The Science of Whisky - A tasting tour of Scotland's finest

13 Dec 2013

The Cambridge and Great Eastern Group enjoyed an excellent whisky lecture and tasting on 12 Dec 2013, courtesy of International Wine Challenge (IWC) judge Alex Woolgar-Toms.

He started the evening with a memorable quote from Sir Winston Churchill : 'The water was not fit to drink. To make it palatable we had to add whisky. By diligent effort, I learned to like it'. He presented six whiskies, all from Cambridge Wine Merchants:

  • Auchentoshan 18 year old (triple-distilled Lowland)
  • Glen Elgin 12yo (Speyside)
  • Clynelish 14yo (Coastal Highland)
  • Glenlivet 1996 Un-Chill Filtered Signatory (Speyside)
  • 'As We Get It' Ian Macleod’s (Islay)
  • Ardbeg 10yo (Islay)

Alex then treated us to a fascinating description of the flavour profiles and characteristics of each of the whiskies, and how these were influenced by the ingredients and production processes.

We also addressed and explored the contentious issue of whether to add water to whisky, and if so how much. Using a pipette we added a drop or more of water to the whiskies, and assessed the effect.

The results were amazing. Even a single drop had an easily detectable effect. The assembled scientists were confounded, as the gross change in solution chemistry would appear to be negligible, but we had to agree that the effect was significant. You can really open up different, new and subtle flavours that you previously had not experienced. This is especially true when drinking cask strength whiskies that have higher alcohol levels (these can be up to and over 60% ABV in some cases).

With cask strength whisky the alcohol and resulting burning in your mouth can overpower even the most prominent flavours. By adding some water, this dilutes the alcohol and reduces its effect, giving both the prominent and more subtle flavours a chance to shine. Curiously, some cask strength whiskies tasted less fiery without added water. It was all very confusing, but a rich and rewarding area for future of practical experimentation (the photo shows Andrew and Mary Howe, titrating their whisky to taste).

We also explored a range of foods with the whiskies: smoked salmon sandwiches, strong cheddar, a smoked cheese, traditional vanilla fudge and the Scottish pudding cranachan (cream, raspberry and toasted oats, with a splash of whisky of course). The fudge and the smoked cheese were particularly fine pairings.

Finally, we were given the chance to vote for our favourite whisky of the evening. The Clynelish came first, followed by the Auchentoshan.

We will definitely have to get Alex back to do another lecture.

John Wilkins
Cambridge and Great Eastern Group

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