Rye Whiskey, Beer Taste Notes of Yore

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The Continuity of Taste

The vocabulary for descriptions of foods and drinks in the past tends to vary from today. Vocabulary changes, and also, people didn’t always look at things the way we do now. In the beer area, it is the custom today to describe beer flavour in a detailed, metaphorical fashion that has leaned quite a bit on contemporary wine-writing.

The British beer writer, Michael Jackson (1942-2007) had a lot to do with that. He (among others) took inspiration from Hugh Johnson and other wine experts who described wine flavour by reference to fruits or other foods, flowers, spices, and more (“flint-like”, “animal” , “nervous”).

Professional wine writing perfected the style as the consumer society took flight in the post-war era. Indeed one can say in this regard, British wine-writing did so, with the rest of the world soon following.

So, a typical taste note for beer today might read: sweet biscuit taste, flowery/piney hop odour, citric aftertaste.

In the 1800s, it was rare for beer to be described this way and even more so earlier. People were satisfied with other adjectives, such as “washy”, “empyreumatic” (burned or smoky), “mucilaginous” (thick and sugary), “heady”, “sickly” (infected), “blinked”.

Often, a simple “good” or “bad” sufficed, or that Victorian stalwart, “sound”, as in “sound old ale”. You can tell sometimes what was meant by the older vocabulary, but in general the impressions conveyed were less precise than today.

One of the most famous beer studies is a late 1800s, multi-volume work by Alfred Barnard. He rarely described an actual taste, but did so occasionally, e.g., that an old ale had a “Madeira odour”. This is a fruity, oxidative smell, familiar to those who know the taste of bottle-age in beer – and Madeira.

Once in a while another writer in Victorian times used terms that could be written today. Louvain white beer in Belgium was described in 1892 as tasting of soapsuds, pitch, and vinegar. That’s pretty clear. (It was not meant as a compliment, but beer flavour is always relative to area, time, and other factors).

White beer (Wit) today doesn’t taste quite like soap, tar and vinegar, but in the 1800s a lot of “Belgian white” was lactic-sourish. Casks then on the Continent were often pitched, so the tar part may come from that. Berlin’s Weisse today is probably fairly close, or some brands of Leipzig Gose Bier.

In the American book, The French Wine And Liquor Manufacturer: A Practical Guide (different editions, 1860s), author John Rack stated of American rye whiskey that “when old and pure, [it] resembled the odor of new-mown hay”. 

Even an urban-dweller can conjure the idea of newly-mown hay. I’d call it loamy, herbal, maybe perfumed. It can also evoke something funky/vegetal, from fertilizer or the natural growing cycle. This note in various grasses derives from an organic chemical, couramin. Couramin was isolated in the later 1800s and is used today in perfumes and certain foods to lend the keynote flavour. Clover in particular has a concentration of this chemical, which makes sense as it is a frequent component of hay and silage.

Some modern writers have used words similar to Rack’s to describe straight rye whiskey. The odour of Booker’s Rye has been compared by whiskey-writer Savannah Weinstock to “raisin bran and fresh sweet hay”. Some Canadian straight (so-called flavouring) rye whiskey fits the bill too.

150 years on, straight rye can show a remarkable continuity of taste. It is often said we can’t know what things tasted like in the 1800s, grains have changed too much, yeasts, stills, etc. Yet, Booker’s Rye smells of fresh hay just as the 1860s rye that put John Rack to flight. Some things don’t change.

Note re image: the image shown is in the public domain and was sourced here Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.