Posts filed under Taste

Does Single Malt Scotch Whisky Express True Terroir?

Is there a useful definition of terroir that has any real meaning for single malt Scotch whisky?

The concept of terroir was made famous by the French in marketing their wines (even though the Spanish had created local growing regions over 100 years earlier). This term is used to designate the unique qualities of a place as it affects the growth and final character of the grapevines planted there, their harvest of wine grapes, and the wine that results from that year’s harvest.

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Terroir is the unique fingerprint of a unique local place (even micro-plots within the same vineyard). It reflects its soil composition and chemistry, climate, weather, sun latitude, farming practices, craft, culture and history. Terroir tells how well a wine “expresses” the terroir of its constituent grapes, and enables the drinker to judge it unfavorably if he or she cannot discern any character indicating where it was made.

Yet when it comes to fine whisky, and here the focus will be on single malt Scottish drams, drinkers are unlikely to hear a description of the local terroir where the whisky was made. They are more likely to find descriptions based on flavor profiles that refer to qualities such as smokiness, honey, heather, nuttiness, peat, brine and grassiness.

All labeled single malt Scotch whisky must be made by a single distillery in Scotland. It must meet all legal requirements of being classified as a single malt offering (which may be a blend of selected spirits distilled at different times at that one distillery).

It is well known that most of the complex flavor of a single malt whisky comes from the interaction of the spirit in wood barrels through ageing for several years.

Does a fine spirit that derives anywhere between 2/3rds and 3/4ths of its final flavor from aging in wood casks have any right to claim it is in any real way influenced by its terroir? And could we taste any real difference?

This question was put to the test at a recent tasting at the Dillard Room in Seattle, Washington. Four offerings from Laphroaig were hosted by Simon Brooking, Master Ambassador, and Vicky Stevens, Master Blender. Sampled were Laphroaig’s classic Ten year old, Quarter Cask, Triple Wood, and Select (a new offering).

A lot of information can be gathered about these and other offerings, including excellent tasting notes and the colorful history of Laphroaig (founded in 1825 on Islay, Scotland), from the official Laphroaig website at

The tasting revealed that there was a recognizable flavor character underlying the individual flavor profiles across all four drams. This unique Laphroaig character forms the backbone of the distinct Laphroaig family tree, and is immediately recognizable within each dram with its combination of rich peat, hint of honey, briny iodine and nutty toasted barley.

While this character resembles other neighboring fine Islay whiskys such as Lagavulin, Ardbeg and Bruichladdich, as one might expect since they share many environmental similarities, nonetheless it is also distinct and has a unique and memorable quality all its own.

This back-to-back tasting confirmed this uniqueness as very real. Perhaps part of the secret to its unique character is the fact that Laphroaig not only uses local water from its glen but also is one of the only distilleries in Scotland using its own locally grown barley.

Combined with traditional small copper pot stills which are used to make the spirit and on-site ageing in select wooden casks in the cool and damp gray Scottish salty coast climate, one can identify the local Islay coastal terroir which is given fine expression in the various offerings from the Laphroaig single malt whisky family tree.

Even though much of the final whisky flavor is imparted through interaction with wood barrels in ageing, a unique family profile can still be identified. This profile is in part grounded in the specific local geologic, environmental and cultural history of the unique land, people and place where the barley is grown and the whisky is made.

The character of the local water, peat and influence of the nearby salty sea also add to the defining character of a particular distillery style. This unique family quality of Laphroaig’s character gives rise to some unexpected wonderful pairings with foods. For example, in addition to savoring it neat, the classic Ten Year Old pairs perfectly with Totten Island Virginica Oysters with their strong complex briny flavor profile.

Hence an expanded understanding of terroir is helpful both in appreciating the many offerings of a single distillery and in being able to identify the underlying family character, style and history they all have in common.

This local terroir based family identity is unique, recognizable and contributes to the present expression of the many complex qualities we value and prize in the resulting single malt Scotch whiskies.

While the individual flavor profiles of the four representative offerings from Laphroaig were easily identifiable, one can also recognize that they all belong to the Laphroaig family and share certain defining qualities we associate with that brand.

These include a unique combination of the local peat, smokiness from roasted local barley, brininess and iodine from proximity to the sea and an overall richness with balancing sweet notes from locally grown grains and cool wood barrel ageing.

One can instantly recognize a member of the long lineage of the Laphroaig family of fine Islay whiskies, and their fine expression of a unique terroir.

Fine whisky is not all in the wood. It is possible to define an authentic expanded notion of terroir which is expressed in unique styles of single malt Scottish distilleries and their family of offerings.

A definable regional single malt terroir gives rise to regional style similarities amongst unique whisky brand families, each with their own unmistakable styles.

And the entire world is that much the better for it.

Your Culinary World Copyright Ana Kinkaid/Peter Schlagel  2014

Part 3 - Tomorrow's Trends Today and the Dangerous American Diet

By Ana Kinkaid

Currently food consumers are evolving into three very interesting groups: Baby Boomers, Middle Agers and Gen Yers.   

Baby Boomers, age 65+, make up the largest consumer group and they are the wealthiest. However, because they are largely grounded in the European tradition of multi-course meals with traditional ingredients - all historical based, they will spend their money only in specific ways. They are also aging and concerned about long term finances and the ever increasing cost of health care.

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Middle Agers, age 30-65, want something to taste great also to be convenient and easy to enjoy. They are not interested in expensive gourmet foods as they have little disposable income. They, too, are concerned about health but they have little time between job and children to get to the gym or take a run.

Gen Yers, (short for “Generation Youth”) age 18-30, are the most open to innovation and new food ideas. They are also the most willing to spend money on food. Yet they largely lack any in-depth knowledge of cuisine so their food choices are mostly driven by advertising. They are easily attracted to any product marked “New and Improved” or “Healthy” as well as anything that sounds exotic or international.

It’s easy to assume then that umami might interest only these young adults as a mysterious Japanese-only ingredient in miso soup or sushi. Nothing could be further from the truth. The umami effect is present in the cuisine of every nation around the world.

Consider, for example, some of the foods enjoyed on a regular basis in Western Cuisine: Aged ham, bacon, tomatoes, sauerkraut, anchovies, mushrooms, Worcestershire sauce, firm aged cheeses, egg yolks, potatoes, Chinese cabbage, spinach, aged beef, chicken broth, carrots, soup, ketchup, aged olive oil, tuna and, shellfish – clams, oysters, mussels, geoduck. They all contain umami elements. 

Their impact on flavor doesn’t stop there because when two or more ingredients from the different type classes of umami are combined, they significant increase the flavor far beyond the 1 + 1 = 2 basis.                                                                      

How the combined ingredients are prepared can also add to the flavor impact. Roasting, aging, fermenting, browning, drying or slow cooking all further enhance the final flavor.  

Some of America's favorite foods are it's favorite foods because of the very fact that they contain umami, even if no one knows the word umami.  

Consider a humble bowl of the ever popular French Onion Soup. It was originally an end-of-day soup enjoyed by poor weary French miners just a hundred years ago and now enjoyed coast-to-coast in America.  

How is umami created in this dish? First one brown the onion – that adds umami. Then chef adds beef broth – that’s more umami. Simmer slowly – more umami. Then there the aged bread – the umami is building up in layers, ever increasing the flavor. And finally, aged Swiss cheese is melted on the top. The result is an “Umami Bomb”. 

Consider a more elegant dish, often served in a fine restaurant: The Caesar Salad.  

The Caesar salad was originally created in 1924 in Tijuana for the stars of the silent film era who loved vacationing south of the Border to circumvent Prohibition. Soon it made its way north to California where it continued to be a hit with Hollywood’s rich and famous at the Brown Derby for the likes of Clark Gable and Jean Harlow. It was even a childhood favorite of Julia Child 

So does a Caesar Salad classify as another “Umami Bomb”? Most Assuredly! Just consider the ingredients in a properly made Caesar Salad: Romaine lettuce (no umami here, just a place to park all the wonderful umami flavors), a coddled egg (yes), anchovies or Worcestershire Sauce (yes), toasted croutons (yes), aged olive oil (yes) and Parmesan cheese (yes, yes, yes).  

Think of some of  other favorite American foods – pizza, that’s aged sausage, tomatoes, cheese: it all works together because of umami. Pasta with meatballs and either red or white sauce: browned meat cooked slowly, tomatoes or clams cooked slowly and then grated Parmesan cheese. Oh, and wine, too – because it’s aged that contains umami too.  

Last, but certainly not least, consider clam chowder. There’s New England style chowder for the purist loaded with potatoes and clams, all slow cooked. Then there’s Manhattan style chowder for the New Yorker with tomatoes added – increasing the umami even more.  

Oyster Stew is equally loaded with umami based ingredients. So is Billi Bi, the legendary mussel soup created at Maxim’s in Paris for the departing American tycoon Billy Brand in the late 1800’s. It is credited with winning Maxim’s the first three star rating ever in the Michelin Guide. That speaks for itself.  

This list could go on and on, but it’s vital to understand the other reason why umami is emerging as a dominate culinary trend.  

The simple fact is that the national American diet is in trouble, big trouble. Americans are fat and getting heavier by the day with no end, it seems, in sight.  

If this seems an over statement, just consider that presently 2/3 of all U.S. citizens are overweight or obese. One third of all school age children are equally overweight or obese. Even 1/4 of the nation's children age 2-5 top the charts as too heavy.

O.K. so we Americans are carrying a few extra pounds – what’s the big deal? Since few us are planning to pursue a career as a New York model or a Hollywood movie star, what’s the harm in enjoying a favorite food even if means an extra pound or so? Is being slightly plump now a social crime?  

No, it's not a crime but it is dangerous. That's because there are three popular American food groups that link directly to three major diseases that are damaging to the heart, the brain and the body's overall ability to function. Each of these diseases has the capability of severely reducing the quality of one's life and even causing an unnecessary early death.


The Hidden Killers

 Fast Foods or “Oh, My Aching Heart” - Saturated Fats (Heart Disease)  

Americans love fried foods. Americans love the rich flavor oil adds all those fast foods waiting so conveniently at roadside outlets. It’s so easy to get a burger or a bucket and head home 

But many are heading, instead, to the hospital. All those hidden fats allow dangerous plaques to form, clogging the arteries to the heart and blocking the vital blood flow to the heart. Without that oxygen-bearing blood, the heart cannot function properly and a myocardial infarction or heart attack occurs.  

The result is that heart attacks are the leading cause of death in America, accounting for one-in-six deaths. Over 720,000 deaths annually are linked directly to coronary disease. 

Snack Foods or “What a Headache I’ve Got!”  – Salts (Strokes)

When it’s time to watch a game on T.V. or host a get-together, Americans love the convenience (and taste) of snack foods from potato chips to pretzels, from microwaved popcorn  to corn chips, Cheetos, Kringles, Dorito’s – the list goes on and on and so does the salt level they contain. 

When the body cannot process the excessive salt consumed in the American diet, it dumped it into the body’s blood stream. The body then tries to counter balance this excess salt by drawing more water into the blood. The added water increases the pressure on the walls of the blood vessels in the brain and causes them to burst. The result is a hemorrhagic stroke that can kill or paralyze.

Strokes are the 3rd most common cause of death, striking down 1 in 19 individuals. Strokes are also responsible for the largest number of severely disabled individuals in America.  Very often the survivors of a killer stroke recover only to discover they have lost the ability to speak, to walk, even to move. Even with extensive therapy only 10% of these patients are able to recover completely and return to a normal life.

Traditionally strokes most often struck older individuals but today as more and more young people eat the large amounts of salt hidden in the American diet the age range for strokes is falling to include many people seemingly in the prime years of their lives. The loss of their productive exceeds over $128 billion annually.

Convenience Foods or “Sweet Enough to Die For” – Sugars (Diabetes)

Convenience or packaged foods are largely the result of World War II. During that period America had to supply 16 million soldiers with food. Canned and packaged foods were the only way to feed so many soldiers in the field.

Back home, foods were being rationed so that factories could have addition produce to process into high energy K rations for the troops. The women on the home front were making bombers and bullets, not cookies and cakes.

When peace finally came in 1945, the soldiers came home. Their wives had been too busy supporting the war effort to learn to cooks as their mothers had plus many on the basic ingredients, like sugar, flour and eggs, hadn’t even been available. The young soldiers, many in the early twenties, were already used to processed food from boxed and cans.

The food industry, which had during the war years developed into a multi-million dollar industry, wasn’t exactly eager to lose their profit. So, they launched a major publicity campaign to convince all those young brides that cooking was only modern if it came from a box or can.  Cooking from scratch with fresh ingredients was portrayed as old fashion and too time consuming.

And just to make sure everyone enjoyed the mixes, the manufacturing companies kept the sugar in. They even increased it. 

The consumption of all that sugar in the American diet has led to sky-high levels of blood sugar. The body responds by secreting increased levels of insulin into the body. When the body can no longer produce enough of the counter balancing insulin, the resulting damage sets the stage for the development of diabetes and a lifetime dependence on drugs and restrictive special diets.

Today diabetes is the 7th leading cause of death in America. Annually 1 in 10 adults dies due to complications from this dreaded disease. Each year over 1.7 million new cases are diagnosed.  Once an illness seen only among the aging, the most common form of diabetes, Type 2, is now rapidly increasing among teenagers and young adults due to the large consumption of sugar laden foods and drinks.

The Problem Is Only Going to Get Worse

Today excessive saturated fats, salt and sugars are in over 90% of the foods purchased by Americans.   By 2050 attacks will kill 1 in 4 Americans. Strokes and diabetes will claim 1 in 3 American lives.

Americans are already aware of the growing cost of dealing with these emerging health care problems. The average American family of four now pays approximately $12,700 annually just for health insurance. The cost of an average hospital stay in the U.S. is now at $33,079.

As a result, Americans are looking for ways to maintain and improve their health before become ill.  Reducing the excessive fats, salts and sugars from the diet is one way to actively improve one’s health.

The Food Industry, which spends millions to research the interests of consumer, is well aware of the demand for healthier products.. Their response is to declare a product “better for you” because they have removed all the additional fats, salts and sugars.

The result is most often a flat, tasteless product. The consumer gallantly does try these products once or twice but then slowly drifts back to the "better tasting" but less healthy choice. The result is a continuing problem as waistlines expand and medical bills soar!

The consumer wants a different kind of product and that’s where insightful and ethical food production and marketing come in  through the incorporation of umami thanks to companies such as Nikken Foods USA.

Presented at Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association 2014 Conference with many thanks to Taylor Shellfish FarmsNikken Foods USA and 

Your Culinary World Copyright Ana Kinkaid/Peter Schlagel  2014