Just A Little Bit: The Secret, Hidden Additives of Spirits
Davin de Kergommeaux
It’s been a long and flavourful journey for this whisky lover. Here I am
in New Orleans, a dedicated Scotchsingle malt whisky guy telling
you about little-known ingredients in rum and whisky and eventually,
waxing almost rhapsodic about manually enhancing some of those
In 1998 I was one of five single malt whisky fanatics who founded a
group called the Malt Maniacs. In 1999,when our website came on
line there were no blogs – whisky or otherwise – and the web was
just waking up to whisky. So, we had a lot of influence and as a
group, and as individuals, became almost messianic about single
malt Scotch and all the things that made it an authentic spirit. All its
flavours came strictly from the ingredients and the processes usedto
Then something strange happened. A Japanese whisky that we
tasted simply blew the bestScotches out of the water. A door to the
outside – beyond single malt Scotch– was opened and we emerged
from our single-malt-lovers’Plato’s cave. There was more than
single malt out there to tantalize our taste buds. And now we knew it.
After our escape from the cave, I headed in the direction of flavour. I
live in Canada. The government controls liquor sales there and
superior Scotchsingle malts are very difficult to come by – and
expensive. So I supplemented myliquor collectionwith the more
readily available rums, bourbons, and Canadian whiskies.
But it is difficult to escape entirely from our formative years and I had
been thoroughly inculcated into the cult of the three ingredients –
water, grain, and yeast. At that time, the conceptof the barrel
contributing flavour barely occurred to anyone. The marketers said
three ingredients and we willingly drank their koolaid. Naturally, I
gravitated to rum and non-Scotchwhiskies because they too seemed
to be “authentic” products. Only natural ingredients and processes
were used in their making, and their flavours were shaped by nature.
I am probablybest known – by those who even know me, that is – for
my writings about Canadian whisky. But whenever I can, I still enjoy
my Scotchand I seek out all kinds of other drinks as well. Because,
somewhere along the way I have emerged from a second,larger
cave – Plato’s was a cave within a cave if you will – and now seek
spirits not because they are so-called authentic, but because they are
flavourful – full of flavour. What I value most in a drink these days, is
the dance it does on my tongue and I no longer care how the flavours
and sensations that make the steps of that dance, got there.
These SED Talks will end later this afternoon at 4:30 with a
presentation about simple cocktails given by Dave Broom. Dave is a
leading tastemaker and the pre-eminent whisky writer of our time.
He’s a guru of single malt Scotch and rum, and with his new book
Whisky:The Manual the mostsignificant spokespersonfor the new
leading edge of spirits aficionados:Those who seek flavour: Those
who enjoy spirits because of how they taste and not simply because
they were made according to the rules and regulations of a defined
and oft-times restrictive process.
And let’s not forget where these rules and regulations that some
whisky bloggers seem to revere these days, came from. They were
made up by politicians, not whisky makers. And the reasons mostof
these rules and regulations were put in place were to maximize tax
revenues and to secure votes, NOT to make better or more authentic
So let me talk about enhancing flavour in barrel-aged spirits, and
before you throw rotten tomatoes (or Bloody Marys – it’s been a long
week of imbibing) let Dave tell you eloquently this afternoon, what I
will stumble through this morning. And I’m not suggesting that you
pelt Dave, only that you don’t pelt me.
And one caveat – I have an undergraduate degree in biology – my
specialty was barley genetics,and a masters in biology – my
specialty was corn breeding. So, long, long ago I followed several
courses in organic chemistry and biochemistry. But I am not a
chemist, not by any stretch of the imagination, and will make no
attempt to illustrate this talk with molecular or chemical structures.
Sometimes the flavour of barrel-agedrum and whisky is so
wonderfully rich that we forgetthat these spirits are almost entirely
made up of water and alcohol – two relatively flavourless substances.
What is even more surprising when you talk to flavour chemists is to
learn that the substances that make up the flavour and aroma of our
favourite drinks, and even foods,account for less that 1% of their
molecular weight. In fact some of the chemicals mostcrucial in
determining key flavours may account for as little as 0.05%. And
minute changes in the percentage of these chemicals can have
profound effects on how a beverage tastes.
As old-time whisky makers retire and begin to tell their tales, it is
becoming betterknown that before 1990,virtually all Scotchsherry
malts – those aged in sherry or other wine casks – were flavoured
with paxarette. One ex-coopertold me candidly that at his hugely
successful Scotchmalt distillery they added a pint of paxarette to
every cask, rolled it around and then pressurized it to about 40psiso
the pax would soak into the wood. Any residue was somewhat half-
heartedly drained off before the cask was filled with new spirit.
They called it cask conditioning but its only purpose was to add
flavour to the whisky. Paxarette, for those not familiar with it is a
concentrate made from sherry – primarily Pedro Ximinez based
sherries. It is ultra sweet, sticky and heavy in fruit flavours.
Now a pint of pax in a whole barrel of whisky doesn’tseem like a lot
of flavouring. However, I had the very good fortune this spring to
spend a day with master blender,Dr. Don Livermore,in the lab at
Corby distillery. Under his direction, I made my own blend and I must
say that I was pretty pleased with it. Then he suggestedadding a bit
of pax. When I added enough to make up 0.5% of the volume the
flavour of the whisky had grown to gigantic proportions and it
somehowtasted older – much older. The dried dark fruits, tobaccos,
coffee notes of old whisky simply burst onto my palate in a most
harmonious and balanced symphony. And best of all, all the raw
whisky notes were still there playing bass, cello, and first violin.
Suddenly I understood the secretof the great sherry malts I so loved:
We hear a lot about flavoured rums and whiskies these days.
Flavoured rum makes up over 1/3 of all the rum sold,and flavoured
whisky is the fastest growing whisky segmentby a long shot. There
are naysayers, many of them, who feeladded flavour is not authentic
and bad for the category. They point to the current slide in the
popularity of flavoured vodka and predict the same will happen to
whisky, taking the whole categorywith it. Rum drinkers, thankfully,
are a little more open minded.
But vodka is by definition a flavourless drink. It is, put bluntly, an
alcohol donor for mixed drinks, because alcohol alone enhances our
enjoyment of flavour. However, barrel-aged rum and whisky are
already rich in flavour. They are more than alcohol donors; they carry
the very flavours so many aficionados and mixologists seek.
Although the elements that contribute those flavours can be detected
in very small amounts, virtually all aromatic compounds have flavour
thresholds – concentrations below which we simply cannot taste
them. Sometimes,some of the most potentially flavourful elements
are present at concentrations below this threshold. They are in the
liquor but we just can’t quite taste them. What would happen if we
manually gave them a boost?
As we read the literature on flavours, we quickly learn that each
chemical has its characteristic aroma and flavour and that no two
chemicals have exactly the same flavour or aroma. So it is easy to
draw the conclusionthat each flavour or aroma is produced by a
differentchemical. But nature can never be that simple.
In reality our brains have learned to identify certain combinations of
many chemicals as individual flavours. There is not a single chemical
that smells like oranges, or bananas, or bacon, or maple syrup.
Some come close but none are dead on. Rather, it is a specific
combination of many individual chemicals that causes our brain to
registerorange or banana or maple syrup.
And our brains can almost always tell the real flavours from those
made in a lab. It’s similar to how we can tell, when we walk past a
bar if the music is live. No matter how good the sound system,we
know instantly when they’re playing recorded music and when they’ve
hired live musicians. “Real” flavours have an ambiance just as real
music does. Oh, oh, here I go on authenticity again. Didn’t we
discard that in the beginning? Well, yes and no.
In 2012, Glenfiddich MasterBlender,Brian Kinsman created a
new Canadian whisky. William Grant and Sons owns Glenfiddich.
They also own Canada’s Gibson’s whiskies. I’ve not had an
opportunity to discuss this directly with Kinsman, but here is what his
people in Canada have told me. Kinsman was tasked with creating a
new whisky to celebrate the 100th
anniversary of Canadian
professionalfootball. His idea? Simple. Add a little bit of Canadian
maple syrup to Gibson’s 12 year old.
Canadian whisky is well known for its maple syrup-like flavours. They
are not there all the time but when they are, although sweet, they are
somehowcrisp and clean and never cloying. One of the key
contributors to the flavour of maple syrup is a simple lactone called
sotolon. Since maple syrup is made from only one ingredient –
maple sap – this sotolon clearly comes straight from the maple tree.
We sometimes hearwhisky people talking vaguely about oak
lactones as flavour components. Wellone of the most versatile of
these lactones is sotolon. It’s not just found in maple, but in oak,
curry, cane syrup, fenugreekseeds,and a host of other plants and
spices. Sotolonis particularly influential in the flavour of dark spirits
that have been aged in used barrels – those with the primary vanillas
and caramels reduced by previous useage.
There are two forms of sotolon – versions that are identical but for the
way the molecule twists. Enantiomers they are called. The left-
twisting S or sinister sotolon tastes somewhat like walnuts, and is rich
in caramels. The threshold of taste for S-sotolonis a mere 0.8 parts
per billion. The right twisting version, called R or recto sotolontastes
sort of like walnuts and has a rancio-like quality. Rancio is a flavour
or quality that our brain interprets as age. The threshold of taste for
R-sotolonis more than 100 times greater than s sotolon- 89 parts per
In nature, both enantiomers occurin equal amounts so the
concentration of S-sotolonmust greatly exceed its threshold of taste
before R-sotolonhas any effectat all on flavour. Sotolons also
contribute tobacco flavours, coffees, nuttiness, rich fruitiness, dried
dark fruits and similar indicators of long-aged spirits. Coincidentally,
sotolonis also presentin paxarette and is a key flavoring element in
maple syrup. R-sotolonslowly accumulates as a productof
oxidation, as spirits age and eventually becomes one of the
chemicals that make long-aged rums and whiskies taste fully mature.
Unlike in some current maple whiskies on the market, the maple
syrup that Kinsman added to his Gibson’s specialedition did not
assert itself. In fact, had we not been told we would never have
suspectedthat it was present. Kinsman found that he could not
simply add maple syrup to Gibson’s 12 year old. The whisky was
already too flavourful, too balanced, and too mature.
Instead he made up a new blend containing significant quantities of
much younger whisky. Could it be that the maple syrup he added,
although not overtly detectable,raised the concentration of R-sotolon
above 89 parts per billion – it’s threshold of taste – to give us the rich,
flavourful crisply woody, and ever-so authentic tasting Gibson’s Grey
Cup Centennial whisky?
I have to admit that I supportthose who rebuffthe use of
flavouringin dark spirits for its own sake – those drinks where the
flavour takes over the spirit. Still, I encourage you, as mixologists to
experiment with adding just the tiniest smidgenof real rum and
whisky flavours – citrus zest, cinnamon, cloves,ginger, maple syrup
to your cocktails, not to cover the flavour of the spirit but to draw out
the hidden subtleties of barrel-aged rum or whisky. Don’t add so
much that you can detectit overtly, but experimentwith just tiny
amounts, tasting how they pull out the intrinsic rum and whisky notes.
And for those who cling to the creed of authenticity, think twice about
that dance the spirit does on your tongue before you snub flavour-
enhanced rums and whiskies. No, you’ll not find me sipping a
marshmallow-peanut butter vodka martini any time soon. But add a
few toasted fenugreekseeds – a powerful source of sotolon – to your
latest dark spirits cocktail and you may find me ordering a second . .
. and a third, and eventually you may have to call my wife to take me