Picture the cool creaminess of butter slathered over fresh bread, browning to a sizzle in a hot pan, or dripping from a glistening ear of corn. A slightly oily, mouth-coating quality is the calling card of a buttery whisky, but the tasting experience can span the aromas and flavors of butter as well.
The buttery textural sensation that appears in many types of whisky is derived from diacetyl, a compound that arises naturally from yeast activity during fermentation that can accumulate due to the action of bacteria in the washback. Distillers aim to keep the level of diacetyl in check: this is where healthy, active yeast can make all the difference. In the stills, the low boiling point of diacetyl means much of it is eliminated with the foreshots, but it can extend into the final spirit cut. If too much diacetyl enters the still, it can be difficult to separate from the final distillate due to its similarity to ethanol.
A little butteriness is a pleasurable quality, but too much is undesirable. In the right quantities, diacetyl can invoke a butterscotch note, but if excessive, it can be off-putting. As you circulate a whisky around your taste buds, consider the mouthfeel and range of flavors attributable to butter. It may taste salted or unsalted, exhibit more dairy notes of buttercream, even slightly sour buttermilk, or display the nuttier notes of browned butter, butter biscuits, buttered popcorn, butter toffee, and even nut butters.
Spread the Buttery Love
Pure Irish Butter—Connemara 12 year old: Lemon sherbet, peat smoke, and a particularly creamy mouthfeel
Salted Farmhouse Butter—Stranahan’s Yellow Label: Brown sugar, orchard fruit, and toasted oak
Buttered Popcorn—Suntory Toki: Brown apples, burnished orange, with a potent pepperiness