When we were young did we think whisky tasted bitter???

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When we were young did we think whisky tasted bitter???

The researcher might be on to something
It's not my problem
I didn't drink when I was a child (oh, all the lost years)
Complete tripe, of course not
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When we were young did we think whisky tasted bitter???

Postby Lawrence » Fri May 19, 2006 5:29 pm

Is this article complete nonsense or is there some validity to it? I have no recollection from my youth of whisky tasting bitter but I have to admit I only snuck the occasional sip when nobody was looking.

The researcher says;

"There's a good reason for that. In a seminar last summer at Copia in Napa, Yale University professor of otolaryngology (ear, nose and throat research) Linda Bartoshuk -- best-known for her work with "supertasters" -- said the reason older people enjoy Scotch is that we all gradually lose the ability to taste bitter things as we age. "

The article in full;

Scotch whisky has long been considered a drink men discover before they die -- usually, not too many years before.

Part of the reason is physiological: Research suggests young adults' taste buds aren't ready for Scotch's bitter flavors.

But Scotch also has an image problem. Consider the music connections: Cognac and hip-hop. Rum and dub. Vodka and electronica.

Scotch and bagpipes.

Two innovative companies in Scotland -- one founded by an American -- are determined to break the stereotype of Scotch as a tipple worthy of spending one's Social Security check on. And they're not afraid of upsetting the Scotch establishment.

The Scotch Whisky Association disapproves of both Compass Box Crafted Whiskies and Jon, Mark & Robbo's Easy Drinking Whisky Co., Ltd.: the former for using toasted wooden staves to flavor a yet-unreleased product, and the latter for (horrors!) blending Irish and Scotch malt whiskies in one product.

"If the whisky tastes good, why shouldn't we be able to do that?" says distiller Dave "Robbo" Robertson, formerly a master distiller at the Macallan. "We've got a little bit of baggage, because Scotch is the drink that your father or grandfather drank."

There's a good reason for that. In a seminar last summer at Copia in Napa, Yale University professor of otolaryngology (ear, nose and throat research) Linda Bartoshuk -- best-known for her work with "supertasters" -- said the reason older people enjoy Scotch is that we all gradually lose the ability to taste bitter things as we age.

The four basic flavors

But Scotch doesn't have to be bitter. Robertson, 37, says that every whisky, not just Scotch, contains four basic flavors: sweet, spicy, smoky and fruity.

Yet while vodkas and rums proudly boast their flavors on the label, Scotch labels give a novice consumer no idea of what the whisky will taste like.

That revelation gave Robertson and his partners Jon and Mark Geary the idea for their line of three unmistakably different whiskies: The Smooth Sweeter One, The Smokey Peaty One and The Rich Spicy One. All cost $30, and all deliver the flavors they promise.

"People demand more than they did 15-20 years ago," Robertson says. "They won't settle for a big brand with a big marketing campaign."

Compass Box founder and whisky maker John Glaser, 42, knows all about Scotch marketing; the Minnesota native was a global marketing director for Johnnie Walker.

"The idea was to make Johnnie Walker seem cool," Glaser says. "But the model has completely changed from people like your father who had a brand and stuck with it. Today, people want choice. They want experimentation. Every year, people come up to me and say, 'What's new?' "

Glaser answers with his line of four whiskies named Asyla ($34), Hedonism ($75), Eleuthera ($46) and the Peat Monster ($44).

The use of clever names with no clear pecking order is part of a revolution Glaser and Robertson are leading.

Though their products are competitors, they are not rivals. They met me in the lobby of a downtown San Francisco hotel early on a recent morning and each poured out samples of his products. Both showed an appreciation for the other man's work, and once they started talking, they finished each other's thoughts.

With most Scotches, there's a progression of quality and exclusivity that is supposed to correspond directly to price. Johnnie Walker Black costs more and tastes better than Johnnie Walker Red. Bowmore 25-year-old costs more and tastes better than Bowmore 12-year-old. There are exceptions, such as Glenmorangie's range of Scotches aged in different types of barrels, but most distilleries establish a clear pecking order.

With Compass Box and Jon, Mark and Robbo's whiskies, the best one is the one you like best. In fact, Glaser admits that his favorite of his own whiskies -- the light and delicate Asyla -- is the hardest to sell.

"It's the one people understand the least," he says. "That's my aperitif whisky. If I had to go to a desert island with one whisky, that would be it. One day, before I die, people will get this whisky. But typically in Scotch whisky, people like big, bold flavors that hit you over the head."

Bold best-seller

Enter the Peat Monster, Glaser's best-seller.

"If you asked me five years ago, I would have said I would never make a whisky in that style," he says. "But you gotta give the people what they want."

Indeed, the Peat Monster is very peaty -- though not as much as Robbo's The Smokey Peaty One.

Peat, incidentally, is best described as coal in its infancy. Swamp vegetation decomposes and partially carbonizes into a soft, moist muck that can be dried out and used as fuel. Peat burns faster than coal, and was used for heating in Scotland in ancient times.

For the past few centuries, peat has been an important part of Scotch whisky production, used for everything from heating the still to the crucial step where it imparts its flavor -- when damp, germinating barley is dried over a peat fire. ("Malting" means the process of germination, during which the barley secretes an enzyme that allows its starches to convert to sugar for fermentation. That's where the term "single malt" comes from.)

Peat grows slowly

A layer of peat grows only about 1 mm per year, so the industry is beginning to worry about peat shortages in the future, and to investigate other methods of giving Scotch a smoky character. But these two Scotches use the real thing.

I'm a peat fan; my favorite single malt is the Talisker from the Isle of Skye, a Scotch renowned for its peatiness. So naturally, I liked the deliberately peaty styles offered by Compass Box and Jon, Mark and Robbo. The latter was smokier, while with the Compass Box, I felt like I could smell and taste the very earth of Scotland.

However, I was surprised that each company offered a style I liked even better. For Jon, Mark and Robbo, it was the Rich Spicy One, which had peat in the nose along with honey, seaweed, black pepper and cornflakes. On the palate, it delivers plenty of the promised spice -- my mouth tingled with black pepper and cinnamon. When the tingling stopped, I tasted honey, almonds, smoke, seaweed and whole wheat bread.

Among Compass Box's lineup, I most liked Hedonism -- maybe because it smells almost like wine. It smells primarily of honey and molasses, but with notes of berries, cigar tobacco, vanilla and honeydew melon. On the palate, it's very rich and sweet, though the sharp bite of alcohol lurks just beneath.

I sipped all these whiskies neat, but you can add a wee drop of water if you like.

Hedonism is unusual in that it's a 100-percent grain whisky. This means it's made from raw grain (wheat or corn) rather than malted barley. While single malts get most of the attention given to Scotch, the great majority of Scotch whiskies are actually a blend of grain and malt. Glaser says his company is the only one making a 100-percent grain Scotch.

"I always tried to get Johnnie Walker to make an old-grain whisky," he says. Now he makes it himself.

Or rather, he assembles it himself. Both Glaser and Robertson are something like negociants in Burgundy: they buy casks of whisky they like from distilleries all over Scotland and blend them in ways they find appealing. This is not unique, though the end products they are trying to achieve are.

Both are fanatic about the importance of the wooden casks used to age the whiskies. Much of the flavor of Scotch comes from the wood.

"Sixty to 80 percent of the smooth, sweeter style is from the barrels we choose," Robertson says. "We don't add flavors to whisky. We use the natural flavors of the barrels."

Robertson is a fan of Spanish oak and likes Scotch aged in used Sherry barrels for its spiciness. Glaser prefers whisky aged in used Bourbon barrels.

"The vanilla character American oak gives is quite good," he says. "The richness, softness and sweetness on the palate of our whisky is driven by our wood regime. And also by the distilleries we choose."

A winemaker wannabe

If Glaser sounds like a winemaker, it's because that was his original choice of career.

"My dream of being a winemaker fizzled after I realized how much science I was going to have to learn and how many people would be ahead of me," he says. "I wasn't a Scotch drinker. I only drank wine."

He worked for a year at Domaine Bruno Clair in France's Burgundy region, and for two years at Beringer Vineyards in St. Helena.

"I was sort of a marketing factotum, but I hung around the cellars a lot," he says.

When Johnnie Walker hired him, he says, "I went over there expecting to see Johnnie Walker belched out of a factory in Glasgow. Instead, it was produced in small malt whisky distilleries spread across bucolic Scotland."

Now a convert, Glaser says, "I tell people that inside every wine person is a Scotch whisky person waiting to get out.

"I get accused in Scotland all the time of making whisky in a style that's 'new world.' I thought, we can make whisky taste better than we thought it can."

Robertson agrees.

"You're competing for share of throat," he says. "There's only so much stuff you can pour you're your throat. People are drinking less in volume, but they're drinking better. I see people who want to enjoy what they're drinking."

And they're not willing to wait until retirement age to do it.

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Postby Frodo » Fri May 19, 2006 7:04 pm

Great article Lawrence! Must have been some job typing it out!!!

I never experianced bitterness with whisky, although in my youth, I drank either bourbon on rocks or Canadian whisky mixed with cola. I never got bitterness from bourbon though. It was the alcohol that sent me away from drinking anything straight - as well as only being able to afford bottom-shelf whiskies.

Right now, I consider most whiskies rather sweet tatsing.

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Postby Deactivated Member » Fri May 19, 2006 7:36 pm

I had to read that title twice as I initially ready "Tasted bEtter" not bItter!

Anyway, all those years ago I don't remember tasting bitterness as such. I do know that most of my whisky-drinking friends preferred Glenfiddich, as was the fashion at that time, but I preferred Glenmorangie which was little known in comparison at that time.
After Glenmorangie, HP and a couple of other similar malts, I moved towards the Islays.

But no bitterness.

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Postby Choochoo » Fri May 19, 2006 7:58 pm

I remember being more affected by the harshness of some alcohol than by any bitterness. Be it JWR or Jack Daniels, when I was in high school I recall both being tough to get down due to the big alcohol burn.

There could be something to the youth/bitter concept though. I recall not enjoying the bitter quality of beer in my youth, and many of those were light, all be it cheap & crappy beers. But now I can drink those same crappy beers and not find any off-putting bitterness, more just a blandness or lack of flavor. So maybe I do have less capacity to taste bitterness now than I did in my teens/early 20’s.

Oh, and I enjoyed that article - thanks. I still haven't gotten around to trying either Compass Box or Ben & Jerry's Scotch but I am interested in what they're doing, and look forward to sampling them one day.

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Postby Photon » Fri May 19, 2006 8:31 pm

I never tried whisk(e)y until I was at university. However, I have no memeories of it being bitter at that point (and I do remember some bitter beers - which is what I spent most of my drinking money on at that time)

Choochoo wrote:I still haven't gotten around to trying ... Ben & Jerry's Scotch

That's an ice cream I'd buy.


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Postby rthomson » Fri May 19, 2006 8:31 pm

There's a fair amount of research indicating the loss of taste buds and ability to perceive flavors as we age. In a more extreme example it's been linked to malnutrition in some elderly as their losses are so great they're not motivated to eat many foods and thus do not ingest the proper nutrition.

Other research has suggested that we have a taste for sweeter foods, and an aversion to even small amounts of bitterness, when we're younger because sweeter foods tend to have more k-calories that we need as we're growing. I don't know if this is associated with whisky tasting bitter but I think it's possible. I only had the tiniest sips when I was younger, and those were watered down and chilled with ice, so I don't have personal experience to draw from.

It's an interesting question. I would think any possible bitterness issue would be compounded by the process of acquiring a taste for whisky when we first start. When I was an established whisky fan but then had a cask strength for the first time it was quite difficult for me to drink, even with a few drops of water. Now I can't live without 'em :wink:


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Postby Scotchio » Fri May 19, 2006 8:41 pm

Initially I found it too powerful/hot but as 15year olds we'd drink cheap blends to get drunk quickly. This policy set me back in the end as a night of excessive overindulgence led to me inadvertently smashing my parents toilet.I unsuccessfully tried to blame the cat and had to pay for the replacement. For the next 4 years the aroma of Bells made me heave.
At uni I was introduced to Glenmorangie and Laphroaig and I began to realise there was more to drink than alcohol. I do think that the older I get and the more I taste the more I recognise the sweeter elements of whisky.

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Postby Miandi » Fri May 19, 2006 8:42 pm


Great article. BTW what do you mean "when we WERE young?" We're still young, aren't we???

Seriously, when I was growing up my parents would often serve my sisters and I watered down wine for special occasions. At that time, it was considered acceptable to serve children a small amount of wine in that manner. When I went to college, I had moved on to beer.

I think that the primary reason why younger people stick with beer and wine is that these are relatively inexpensive pleasures. Instead of taste being a deterrent, price is. Younger people probably need to have developed a bit more earning power in order to pay at least $30 US (and probably more) for a good quality whisky.

If any young person has tried whisky, it was usually from their parents liquor cabinet. My parents had some whisky, but it was used in mixers. Frankly, any mixer whisky probably isn't going to be all that great anyway.

It probably takes a few years before someone tries something other than what they are used to. It may require some serendipitous event to lead someone to try whisky. For example, for me I received a bottle of whisky as a Christmas gift.

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Postby Choochoo » Fri May 19, 2006 8:56 pm

Photon wrote:
Choochoo wrote:I still haven't gotten around to trying ... Ben & Jerry's Scotch

That's an ice cream I'd buy.


Ha, I wish I could take credit for the quip. It's what the owner of a fine liquor store in RI called the Jon, Mark and Robbo line.

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Is whisky bitter...

Postby Muskrat Portage » Sat May 20, 2006 3:43 pm

I read the article after pasting it into MS Word and will hang onto it for discussion at our next whisky tasting in September. Very interesting and thought provoking. It will be appropos at our "Islays on an Island" tasting.

When I was very young, around 4-5, I used to go downstairs in the morning after our parents had had one of their rare social gatherings, as in the 50's you couldn't afford parties very often. (A case of beer and a bottle at Christmas tapped most people out.) I'd go and drain all the glasses, looking for pop. I never spit out the sample, unless there was a cigarette butt . :shock: Yuck! Yes, it was very bitter and not at all enjoyable. Mom remembers coming down and finding me quite enervated (tipsy) so she'd send me back to bed.

I can confirm the comment about young people's tastebuds not being ready for bitter flavours, having discussed this physiological phenomenom in one of my early Sociology courses. In effect the taste buds become more aligned for the bitter flavours ("deadened") as we mature. Young tastebuds appeared to rarely tolerate the sharper flavours in foods, like old cheese, whisky, even fried mushrooms. I personally couldn't tolerate these examples in my teens and didn't enjoy them until my 20's and 30's.

Oddly, I quite enjoyed my first Laphroaig in my 20's and bought the bottle after the tasting as well as an Oban, which I decanted into smaller bottles as it went down in quantity, unwittingly limiting the impact of oxidation on the whisky.

Now, as many of the posters do, I can discern the sweetness that I searched for as a child in the very drams that I spurned then. Age is not always a bad thing, is it? :D Musky Pete.

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Postby hpulley » Mon May 22, 2006 1:00 pm

I drank a fair bit of Canadian Whisky as a teen, starting around 14. I couldn't buy it until I was 16, but we obtained it from liquor cabinets (no lie, I had a decent beard early so I bought the beer and liquor for my 18 year old friends who got carded!). I can't say there was any bitterness of note in Canadian whiskies, but I didn't try scotch whisky until a few years later, late teens. I still don't remember any bitterness from my late teens either but I mostly drank scotch on the rocks at the time, which may have masked it.

I wasn't too picky at that time though, wasn't drinking it to appreciate it at the time. I was dropped off at home after drinking too much overproof (151 proof) rum straight from the bottle on occasion and my favorite brandy at the time would be described as paint thinner, if I was being nice in my description. Never broke a toilet though! How did you manage that, Scotchio?!?!? That's some drunken power yak ;) :P

I like sherried whiskies today but not ones that are too bitter. I'd say I can still taste bitterness just fine, though I'm only 34 so perhaps I'm not old enough for the effect.


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Postby Scotchio » Mon May 22, 2006 4:34 pm

I'll tell that tale later, I'm being pestered by bored hungry children at this moment. Perhaps it would be better in a ridiculous drinking tales thread.

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Postby Ize » Tue May 23, 2006 11:49 am

I would along with the high alcohol level not the bitterness that my young tastebuds repulsed. Nevertheless, beer is consicered as a bitter drink too and that I couldn't stand it either as a youngster. But still, somehow I have that feeling that it wasn't the bitterness in whisky that kept me away from whisky on those days.

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Postby irishwhiskeychaser » Thu May 25, 2006 3:52 pm

In the good old days in Ireland (mainly pre 1970's) whiskey was used a an ailment cure for loads of minor illnesses in childern (I reckon scotland would of been the same).

Now don't get upset or shocked by the following as it was done in total moderation of course. However whiskey was used on very young childern.

For babes teething a finger would be litterly dipped in whiskey and the teething child would suck the finger to relive the pain thus a very early gripe water.

For older kids with tooth ache a small/half teaspoon of whiskey was administered. This was also the case for upset stomach.

For colds a very light hot whiskey/punch was also given to childern.

Stangely Grandparents would happily let the grand childern have a small sip of their dram for curiosity sake up to a certian age but refrained from this once the child was old enough to know what they were drinking.

Whiskey has always had a rep for it's healing qualities in old Ireland if not abused of course.

Often you would see the childern recoil from the taste but I think it is more from the whiskey's strength rather than bitter taste.

I think you could call it sharpness rather than bitterness.

I got my taste of whiskey from my grandfather as my father does not drink at all. Strangely I loved the smell from his breath after a whiskey. And he did let my taste his when I was very very young.

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Postby rthomson » Wed May 31, 2006 4:53 pm

I recently had a ten day cycle of antibiotics during which I refrained from drinking any alcohol. When it was done I went out to a bar and ordered one of my favorite IPA's. The first couple of sips tasted incredibly bitter, bordering on unpleasant. However, by the time the beer was halfway done I wasn't picking up the bitterness to that intense degree and I was enjoying the pint as I had always done. Comparing an IPA to whisky in a discussion of bitterness certainly brings up the apples and oranges metaphor but I would guess that, along with the physiological factors, we probably have to become accustomed to bitterness before we can appreciate it.


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