It’s #FibFriday, and for this week’s Fib of the Week we’ve got an interesting one for you: “Coastal-style whisky tastes like that because it’s made/matured by the sea.”. Now, a disclaimer first - what we are absolutely not saying here is that warehousing is unimportant. It is important and unique to each barrel and site. But a big part of coastal, sea air is the sort from the sea. Sodium chloride, NaCl, salt, has never been detected in chemical analysis of finished whisky. Whatever effects distillation and/or maturation may have on the final flavour, and it’s an understudied, poorly understood topic even now, coastal flavours clearly do not come in because the warehouse is onshore and exposes the spirit to this year.
This is one of the most fascinating things about whisky. We agree that it is a “spirit of place”, strongly associated with the place and locality in which it has been distilled. But romantic myths about sea air just don’t cut it in the science. You also need to take a second to think logically. Some of the most well-known coastal flavoured distilleries are Talisker on Skye, Old Pulteney up at Wick, and for example the distilleries on Islay. Without exception, all of these distilleries are owned by large companies with warehousing across Scotland. For simple risk management, companies spread out the stock between different warehouses at different sites in case there is some horrific disaster, the warehouse blows up or collapses, and that’s the Talisker supplies buggered for the next decade or more. Just to take an example. Land is also a terrible problem on Islay, something that is always at a premium, and thus on a small island it is neither cost nor space effective to store all casks at the distillery in warehouses by the sea. In an ideal world, we would. But the vast majority of spirit for all these distilleries is matured in warehouses across the Central Belt, much of it far from the sea. (One exception to the big company with many warehouses spread out model may be Springbank and its associated distilleries in Campbelltown. We can’t speak for their entire warehousing policy - they may also rent warehousing space in the Central Belt, including e.g. for the Cadenhead independent bottlings - but it’s a good bet that the vast majority of their stock exceptionally is stored near Campbeltown. But this then brings in the other question - why do expressions from the Cadenhead range, mainly matured in Campbeltown in some cases, not have a coastal element?).
Warehousing conditions are exceptionally important. Steady rough constants in humidity and temperature are very helpful to good and more importantly predictable maturation. As we said above, the topic is also understudied and understood only in a limited way. Because of the different environmental conditions between different warehouses, it is likely that the locality where spirit has been stored has some tiny influence on the overall character of the final dram. But the difference is more in quality and reliability of maturation, much less in distinctive flavour characteristics it might give to your dram. Because of the unknowns on this and the very minor potential influence, it’s important to us as independent bottlers proud of being from Fife to transport all of our casks to our rented warehouse in Auchtermuchty, and especially that our further maturation experiments take place there. For us, though, as whisky enthusiasts this is in terms of flavour more a matter of hedging our bets, while as a company the reason for this is that we want to ensure wherever possible we are maintaining consistency of processes to give you great drams. The science, however, only favourite this consistency approach to date, not vast changes in flavour depending on where you store your spirit. The only proven exception of course being maturation in warmer climates where temperature and humidity levels will be very different from those in Scotland, hence resulting usually in faster maturation.
But if it doesn’t come from maturation by the sea, where does this coastal element come from? Honestly, it’s one of the great mysteries of whisky, that keeps the spirit fun. I have heard one very well regarded distiller, while peddling the coastal maturation myth, also talking about how the barley and soil on Islay are constantly buffeted by the winds for generations, so some of that must be absorbed by the grain and thus into the spirit. All well and good, as far as it goes. But the reality is that very few distilleries have the ability to use any, let alone only local barley, as with peat. And the coastal note on the spirits hasn’t changed as industry got bigger and local barley has been less used, but that character has been retained. Similarly, this individual was talking about the salt sea air. Salt has never been chemically found in whisky.
For our money, the vast majority of, possibly all the magic that gives distillery character is in the still, how it is used, and where the cuts are taken. Again, there may be a small regional influence from maturation, but this is exceptionally minimal. This doesn’t mean we can’t romanticise whisky, especially modern whisky, as a spirit of place. Instead, however, we would emphasise whisky as a spirit of “people and place”, the synergy that whisky has always been. People working hard and cunningly, sometimes innovatively, sometimes more traditionally, to make that incredible spirit again and again, over years that become centuries, always in that beautiful way that reflects where it is produced and where they are from. Slàinte! 🥃