How To Taste Leather Flavors in Whisky

Photo by Jeff Harris

How To Taste Leather Flavors in Whisky

April 26, 2023 –––––– Jonny McCormick, , , ,

Leather is often used as an aroma descriptor in whisky. It might be the smell of new leather that makes you think of the burnished calfskin of handmade dress shoes, the soft, supple grain of an expensive bag, or the stitched leather upholstery of a luxury car interior. The aromas in your glass might also suggest worn leather, reminding you of a football or a wallet. Leather is also found as a flavor note, even though that might seem an unusual proposition for something we don’t actually consume. But we can still appreciate the flavors, as our taste buds may have been put to work when we absent-mindedly chewed on a leather bracelet or clamped a leather glove between our teeth while reaching into a pocket.

The smell of leather isn’t actually of the hide or skin itself, but rather the tanning process. Derived from animal hides, leather is of course a natural product. Tanning is a multistage process that preserves the hide, especially when traditional methods like vegetable tanning are used, but the chemicals, coloring, fatting agents, oils, and staining materials used by the tanners in the finishing process are liable to produce some challenging aromas. The tanneries in Marrakesh, Morocco may look exotically colorful on travel websites, but the photos can never convey the full olfactory experience of actually being there. Whisky tasting notes mentioning leather are unlikely to be associating aromas with the tanning process itself, but rather the pleasing smell of the finished leather product.

As a descriptor, leather is most commonly associated with whiskies of great age, particularly single malts that have spent many decades in refill sherry casks. These casks produce a leathery aroma that associates with tobacco, bookbindings, pecan, wood spices, earthiness, oak, and cinnamon. By their scarcity, however, these whiskies are beyond the price range of most drinkers. Port Ellen whiskies have a particularly distinctive chamois leather aroma that aficionados love, although those expressions are getting impossible to find at attainable prices. But you don’t need to break the bank to experience leather aromas in whisky. Those same leathery characteristics can come through with younger whiskies matured in sherry casks, some wine finishes, and in some bourbon barrels. Try spotting leather on your own when you detect those associated aromas, and you might find a descriptor that fits like a glove.

Single Malts of India Neidhal Peated Indian Single Malt - Citrus, vanilla pod, pungent smoke, and saddle leather

Compass Box Vellichor Blended Scotch - Charred oak, green olive, coffee grounds, and savory leather


Teeling Wonders of Wood Virgin Chinkapin Oak Irish Single Pot Still - Sweet chestnut, licorice, pecan, and warm leather

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