, the results are deep and profoundly rich.
We talked a few weeks ago about grain whisky, and how (reductio ad absurdum) it’s probably best viewed, at least in youth, as a highly generic solvent useful for showing off the character of the cask it’s been matured in. Curious about what happens to the cask in our initial discussion this week after it’s had bourbon in it? The answer is that more character than you might think remains, and it takes on a distinctly sweet and perfumed character. Plus it’s thirty quid. Who are you to resist it?
Ardmore is one of those pesky exceptions to the regional over-simplification we spoke about last week. It’s a Speyside distillery (although they style themselves as Highland) that predominantly produces peated whisky. Ardlair is the name given to their unpeated make, making it much more akin to a traditional Speysider, from a distillery which usually produces peated whisky, and calls itself a Highlander. Christ on a bike.
Colour (when it’s natural of course, which all of our recent MoM bottlings to date have been**) can tell you an awful lot about a dram. I’ll probably cover this in a future post, but it’s a signifier of cask influence which can be a shorthand for age (for which usually read concentration), flavour, or both. At 11 years old, this GlenAllachie has clearly picked up a lot of influence from the cask. In this case, a pretty active refill sherry butt. Expect rounded red fruit flavours and Christmassy spices aplenty from this one.
More secrets from this Speyside Single Malt. We really actually can’t tell you or even hint at where this is from for fear of humourless legal people, and in a perverse way, that should actually tell you most of what you need to know. Deep, deep notes of buttery flapjacks, toasted almonds and red apples. An absolute belter, and if you only knew the source, it’d look like a bargain at five times the price.
Port Dundas is a funny old beast. A closed-grain whisky distillery, something of an oddity given that the commoditised production we discussed a few weeks back lends itself to very high returns when just churning out juice. The explanation for the site having been demolished in 2011 is actually pretty ordinary. Port Dundas was at one point the largest distillery in Scotland, and was located slap bang in the middle of Glasgow, enjoying a beautiful view over the city. There comes a point at which the commercial realities of land prices overtake the romance and PR value associated with conspicuous production… An attractive proposition from a flavour, and I suspect investment standpoint this one given that stock is by definition finite.
Another super-well-aged grain (probably corn/maize-based) with all the requisite depth and poise that over 4 decades of maturation are capable of delivering. Expect beguiling tertiary notes of spice, fruitcake, and more than a hint of ripe tropical fruit.
A heads up
This bottling brings this week’s offerings full circle, with a Scotch whisky which if anything looks and feels more like a bourbon, as the juxtaposition to an American Whiskey which looks and feels more like a Scotch.
So. until next week’s releases then. A word about which… I’m conscious not to overhype things, but I would implore you to make the necessary arrangements to be ready for next week’s releases. There are three or four lines in next week’s roundup which are going to cause a stampede to the checkout (three of them have fewer than a couple of dozen bottles available), and having read to the end of this post, I’m happy to give you a heads-up… You’re going to want to heed this one.
*’remembery’ eggcorn courtesy of my 7-year-old. I like it. I’m keeping it.
**and FTAOD the ‘to date’ doesn’t reflect any plan to start dumping E150 in everything, but we’ve had situations in the past where we’ve bought a parcel (usually a blend constituent) which is simultaneously awesome, and pre-caramelled. I don’t want to preclude us from bringing you something amazing on the basis of an arbitrarily self-enforced rule. I can promise that we’ll flag it nice and clearly if this ever happens though.