Tasting the Past – Rye Whiskey

The Continuity of Taste



The vocabulary of food and drink description has changed over time, in general. The language evolves, and also people tend to view things differently.

It is customary now to describe beer and whisky flavour in a metaphorical way, much as for wine in the last 40 years. Wine vocabulary changes too with time, but due to the venerated position of wine in western culture I would say less than for other drinks.

The British beer writer Michael Jackson (1942-2007) had a lot to do with creating how beer and whisky are described today. The influence of wine writer Hugh Johnson (still active) and other wine authors on Jackson’s early writing seems evident. Here, flavour is described by comparison to fruits and other foods, flowers, spices, and minerals.

Professional wine writing popularized the method as the consumer society took flight post-WW II. Indeed one can say British wine-writing did so, with the rest of the world soon following.

A typical modern taste note for beer might read: sweet biscuit, flowery/piney hops, citric aftertaste. In the 1800s it was rare for beer to be described this way. People had different impressions then: “washy”, “empyreumatic” (i.e., burned or smoky), “mucilaginous” (thick and sugary), “heady”, “sickly” (infected, probably), “blinked” (soured or off) were some of the terms.

Often, just a “good” or “bad” sufficed, or that Victorian stalwart, “sound”, as in “sound old ale”.

We can tell sometimes what was meant but in general, impressions seemed less precise than now, at least outside professional circles.

A famous beer writer before Jackson was the Victorian Alfred Barnard. He rarely described actual taste, vs. long descriptions of buildings and manufacturing methods, but sometimes did so. Once he wrote that old ale had a “Madeira odour”. This is a fruity, oxidative smell, familiar to those who know bottle-age in beer – or Madeira wine.

Occasionally, terms did appear in general literature that resonate today. A tourist in 1892 compared Louvain white beer to soapsuds, pitch, and vinegar! That’s pretty clear, and was not meant as a compliment. Belgian beer is viewed differently today outside the country, but taste is relative to time and other factors.

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

Even a modern urban-dweller can conjure that idea. We’re talking loamy, herbal, maybe perfumed. Also, maybe funky or vegetal. That part is from fertilizers perhaps, or natural conditions.

In various grasses the smell is caused by an organic chemical, couramin, isolated in the late 1800s. It is used today in perfume and food processing. Clover in particular displays the note, which makes sense: clover is often a component in hay.

Moving to the modern time, Booker’s Straight Rye evoked for the whiskey writer Savannah Weinstock “raisin bran and fresh sweet hay”.

Some Canadian rye whisky tastes like that too. 150 years on, rye can show remarkable continuity of taste.

It is often said we can’t know what drinks tasted like in the 1800s, too much has changed. Yet, Booker’s Rye smells of fresh hay, just as the 1860s rye did that put John Rack to flight.

Tastes are more constant than many think, but it’s not often we see the evidence, due to changing language and other habits over time.

Note re image: noted as public domain, sourced from Wikipedia’s entry “Hay”, here. Any rights therein belong solely to lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.