How to Taste Coffee Flavors in Whisky
July 15, 2021 –––––– Jonny McCormick
Whether you wake to the wafting aromas from your neighborhood roaster or are content to start the day gulping down a bottomless cup of joe at the diner, coffee flavors are at once quotidian and invigorating. In fact, they've even coined a word for the tendency to not start anything until you've had a cup of coffee: procaffeinating.
While they might inhabit different parts of our day, coffee flavors and whisky find delightful ways to intersect, including classic Irish Coffee, whisky-flavored coffee beans, and coffee-flavored whiskey like Jameson Cold Brew. Likewise, coffee flavors appear in many whiskies, particularly sherry cask-matured scotch, whiskies made from dark-roasted grains, and those finished in stout casks. They can also be found mingled with the caramel and spice in bourbon and rye.
The flavors of coffee usually appear midway into the taste of a whisky and extend through the finish, frequently overlapping with the taste of chocolate. Coffee itself includes a wide spectrum of flavors and coffee specialists use a flavor wheel to help them describe and grade the aromas and flavors, which can be fruity, spicy, floral, sweet, nutty, or fermented, among others. Consider whether the whisky has flavors of strong black coffee, mounds of moist grounds tapped out by the barista, nutmeg-sprinkled cappuccino, or the bitter edge of dark espresso.
Where do these coffee flavors come from in a whisky? Just as coffee beans are roasted to alter their flavor, coopers char the inner surface of barrel staves to enhance the flavor in whisky. Toasted staves of new oak release furfural, which can lead to the formation of a compound with strong coffee aromas called furfurylthiol.
When grains are roasted to the point of developing rich brown colors, the Maillard reaction promotes the release of similar flavors. Roasted grains are common in dark beers, but relatively novel for whisky production. Glenmorangie Signet is made with a portion of chocolate malt, named for its dark brown color and known to lend coffee notes to porter and brown ale. Balvenie 26 year old A Day of Dark Barley showcases its heavily roasted barley, and American single malt distilleries like Westward are also experimenting in this area. A small amount of high-roast grains can have a big impact on whisky flavor. When it's done to perfection, they can deliver dark, sultry, sophisticated flavors imbued with rich coffee. A perfect nightcap whisky, blessedly free from the stimulant effects of caffeine, so you can sleep soundly, saving the real coffee for the morning.
Perk Up: Where Coffee Meets Whiskey
Taste espresso in Hudson Do The Rye Thing, with flavors of purple fruits, rich spices, tobacco, and dark chocolate.
Indulge in a café mocha with Glenmorangie Signet, which offers milk chocolate, sultana, and orange marmalade.
Go classic and have a coffee with cream in The Whistler Imperial Stout Cask- Finished, full of fruity dark chocolate, ginger, and black cherry.