Sitting down with a dram of Scotch, glass of wine, yummy meal or indeed all three is a sensory pleasure which we hold in high esteem, and rightly so too. However in our busy-bee realities do we really give the flavour process the time and attention it deserves and are our lifestyles helping to shape the nature of flavour itself?
As a child our house seemed to revolve around its reactor core, our coal fired Aga. For heat, cooking and drying, the Aga played a vital and dependable role, as long as the wind blew from the right direction that is. Occasionally my mum would be more akin to an engine driver, stoking the flames and adding more fuel to the little furnace. Cooking was the gentle and slow process of coaxing out the flavours, tenderly encouraging them to take their first steps into the world and mingle with others in their own time.
Today I feel that slowly developed flavours are becoming as rare a joy as commuting aboard a steam train. With no time to waste we need flavour on the go and need a diary planner to fully appreciate the processes in the kitchen. It is no surprise then in our busy worlds that convenience has become king. We need flavour and we need it now. Simply add monosodium glutamate, high fructose corn syrup, salt and more sugar and we have our sensory satisfaction sorted for the next few hours. If the sound of all that sugar opposes your programme we can just pack it with aspartame instead, and not to mention all of the stabilizers, preservatives and colouring agents. There’s a great game I like to play in the supermarket, its called find the cheddar without artificial colourings. Try it sometime.
Scotch whisky has been an interesting example of manipulative trends also. The legally permitted ingredients for malt Scotch whisky are barley, water and yeast plus E150 or caramel colouring, which is often produced from corn syrups, glucose syrup or sucrose itself. Although going out of fashion amongst discerners of a fine dram, the colouring used in Coca-Cola has played an interesting role by tapping into our association of dark colours with rich and developed flavours. Anyone remember Coke Tab Clear, Coca-Cola's answer to the clear cola movement of the early 1990's. It was no surprise that it was a short lived trend. The natural colour of whisky comes entirely from wood during a steady process of aging so E150 has provided a way of short-cutting that process, at least where it’s tint is concerned anyway.
It has long been generally accepted that when it comes to whisky, as with all of us, we do not get older but simply get better. Drinkers of the dram have begun to appreciate how this is not an absolute rule, partly through appreciating some superb young whiskies and also some extremely disappointing old ones. In particular when it comes to those peaty, smoky and medicinal nasal eviction orders from Islay, they are at their most intense at a young age. The rise in popularity of these fabulous sensory adventures has been quite astounding since the late 1990’s and has propelled the image of those distilleries to superstar status. The degree of that phenolic smoky-peatiness within the whisky has been pushed higher and higher, doubling, tripling and venturing beyond what was thought possible and indeed necessary. A few years ago Bruichladdich distilled a spirit from barley that had been peated 6 times higher than what had been considered ‘extremely peaty’ previously.
Following this trend we also see a quest for whiskies matured in casks previously seasoned with Sherry, those dark mahogany or rich orange drams that play with our preconceptions of taste. The cask in this instance giving qualities of intense rich fruit cake and spice, occasionally becoming so ‘Sherried’ that it’s like chewing on a Davenport desk. The whisky worlds answer to those new-American oak monsters that were once the height of Australian winemaking. Another trend that has now gone by-the-by but brings us neatly on to the combination of whisky with wine. Think of a type of cask and there has been a whisky matured in it, be that Burgundy, rum, port, Sassicaia, Chateau Y’quem and even Tobasco. Again it’s a quest for flavour and fulfilment beyond the known world, like some trepid adventurers on the U.S.S. Enterprise.
The acceptance that age is not necessarily an indicator of flavour quality is being pushed in a new direction now with the growing emergence of NAS or non-age statement whiskies. These mystery drams do not carry any information regarding the age of the spirit. As long as it has spent at least three years and a day in an oak cask in Scotland it’s good enough for Scotch. NAS whiskies fill the void created by a global boom in Scotch and are being utilised by some distilleries to sell premium priced whisky at a not so premium age. The new school is all about the flavour and not the age, so we are told. Is this another indicator of our busy lives as we demand flavour on tap, well in three years and a day anyway? If time and aging no longer carry significance amongst consumers then what is there to hide by not placing an age statement on the bottle in the first place? As more of the big players spin the premium priced wheel of ‘guess the time in cask’, we should focus more on education as opposed to the misrepresentation of maturation, if like they say the age statement no longer matters.
America has been far more creative with their whiskey tinkering. Limited by choice of wood, American whiskey has seen a surge in alternative flavour additives such as honey, chocolate, fruit, hops and botanicals to name but a few. Such flavour enhancing processes for Scotch get a big waggly finger from the whisky police, more commonly referred to as the Edinburgh based Scotch Whisky Association. Although oak is by far the most important element to the character of Scotch, it is amusing that it is not even listed as an ingredient along with whatever the cask had previously contained.
Marrying and mellowing the flavours within wood is a slow process of maturation that can only be expedited by a relatively small margin on a commercial scale. That sense of time and patience is one of the most endearing qualities to any flavour assembly but is it being replaced by a need for hard hitting, taste explosions that fit within our schedules? The price to be paid by reducing time and increasing yield is more often than not a loss in quality. We can see this at work through whisky maturation, wine production and also fruit, vegetable and animal farming.
In a consumerist world we are taught to constantly seek out new flavours and to expect variety. With our limited time to really appreciate the nuances of life, are trends being driven by both sides towards readily available flavour bombs and in turn constructing a tolerance for sweetness, salt, wood and even peat. Creating the time to contemplate, enjoy and above all share our sensory experiences is one of the most rewarding tools in our box of humanity. By taking no texture, aroma or taste for granted we can open up an exciting world of everyday experiences and enjoy the subtleties that come by simply slowing things down.