I was inspired to write this article after I cracked open a new bottle of whiskey with my girlfriend. As I gave the first taste the good ‘ol “Kentucky Chew,” I nodded approvingly, and said I loved the interplay of musty burlap with dark chocolate.
At this point, she looked at me with a massively-cocked eyebrow and said, “Burlap? You’re going to tell me that that’s a good flavor?” I stammered, “Well, yeah, if I’m being honest. I mean, if these guys were paying me to write ad copy, I certainly wouldn’t put that in there, but for me it’s definitely a selling point!”
Today, I offer a little more explanation here both in the hopes you’ll travel with me a little farther down the dark road I’m on, but also as a partial justification as to those moments you might have read a tasting note that seemed downright unpalatable on a review that was clearly meant to be praiseworthy.
So first, a segue.
A friend of mine once told me at length about her then-nascent interest in perfume. One of the things that most fascinated her about making scents was the combination of the beautiful with what would seem repulsive. As she told it, the sweet, seductive yin of every good perfume is often balanced by an angry, stinky yang. I quickly found via the internet what my friend Sarah was talking about. Per one source:
(Underlined emphasis mine.)
So what are those “nauseating” scents, exactly? In no particular order, and cribbing from a list that is by no means exhaustive: rodent shit, deer balls, beaver taint, and the undigested mass that goes through a whale’s GI tract and gets pooped into the water. Now tasting or smelling burlap don’t seem quite so bad, huh?
Back to spirits!
I find that unconventional “notes” (either in terms of aromas or flavors) have two distinct and useful functions. First, they’re interesting in their own right and often add depth without detracting from anything. An “off” note spoils the experience. If you taste burnt rubber or summer squash among caramel, that’s a bad thing. However, if you happen to smell cedar or taste flint among a multitude of flavors, it can bring back very familiar and comfortable memories. The enjoyment of what you’re tasting often dovetails with other similarly pleasant memories.
This is perhaps the reason why if I ever mention something has a “forest floor” aroma, I always mean it as a good thing. It’s that intoxicating, calming smell of being in the middle of rainy woods, alone or with someone you care about, just enjoying the fact that you’re a living thing in the larger world.
However, the second function is that unconventional flavors often “anchor” other tastes, preventing them from becoming too dominant or cloying. I have tended to review some things highly that focus around a dominant flavor profile, assuming they do it well. For example, maple, citrus, or apples and cinnamon.
However, in certain cases a taste like maple can be even better if tempered with something savory or unusual. In my semi-recent review of Michter’s Rye, I noted that maple was balanced with grilled meats and other umami flavors. There’s a reason “breakfast sausages” are a thing, and super tasty when rubbed in pancake syrup. It’s also the reason for why many highly-rated wines have notes of mushroom or graphite.
Additionally, I think tasting great spirits is about the closest regular people can come to experiencing synesthesia—that mental state where people’s senses are pleasantly cross-wired in such a way that it produces seemingly impossible outcomes, like being able to “hear colors” or “see sounds.” Again, I don’t plan on eating straight tobacco, campfire ash, or a wad of burlap, but it’s interesting to taste them through a quality whiskey and enjoy the way that taste and smell are linked pathways.
Stay open minded
More than anything else, I’d say that getting into spirits is most fun when you taste everything in the hopes that something will surprise you. If you’re a foodie, you probably already have a handle on this kind of enjoyment. I never would have thought that fried eggs and hot sauce would go together, nor dates and goat cheese, nor prosciutto and figs. And yet, it turns out I like all of these things. Sometimes, seemingly odd pairings turn out to be complimentary.
That having been said, the next time you read a whiskey review where the writer describes the experience as eating a peach while sitting in front of a seaside campfire downwind of a hay baler, it might be hard to stifle the sensation that the product in question sounds muddled and unpleasant. It may, in fact, be cohesive and wonderful thanks in large part to those “weird” smells and tastes that connect us to something long ago.