• Mark Still

Palate Flexibility: Scotland to Kentucky and Back

After a long stretch of drinking big, fat bourbons and ryes, I opened up a bottle of Scotch. My palate was thoroughly confused and that turned out to be a good thing.

For many years, my whiskey shelf was an eclectic mix of Speyside, Highland, and Islay single malt Scotches sitting alongside bourbon, Tennessee whiskey, and rye whiskey. I drank them interchangeably all the time, often mixing it up in the same evening.

But, about a year ago, I just stopped buying and opening bottles of Scotch in favor of bourbon and rye whiskey. I didn't mean to do it, it just happened. Before long, there was only one, single malt out in the open and it was a half-full Aberfeldy 12 that I never really cared for anyway. I still have plenty of unopened Scotch but it has been relegated to the dark recesses of the back of the cabinet. There are some good bottles back there too. Lagavulin, Bunnahabhain, Laphroaig, Glenmorangie, to name a few so it isn't as if I'm just ignoring the boring bottles.

Last week, I decided that fall was coming so it was time to get back to my favorite whisky-producing region of Scotland so I opened up a Bunnahabhain 12. This Islay born, lightly peated single malt, matured in sherry and bourbon casks for 12 years and bottled at 46.3% ABV should be right up my alley. Why then did it seem so alien to my nose and palate?

...is my palate simply so callused from triple-digit proof points it is now difficult for me to detect the subtle, sophisticated characteristics...

I do have some bourbons that I have described as 'delicate' or 'complex' but is that only relative to other raucous, corn dominated, new charred whiskeys that make anything not offered unfiltered at barrel strength seem tame? Now, as I return to a whisky that is objectively gentle and round on the tongue, is my palate simply so callused from triple-digit proof points it is difficult for me to detect the subtle, sophisticated characteristics that turned me into a single malt Scotch fan so long ago?

I'm not sure about that but I am sure of what needs to be done about it and, luckily, it involves drinking more whisky. I've been back to this Bunnahabhain a few times since I opened it and each time it reveals more to me than before. Where I first simply felt confused by the delicate nose and abandoned by the liquid on my tongue, I now feel like the subtleties are revealing more to me and I'm acknowledging them rather than skipping right by them, in a lazy search of the obvious. It may even be helping me to appreciate bourbon more by slowing me down and encouraging me to think more about what I'm tasting.

How is that Bunnahabhain, you ask? It's darn tasty. After reacquainting myself with the spirit and the style, I'm loving the sea spray that lays on top of the malt. The fruit and the white pepper bite are delicious and, of course, the lovely, peated undertone that arrives on the nose and remains through the finish is splendid.

I'm so glad I opened this bottle. I needed a reminder that variety in my glass is important to my appreciation of all spirits. Cheers!

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