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Five-Minute Classroom – Curious Tasting Notes: Smoke & Spice

Ever heard someone say that a wine or whisky has notes of smoke or spice? While these savoury flavours and aromas might sound obscure, when they exist in harmony with other scents and tastes they are very appealing, and can be used to determine the way a wine or spirit was aged…

The oak effect

When ageing a wine or whisky, winemakers and distillers have a choice to make. They can either mature in stainless steel tanks or cement vats to retain the liquid’s primary aromas and flavours – that is the fruit, herbs, floral and vegetal characteristics – or they can age in oak barrels to add secondary post-fermentation tasting notes. When a wine or spirit is aged in oak, the wood affects the smell and taste of the liquid, with aromas and flavours that range from vanilla to cloves, cedar and tobacco smoke, depending on the age, size and toast level of the barrel.

Talking toast

You may have heard a winemaker or distiller talk about toast levels. They’re not talking about how brown they want their bread here, but how flame-burnished the inside of an oak barrel has been before it becomes a vessel for maturing alcohol. The more toasted a barrel, the more obvious the woody, charred and smoky flavours become.

Size (and age) does matter

When ageing in larger oak barrels, such as those used in Bordeaux, the wine or whisky spends less time in contact with the wood, so the flavours are softer. Similarly, if the barrel is older the wood flavours will have mellowed over time and become less obvious.

Newton Vineyard Single Vineyard Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 and Single Vineyard Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 both display well-integrated aromas of tobacco, indicating that larger, older barrels were used during maturation, while Terrazas de los Andes Single Vineyard Los Aromos Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 has been aged in French new-oak barrels for 16 to 18 months, and as a result its spicy profile is much more pronounced.

What about peat?

Whisky made in Islay, a remote Inner Hebridean island located off the west coast of Scotland, is often described as smoky, yet this isn’t simply down to the vessel in which it was aged. In fact, peat, the boggy earth found around the Ardbeg distillery on Islay is responsible for the discernable smoky aromas and flavours. Peat fires are a traditional way to dry barley on Islay, and are still used to impart flavour at the Ardbeg distillery.

Ardbeg Ten Years Old is appreciated around the world for its strong, peaty flavours, while Ardbeg Traigh Bhan – the smokiest, peatiest Islay malt whisky – is a rare 19-year-old, small-batch bottling. Meanwhile, Ardbeg Uigeadail is named after the distillery’s water source, the peat-laden waters of Loch Uigeadail, which provide this whisky’s smoky tones.

Oak barrels also play their part in whisky production, but are often used to add sweetness, as in the case of Ardbeg An Oa, which is matured in three different types of cask: former Pedro Ximénez sherry casks deliver sweetness, virgin charred oak brings spice and ex-bourbon imparts Ardbeg’s hallmark intensity.