Spicy & Sweet

Where flavour comes alive

Echoing the sweet, spicy and malty flavours of your treats with a dram cut from the same aromatic cloth will certainly make for an indulgent experience, as Julien Willems explains.

With 877 whiskies bottled since 2014, Spicy & Sweet is the Society’s largest flavour profile. This isn’t surprising, considering most Scotch whisky has spicy and sweet characteristics. But it’s up to the Tasting Panel to decide if these are a whisky’s dominant traits, or if other flavours such as peat or vanilla ultimately steal the show. Sweet and spicy flavours are mostly associated with maturation, but the spirit also has a crucial role to play. Let’s have a look at how those hot-cross bun flavours are created in a whisky.

Talking Tannins

Just like the sweet, coconut-tasting oak lactones, (mentioned in more detail here, other compounds also occur naturally in oak and are easily extracted by the maturing spirit. Among them, tannins are known to confer a powdery and astringent mouthfeel to cask-aged whisky and to some, that might already feel like a spicier side. We often see comparisons between tannin-rich European oak (Quercus robur) and American oak (Quercus alba) as if the latter did not give off any tannic notes to whisky. But this is not quite accurate.

Just as there is a great variability in lactone concentration in American oaks, the same is true for tannins. Exactly how much tannin is produced by Quercus alba, though, may depend on its environment. Indeed, as Dr Andy Forrester, SMWS spirits educator, says:»We think tannins are a feeding deterrent and a response to environmental stresses, helping the trees to avoid attacks by pests.”

This means the levels can vary greatly and makes every cask unique. Coopers, however, can measure the levels in the wood using modern technology and by selecting staves to build a cask with the desired flavour profile.

Feeling The Heat

So how do we come to perceive such spicy flavours as cinnamon, allspice, or cloves and gingerbread spices in this Spicy & Sweet whisky? After coopers have selected the staves and assembled a cask, they will toast and/or char it to the desired level to obtain different balances of certain flavour compounds for the spirit to extract. Wood is mostly composed of lignin, which once exposed to heat degrades into a large variety of flavour-active molecules. We know this is the process by which vanillin and its dreamy sweetness is created.

Along with vanillin, compounds such as eugenol – perceived as a spicy, clove-like aroma – and guaiacol – which has a broader spicy and smoky temperament – are also converted from lignin. These can be in different relative concentrations, depending on how the oak was heated. Their relative concentrations and the interplay with other flavours may create a whole spectrum of aromas we perceive as spicy.

What about flavours of strawberry, balsamic and spiced wine? Other cask attributes may also influence whisky and give it spicier and sweeter notes. The previous content of the cask can help to cultivate the temperament necessary to enter this profile. Indeed, wine and sherry casks are known to give whisky flavours of wine and spices, but don’t discount rum, charred oak or even IPA casks, they all have the potential to tip the flavour profile towards Spicy & Sweet.

Grist To The Mill

Pretending that the Spicy & Sweet profile is only about cask influence, though would be a bit of a, dare I say, hare-brained idea. Whisky is after all a spirit and the flavours created by its ingredients and the steps leading to distillation should not be overlooked.

We have mentioned previously that acids and esters are responsible for some of the sweet or citrussy fruity flavours we perceive in whisky, and they are present in abundance here too. How abundant they are will depend on the distillate and will ultimately be decisive in pushing a whisky towards sweeter, rounder flavours, or let the cask take things to spicier places.

It’s not just about esters though. I may not be much of a baker, but I know this life-truth: you can’t make a hot cross bun with only fruit and spices, can you? You’ll need flour and yeast to give it those wonderous freshly baked, cereal and malty flavours once it’s out of the oven. Well, here you need grist.»During mashing, some compounds are extracted from malted barley and then modified through fermentation and subsequently concentrated by distillation. In the new-make spirit these compounds are thought to be the ones giving whisky its cereal, malty backbone” says Dr Andy.

»Unlike for fruity, which we attribute to the esters, exactly which compounds create these flavours is not fully understood yet, but we know they are ultimately derived from barley. This poses interesting opportunities for flavour innovation.”

Specialty Malts

We have mostly given credit to the cask for the spicy flavours, but the spirit is likely also partly responsible. We know that rye whiskies are known as spicy distillates, so there might be something in selectively breeding barley varieties for their spicy character, like there is in rye.

Perhaps the answer lies in some of the ‘heritage’ varieties we hear so much about in whisky these days. A number of distilleries are now working with ‘specialty malts’ (crystal malt, chocolate malt), which are widely used in brewing. As Dr Andy explains:»We know from chemical analysis that some of the flavour active compounds that can only be produced during the roasting and toasting process (perceived as chocolate, coffee, roasted, roasted nuts,) go through distillation and end up in the new make spirit.”

So, perhaps we could use specialty malts to produce the perfect Easter whisky with big, indulgent, chocolatey, pastry and hot cross bun flavours?  All in all, obtaining a Spicy & Sweet profile is once again a matter of different balances. Although spicy flavours are mostly derived from the cask, the Spicy & Sweet profile is not solely conditioned by one single factor, it is the expression of an entire realm of possibilities with enormous room for variations and discoveries. But let’s go back to enjoying our hot cross buns, creme eggs and other Easter treats. We’ve spent enough time down the technical»rabbit hole”.