From the editors

Is it time to reinvent the flavour wheel?

  • I’ve had a slightly strange relationship with flavour wheels. Obviously they make sense, otherwise they wouldn’t be so widely used. I use them myself, albeit carefully. The research paper which gave us the current Scotch whisky flavour wheel remains a go-to for me when I’m trying to get a fix on not just what aromas are there, but where they come from.

    When I’m out and about teaching, I get folk to look at the standard Scotch wheel while I (try to) explain how it works, from the bullseye of cardinal aromas in the centre and the subdivisions of aroma/flavour in each outward ring, to the creative space of your own memories which exists in the white space beyond. Then I ask them to put it away, as having a flavour wheel next to you when you are tasting is too much of a temptation. You can’t help glancing at it, but the moment you do, the words on it inveigle their way into your brain – driving you towards a potentially inaccurate and less personal analysis.

    So, a flavour wheel is useful before a tasting, and certainly after, and as a way of showing whisky’s diversity of flavour, it remains invaluable. But while it is a handy tool, it is not one (it’s fair to say) which has been front of mind.

    Until, that is, I had the distinct honour to sit recently on a panel with Dr Don Livermore, master blender at Canada’s Corby distillery; and my old buddy the Canadian whisky guru Davin de Kergommeaux.

    The class was a fascinating exploration of the flavour profiles of the different grains and distillation processes at Dr Don’s distillery. He did all of the heavy lifting, while Davin and I chipped in with tasting notes for all of the new makes.

    Canadian version: Click the image to view Dr Don's whisky wheel in more detail

    Central to it was Dr Don’s new Canadian whisky flavour wheel. ‘I’d looked at the old one for years and always wondered what wasn’t quite right about it,’ he explained. ‘Then I realised, the issue is that it has flavour at the centre. From a blender’s perspective, that’s not the starting point. What if, I wondered, you put the three drivers of flavour – grain, yeast, and wood – there instead and then look at what flavours they produce?’

    So, he did – and it makes sense. Now you can see what yeast adds (fruity, floral, soapy, sulphur), what wood contributes (cask notes, ‘finish’ notes) or what each grain type can give. This being Canada, the range is wider than is (currently) used in Scotland. All of these building blocks are further subdivided and then, to please geeks such as myself, the outermost ring is a breakdown of which chemical compound each of these is made from. Finally, he then uses the flavour wheel to make graphic fingerprints of each of his new makes or blends.

    For me, it has opened up a new understanding of the complexities of whisky – and is a beautifully simple explanation of what a distiller and/or blender has to play with. While giving a more scientific analysis, it remains focused on flavour, which it strikes me to have been the theme for this holiday season as far as I’m concerned.

    Cataloguing how flavours arise is a way of easing ourselves away from the (over)reliance on regionality. The two are hard to reconcile, y’see. The drinker who has started with Glenlivet or Glenfiddich may well feel confident to then try something else from Speyside and wander unwittingly into the meaty power of Mortlach. Likewise, the lover of smoky Islay might be bemused by the unpeated Bruichladdich, or vice versa. The drinker exploring the Highlands (and how amorphous is that ‘region’?) will wonder why Glenmorangie isn’t like Dalmore, or Aberfeldy isn’t the same at Ben Nevis, if they are ostensibly from the same area. You get my drift.

    Dr Don’s fingerprints are one way to show not only where flavour comes from, but the variety which exists within the possibilities. The Single Malt Flavour Map [full disclosure: I’m still involved in its management] does the same. Both demonstrate how individuality is key.

    We can’t however expect everyone to have a flavour wheel (or map) to hand when they walk into a shop or bar. If we are to shift thinking away from region to flavour, then we also need whisky lists to be organised in terms of flavour or style rather than where the distillery is located (it would also allow blends to be included, by the way). Wines have been arranged in this fashion for years, so why not whisky? The wheel and map are the starting point for this new(er) recategorisation.

    I’m writing this during a brief sojourn in London when, in need of wine, I discovered the truly excellent Theatre of Wine. For a second or two, it was hard to work out how the wines were arranged. There wasn’t the normal division into countries, internal regions, and price. Instead the world’s wines sat next to each other. It seemed that the higher up the shelves you went, the more expensive things became, which made sense. Then it became apparent. All the light reds were in one column, medium bodied in the next, etc. The same applied to whites. It worked a treat, throwing new wines, styles, and countries at me (and I might have passed over the Georgian red if it had been hidden away in an ‘others’ section). In some ways it’s an approach akin to that taken by London whisky bar Black Rock, but not by many other bars or retailers.

    Wheels, maps, lists and shelves arranged by flavour help to communicate diversity. Because consumers understand flavour as a concept, this gives them confidence, which in turn makes them relax. And when that happens, they enjoy exploring. Simple, really.

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