“It tastes like burning,” is something I often hear when discussing whisky, rum, brandy, gin, etc. I’m quite fond of spirits but whenever I admit that I mostly drink them neat (without ice or mixers) to friends and family I am greeted with twisted faces and pithy emotes like:
and my favorite, because it reminds me of Ralph Wiggum from The Simpsons,
“That stuff tastes like burning!”
With Halloween on the horizon I thought I’d tackle this particular food fear. Spirits are often masked, diluted, drowned in soda, because of the high concentration of alcohol. Let’s talk about what is really going on when you drink a distillate.
Most spirits hang around the 40% ABV (alcohol by volume) mark because that is the minimum amount of alcohol required for gin to be considered gin, whisky to be considered whisky, etc. So what’s the other 60%? Let’s use a glass of whisky as an example.
While a lot of what remains is water there are other chemical compounds and fatty acids in a glass of whisky that do the heavy lifting flavor-wise.
- Lactones are compounds extracted from the barrel during the aging process, often giving the spirit coconut, spice, or sandalwood character.
- Phenolic compounds can give savory and smoky qualities to the final product. These compounds are gained if you’re using something like peat smoke to dry the grains. This is most prevalent in Scotch whisky.
- Aldehydes, a great many of these can be extracted from the oak during the aging process to give you flavors of vanilla, almond, and even grassy notes.
- Esters are generated during fermentation and give the distillate fruit notes. Have you ever been in a brewery by the fermenting tanks and smelled bananas? Banana taffy maybe? This is just one example of an ester aroma.
- Sulphur compounds, which can give a distillate a meaty character. One of the reasons stills are made of copper is because it’s a good material for removing sulphur from the distillate before it goes into storage vessels. Though if enough compounds make it into the final distillate it can taste a bit meaty or stewed.
So why don’t you taste any of this? Because your tongue is freaking out! Let’s be clear, ethanol (the main alcohol in an adult beverage) has no taste. In high concentration ethanol lights up nerve receptors in your tongue called Polymodal Pain Receptors. When these receptors are over-stimulated they send pain signals to your brain. This doesn’t happen with beer and wine as their ABV isn’t high enough.
The extreme reaction to ethanol acts as a shroud and you can’t taste all the lovely flavors that lie beneath. Getting past the burn of spirits is very much like getting over a fear. If you continue to expose yourself it becomes a little less scary each time until you realize there’s nothing to be feared at all. I’m not suggesting getting drunk on spirits, that won’t help. If you taste (and can even spit it out afterwards, if you want) a little bit most days of the week for a couple of months you’ll find the burn start to dwindle and the flavors begin to bloom.