I'm enjoying my first experiences with Scotch, and am starting to
think about it in greater depth. One question I am curious about is
where the specific tastes come from in a whisky? Obviously any sherry
notes comes from leaching out of the barrels used, but all the subtle
flavors like "vanilla", "toffee", "lavender" must come from somewhere.
My question is where :)
Similar question for cognac, which I learnt is distilled from wine and
then stored in oak. How can it have such a different flavor from
whisky? Distillation should give a fairly uniform product, I would
The taste comes mostly from the barrels. "vanilla" in a single malt
usually comes from bourbon barrels. The wood of the barrel and where the
tree was grown has an influence on the flavours too. While oak is one of
the choices for barrels, it does make a difference, if it is American,
German or French oak, or whereever the oak comes from.
Single malts are rarely stored in fresh barrels, that have seen nothing
else. The kinds of barrels used for single malts are bourbon, sherry
(different ones like fino, amoroso, oloroso, amontillado and others), wine
(there are thousands of different wines around the world, that all taste
differently and so will the whisky).
Some people say that the area, where the whisky is stored also has an
influence on the flavours too, as well as the grain, the mash, and of
course the spirit that is filled into the barrels (alcohol content,
This is just a short introduction, you may want to read more on the web.
There are several attempts at explaining the influence of the barrel, yet
it will never be completely understood, what physical or chemical
processes are actually happening inside the barrel to contribute to the
specific and characteristic flavours.
Don't forget peat, smoke and related flavours, which are prominent in
most island single malts and some others. They come largely from damp
barley malt being dried over peat fires, and in some cases from peaty
water used in distilling. Aging peaty whiskies in a variety of barrels,
as described above, adds many variations to the single malt flavour
There are many books and much information online to be found that could
afford you a good deal of insight, but for me by far the most comprehensive
and edifying source of information I've ever come across was a book by
Phillip Hills called "Appreciating Whisky". Sadly it's out of print, but if
you can find it available online somewhere, it will provide all you care to
know on where those assertive and subtle flavors come from.
Best of luck and enjoyment in your scotch drinking journeys!
I don't think that cognac has a very different flavor than bourbon
whisky. All spirits aged in oak tastes much like oak. People who
like aged liquor like the flavor of oak. If you want something
really different, try unaged (immature) brandy.