Just A Little Bit: The Secret, Hidden Additives of Spirits


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Just A Little Bit: The Secret, Hidden Additives of Spirits
By Davin de Kergommeaux

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Just A Little Bit: The Secret, Hidden Additives of Spirits

  1. 1. 1 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 ingredients. 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 make it.
  2. 2. 2 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
  3. 3. 3 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
  4. 4. 4 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 whisky. 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
  5. 5. 5 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
  6. 6. 6 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.
  7. 7. 7 Suddenly I understood the secretof the great sherry malts I so loved: Paxarette. 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
  8. 8. 8 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.
  9. 9. 9 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
  10. 10. 10 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
  11. 11. 11 R-sotolonis more than 100 times greater than s sotolon- 89 parts per billion. 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.
  12. 12. 12 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
  13. 13. 13 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 home.