Whisky Tasting notes
Recently we received a customer inquiry that made us smile. The user had noticed a question about the tasting notes of Port Charlotte OLC:01 Heavily Peated 9 Years (2010), in which the term 'shoe polish' was mentioned with regard to 'taste': "I would be interested to know who is familiar with this taste and whether it is black or brown shoe polish. :)“
Legitimate question! We all agreed: Shoe polish in Whisky taste sounds very strange. The tasting notes we use on our page are usually provided by the manufacturers themselves. If we find these descriptions, we do not adopt them just like that. Often the marketing departments of distilleries and distributors get so carried away that taste descriptions read something like this: "As soon as this dram touches your lips you feel the soft oily texture and then, as it coats the palate a subtle dryness changes the tone. The leading notes from the Oloroso cask and the peat smoke define the identity of the Whisky but underneath there is a fruity sweetness - figs, orange and peach with a nutty nougat note. With another sip the darker notes of tobacco, boot polish and more earthy smoke give a pepperiness that really draws you into this magnificent Whisky."
We then try to break down these ornate poetic works to the essential and phrase them in such a way that our customers can actually imagine the taste and aroma of a Whisky. After all, the Whisky connoisseur should know what to expect when he buys a particular bottling.
Of course, describing taste is only possible from a subjective point of view. Where some people clearly perceive floral aromas, others find sweet vanilla aromas more present. Given the quantity we constantly add to our page, it is of course not possible for us to taste everything ourselves and write tasting notes. Not only that our work in this case would be much more uncoordinated and unfocused. Moreover, these descriptions would then hardly be usable anymore, because after three to five Whiskies concentration decreases (not least because of alcoholisation) and we cannot perceive different aromas in such a differentiated way. You have surely read some Whisky tasting notes. It is noticeable that certain terms are repeated frequently. Which ones are they and why? First you have to ask yourself where the tastes and aromas in Whisky come from. We want to unravel these aromas and their origin.
Sweet aromas are mainly transferred to the Whisky during cask maturation. Casks are usually charred and toasted before being filled with Whisky. During this toasting, the wood sugars caramelize and then release their sweet vanilla and caramel aromas into the spirit. If Whisky is matured in a cask that previously contained wine or fortified wine, aromas from these wines are also transferred from the cask wall to the Whisky. These are often compared to dried fruits, dates, raisins or also chocolate.
Fruity notes in Whisky are also mentioned often in tasting notes. Banana, pineapple, apple ... these aromas are not only created during cask maturation but also during the fermentation of the mash, which also releases fruity smelling esters.
Floral and grassy aromas in Whisky are also created during fermentation. Apart from esters, other chemical compounds are formed, the so-called aldehydes. We humans associate these with floral and hay-like scents, such as lavender.
Whisky gets its spicy aromas from cask maturation. Notes of cinnamon, nutmeg, tobacco, coffee or pepper are extracted from the oak. If sherry or wine has been stored in the cask before, nutty aromas of hazelnuts and almonds can be recognized in the aromatic profile of the Whisky.
The malty aromas in Whisky logically come from its raw material, the malt. In addition to 'malt' and 'cereals', terms such as bread, oats and pine needles are often found in the taste descriptions, as these malty Whiskies have a slightly tart note.
A Whisky becomes oaky - how else could it be - when it is stored in an oak cask. If these notes are particularly aromatic of freshly cut wood or even resin, this suggests a maturation in fresh oak barrels. If the casks are already older, astringent tannins are formed in the wood during storage, meaning acid substances in the wood that give the Whisky dry notes.
Maritime notes are only found in Whiskies that have matured in a maritime climate. If the warehouse of a distillery is located near the coast, its Whisky will inevitably absorb the marine aromas. These malts are often reminiscent of salt, seaweed or literally coastal air.
Smoky Whisky is not for everyone. The smoke aroma is already created during malting: If the soaked grain is dried over peat smoke - as is common practice in Scotland - the peat smoke releases its intense aroma to the grain, which is not lost even during distillation. Smoky Whiskies are often described as having the aroma of campfires, chimneys and smoked or grilled meat.
We often associate medicinal aromas with hospitals or dentists - and we are not that far off with this association. The notes are characteristic of the aroma groups of phenols and cresols. These are mainly created when the peat is burned to dry the malt and have characteristic odours. Phenols are contained in disinfectants and glues, for instance, so we know the smell. Cresols are compounds derived from phenols and have a tar-like odor. They are found in various microorganisms in nature, so even non-peated Whiskies can smell partly phenolic: Cresol groups can also be formed in the degradation process of the wood during cask maturation. These aromas are often described in Whisky tasting notes with terms like 'medicinal', 'iodine', 'old leather' or even 'shoe polish'.
So that's where the shoe polish comes from! However, we don't know what shoe polish should taste like either. We have decided not to have a shoe polish tasting in the Whisky.com team. In the description of Whisky taste such a term has no business, but the aroma can certainly be reminiscent of 'shoe polish' and now you know why.