A Guide To Whisky Flavours

by Matt Chambers
at Whisky for Everyone
03.4.23 14:20

Whisky is one of the most complex spirits available on the market.

However, this complexity carries with it many flavour compounds and descriptors. Reading whisky tasting notes can be complicated to decipher and distinctive whisky flavours difficult to detect for the uninitiated. What are the key flavours of whisky and how are those flavours created?

Key whisky flavours & styles

The flavour of whisky can be broken down into five main groupings – sweet whisky, fruity whisky, floral whisky, spicy whisky, and smoky whisky, 

Sweet whisky

All whiskies have sweetness but ones that are described as such are often indulgent, rich, and luxurious. They are honeyed (think of runny honey or honeycomb, and then manuka honey for older whiskies), confected (imagine white or milk chocolate, marshmallow, and cream soda) or sugared (something like muscovado sugar, fudge, toffee, butterscotch, and caramel).

Fruity whisky 

This style of whisky can be split into three categories – are you tasting fresh fruit, dried fruit, or cooked fruit? From this the flavours can be sub-categorised into orchard fruit (think of apple and pear), stone fruit (such as peach, apricot and plum), citrus fruit (imagine lemon, orange, lime, and grapefruit) and tropical fruit (something like pineapple. mango, banana, and papaya).

Floral whisky 

The lightest style of all. These elegant whiskies can be described as delicate, fresh, vibrant, uplifting, bright and finessed. Floral flavours can be sweet (think of honeysuckle, jasmine, and elderflower) or blossom-like (such as citrus or cherry blossom).

The category also encompasses green and grassy notes – imagine herbal, leafy, freshly mown lawn or dried grass and hay characteristics.

Spicy whisky

There are two main categories here – hot and fiery (think peppery, ginger or chilli-like) or warming and aromatic (this includes baking spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg or wood spices like oak, be it freshly sawn or toasted). Nutty flavours can also be included too, especially when toasted – imagine almond, hazelnut and walnut.

Smoky whisky

Smoky or peaty whiskies can feature soft and gentle smoke with a woody influence (such as charcoal, bonfire, and ashy embers) or be medicinal and acrid (think damp earth, moss, seaweed, bitumen, and tar).

Smoke can sometimes be confused for savoury flavours such as old leather, cigar box or earthy notes, especially in older whiskies.

How is whisky flavour created?

How do all these whisky notes get into the spirit? Whisky flavours come from two main pathways – the production process and maturation in oak casks. The combination creates the numerous different whisky tastes and styles that you find in your glass.

The impact of production

Flavour compounds are created at each stage of whisky making. If peat smoke is included, then this happens at the final stage of the malting process. The barley is dried in a kiln with smoke generated by a peat fire. A relatively small percentage of all Scotch whisky uses peated malt.

Peated or not, the barley follows the same track. Warm water is added to milled barley, called grist, in a mash tun to extract soluble natural sugars. The temperature of this water and how many times it is drained and refilled will impact the amount of sugar in solution.

Fermentation is a key stage to determine distillery character of a spirit. Once yeast is added to wort, the sugary solution from the mash tun, it begins feeding on the sugar and converting it to alcohol and carbon dioxide. 

Fermentation takes 48 hours. Many distilleries then distil their wash, which is around 7-8% ABV at this stage.  However, numerous leave their wash longer, anywhere between 60 and 120 hours. Extra flavour compounds are created as yeast cells die and fall to the bottom of the washback. The longer the wash is left, the fruitier it will become.

The shape and size of the copper pot stills are a significant factor. Distillation through larger and taller stills give a light and delicate style of spirit. Only the lighter alcohol vapours have the energy to climb the neck and reach the condenser. 

In contrast, shorter and fatter stills create a heavy, robust, and oily spirit. Heavier and denser alcohols can also reach the condenser in this case, alongside the lighter ones, instead of sitting in the neck of the still.

The number of distillations, most commonly two in Scotland, will also impact the flavour of whisky. Each time a spirit is distilled it gets lighter, purer, and stronger in ABV (Alcohol by Volume).


The impact of maturation

Around 75-80% of the flavour of any whisky comes from its time maturing in oak casks. Various factors are at play to determine the final flavour profile of the spirit.

Scotch whisky casks legally must be made of oak, but the type of oak can heavily influence the resulting flavour. American oak is most common and gives honeyed, sweet, and vanilla notes. European oak gives spicy, earthy, and nutty characteristics.  

The cask type and size are important. Smaller casks have a larger ratio of wood surface area for the spirit to interact with. Therefore, they give more intense and expressive result in the short term. Larger casks offer the opposite and are often used to develop subtle characteristics or for longer maturation periods.

Whether a cask has been used before and what liquid has previously been inside both contribute to flavour. Alternatively, a new cask (called virgin oak) exposes spirit to fresh compounds in the wood that would otherwise have gone into the previous liquid, such as bourbon or sherry. 

Other influences include the heaviness of any toasting or charring on the inside of the barrel (more makes the wood crack, exposing more surface area to allow more natural compounds from the wood into the whisky) and length of time spent maturing – longer time scales give increased exposure and influence by the oak.

How many times a cask may have been used is a factor. First-fill barrels, meaning the first time that Scotch whisky has been matured inside, have more to give to the spirit. Re-fill casks can be filled up to three or four times. Each time they are filled, the wood has less influence, but this can be used to develop more subtle notes.

The location and style of warehouse also have an impact on how a cask matures and the flavours it produces. Traditional dunnage warehouses with thick stone walls and earthen floors tend to be more humid and fluctuating in temperature than modern facilities. Equally, a coastal warehouse will have a different microclimate to one located inland, be it in a valley or on a mountain.

Finally, the skill of the Master Blender comes to the fore. It is their job to combine each of these factors to create the whisky that they want to be bottled and sold.

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