Peaches, bread and TCP
Wine monopolises appropriate adjectives to describe its taste; but our whiskies and beers are just as complex, says Michael Jackson
Would England's language of flavours be less constrained if our country grew sexy-looking, vividly-coloured aubergines, peppers and plum tomatoes instead of subterranean carrots, turnips and parsnips? Would we be more comfortable discussing tastes if we could more easily grow soft, rounded, squelchy grapes instead of hard, resilient grain? Is it our cool weather that chills our tongues, or Anglo-Saxon blood, or Protestantism...or does each lead to the other?
I have on occasion been condemned for using "grapespeak" to describe the fermented and distilled grain. The accusation has suggested that I have brought something foreign, like garlic or rabies, from across the Channel. The awful truth, as any flavour specialist will tell you, is that many of the characteristics that occur in wines and brandies also manifest themselves in beers and whiskies. These drinks are equally complex, and that is their greatest joy. (If we simply wanted to get drunk, we would require nothing more than pure alcohol.)
The crushed grape may not taste like barley that has been steeped and kilned into malt but both, when fermented and matured, give us a bouquet: sweetness or dryness; thinness or fullness of body; abruptness or length of finish. More significantly, each gains fruity characteristics in fermentation and spirity elements if it is then distilled. Wines, with the exception of vermouths, are no longer seasoned (as beer is with the flower of the hop), but they and their brother brandies can share oakiness with whiskies.
It has been suggested that our Roman and Norman conquerors made wine an elite drink, and beer a peasant beverage. I am not so sure. I suspect wine has been more valued since the insect phylloxera devastated the world's vineyards in the last century, beer less since the industrial revolution.
Perhaps it is because the voluptuous produce of southern Europe makes for such a colourful cuisine, accompanied by the local wine, that we find it easier to concede the flavours of those European drinks. It has been suggested that our Roman and Norman conquerors made wine an elite drink, and beer a peasant beverage. I am not so sure. I suspect wine has been more valued since the insect phylloxera devastated the world's vineyards in the last century, beer less since the industrial revolution.
Brandy was prized in England before we accepted the spirits of the rebellious Irish and then the dour Scots, but perhaps we are finally learning to respect the pleasures of these islands.
It is the pleasures that are hardest to discuss. A beer that has been generously seasoned with hops will be bitter, because they are. The term "bitter" can sound negative; it must be "splendidly bitter" or "appetisingly dry." Pity the writer who tries to spare the adverbs.
While judging at the 1991 Great British Beer Festival, New York brewer Garrett Oliver found suggestions of "fresh bread" in the award-winning Brain's Dark Mild and "peaches" in the Fuller's Extra Special Bitter. Sausage-maker Bill O'Hagan noted "chervil" and I found "liquorice" in the champion brew, Black Adder Stout.
Some traditional, well-made lagers and malt whiskies have a hint of turnip or onion in the bouquet. This derives from the barley malt. I always describe it, more evocatively, as "new mown hay." Several malt whiskies have a hint of the antiseptic TCP. This I might call "warmingly medicinal." The characteristic occurs in malts matured at distilleries on seaweedy coasts, and they are rightly prized because they taste of Scotland rather than, say, Harlow.
Ask a brewer to describe his beer and he will often say that it is consistent, as though that were a taste. Press him, and he will frequently add that it is clean and well balanced, which may simply mean bland. Once it had more character, but some fool in the marketing department organised tastings by drinkers in the target audience. When asked what they thought of the beer, they said bitter, because they could think of no other word to describe its complex of flavours.
The man in the street is not a professional taster or writer. Our language has too few descriptions for tastes, and he would essay only a handful of those. The beer is deemed "bitter," the marketing department tells production to tone it down: that way, we will sell more.
Soon enough, the beer has been "blandified" and sweetened to the point where the consumer decides he may just as well drink Coke. This is how the whisky industry, by making its products less smoky and aromatic, ever more "smooth" and "mellow," for years encouraged consumers to desert to vodkas and white rums. In international affairs, this strategy is known as appeasement.
There are signs that marketers of beer and whisky realise they can retreat only so far. My own protestations, and those of my colleagues, on behalf of John Barleycorn, were suddenly exceeded in the past couple of years by those remarkable advertisements from Bass, proclaiming that its tastes included fruit, grass and leather, and in the same sentence raising the possibility of "cooked veg."
One of the ads showed descriptors like "fatty, rancid and mouldy." The descriptors were arranged on a diagram shaped like a wheel. This device assumes that flavours are segments of a circle. Start at "warming," move on through "astringent," "sulphury" or "grassy," "solvent-like" and "alcoholic," with many other stops on the circle, and you will finish up back at "warming." It is much the same as the argument that says political views form a circle, with the far left meeting the extreme right.
Flavour wheels have long been used inside the drinks industry, but it is quite another matter to brandish them to the consumer. A malt whisky, one of the most elegant and sophisticated, has released its own, which is included in the tubular carton that holds bottles of Aberlour Single Malt.
Might the inclusion of descriptors which sound (and in some cases are) unpleasant put drinkers off Bass or Aberlour, and all cask-conditioned ales and single malts?
I have described Aberlour in print as having a "minty bouquet; a soft, rounded body; spices and berry-fruit in the palate and a silky finish." The flavour wheel, designed by whisky specialist John Lamond, offers no notes specifically on Aberlour, but permits the consumer to draw a profile on any malt, with descriptors ranging from peaches and chocolate to kippers and vinegar. Might the inclusion of descriptors which sound (and in some cases are) unpleasant put drinkers off Bass or Aberlour, and all cask-conditioned ales and single malts?
Aberlour said: "We think people experience more pleasure from malt whiskies if they know what a wealth of flavours each can have. Experts use these terms; we are not going to damage the integrity of the flavour wheel by dropping less pleasant ones for commercial considerations. There is nothing wrong with hugely different flavours."
That last comment says it all. United Distillers has a range called Classic Malts, in which the biggest seller is Lagavulin ("pungent, attacking, salty, peaty" -- M Jackson). Its local rival Laphroaig ("medicinal, phenolic, tar-like") is doing pretty well, too.
If consumers, and a newer generation of marketers, are losing their Fear of Flavour, perhaps they should let the production people know. Then they can stop hunting down every new characteristic they find and trying to eliminate it.
Published Online: OCT 1, 1997
Published in Print: AUG 17, 1991
In: The Independent
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