Artisan Spirit: Fall 2015

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D I S T I L L E D S P I R I T S A N D K E Y F L AV O R S :



he understanding of the flavor of distilled spirits forms an

(CH3CH2OH) itself is a solvent and confers tactile sensations of

incredibly complex topic—one which is only now really

warmth or heat and mouthfeel (viscosity), but it also extracts and

becoming understood at the molecular level. The origins and

interacts with many other components to “enhance” the flavor

controls of the generation of over 1000 components bear upon

profile. Ethanol has a sensory perception threshold of around

the overall flavor profile of each characteristic style of the classic

1.4 grams per 100 mL of solution. It has been discovered that

spirits. This forms the basis for “the art of the distiller” and

non-volatile components extracted from oak casks during spirit

relies upon the use of their senses to control and create the

aging can influence the structure of ethanol-water complexes

desired profile.

in distilled spirits. This then affects the flavor activity of other

Though thousands of components are present in these

more volatile flavor compounds in the product. While we cannot

complex beverages, a key set of components form the base, or

delve too deeply into all these subtleties, the rest of this article

foundation, from which the overall structure of each spirit is

will illustrate the origin of mostly volatile and a few non-volatile

built. In the past and for all time the human senses have been

components which come together to give rise to the sensory

used to determine if the product is as intended and maintains

pleasures (or displeasure if something is wrong) of consuming

a suitably long shelf-life. The distiller must therefore, from a

such beverages. However, flavor pleasure is a personal thing, so

sensory perspective, understand at least several dozen flavor

the point here is to teach or train the distiller or consumer to

components and be able to control their formation, be cognizant

understand a few key flavor notes only. Compared to water and

of maturation factors, or manipulate conditions to provide the

alcohol they form collectively only a small fraction of the whole,

consumer with a quality product of consistent flavor and stability.

but contribute massively to the overall pleasurable soul of the

A brief review is presented below on just a few key players in


the flavor profile of the most complex types of spirits—the so-

Building a vocabulary of terms is the first step in understanding

called brown spirits in particular. Gin, as a classic white spirit,

this flavor chemistry. Some flavor notes are above sensory

and unaged spirits—white whiskey, tequila and rum—must also

detection threshold concentrations, many more are below any

be understood in terms of flavor production (including flavor

detectable levels from a sensory perspective. Yet the interplay

from added botanicals, for instance) and some issues discussed

of several hundred to thousands of components is essential

below pertain to these unaged spirits, at least up to the point of

to creating the quintessential distilled spirit. No one will ever

discussion of barrel aging.

establish a simple base set of components that, when mixed at

WE BEGIN WITH WATER. Then we add alcohol. Distilled spirits

appropriate concentrations and in the correct proportions, will

contain the highest concentrations of alcohol of all alcoholic beverages, yet water (H2O) is still, for most spirits, the dominant chemical component. Water quality is important for producing spirits (and must be especially pure for dilution). Flavor issues originating or emanating from water supplies is not covered in depth here, however, some physical attributes of solutions dictate the overall flavor profile and deserve a brief mention. In typical spirits 40% alcohol by volume is the norm and thus ethanol is the next most abundant component present. Ethanol

give the desirable and acceptable flavor profile of an authentic spirit. While science makes advances in understanding flavor, it will still be both an artistic (a personal sensory experience) and a scientific endeavor to produce a consistent, desirable and quality commodity. A basic understanding of key flavor notes, however, will assist the distiller as part of a quality assurance and control program as will be seen below. A product can be technically perfect from an instrumental testing viewpoint – all components quantified to the nth degree—yet may be absolutely