5 Chinese Tasting Notes You Didn’t Know You Knew
Since whisky tasting notes began to become the norm in the 1980s, we’ve gotten very comfortable talking about whisky in certain ways. There’s a vocabulary that starts to become familiar – not just a collection of words, but also of foodstuffs that help us to categorise the whiskies and understand them better.
As we talk about whisky, we find lots of convenient short-hands to describe flavour – chances are you know many of these yourselves. What it might surprise you to know, is that these flavours have different equivalants around the world, which may be more familiar to you than you might be able to tell at first glance.
The Power of Tasting Notes
“A medley of dried fruit aromas, raisins and apricots, with gentle notes of cinnamon and liquorice and snatches of blackcurrant on the nose”
That’s got to be a sherried whisky. Dried raisins and apricots? Cinnamon and liquorice? Classic tasting notes for a warming, dark red dram. And that blackcurrant? Left-field, but I’m intrigued.
“Thick Seville marmalade, bubbling on a hot stove with notes of toasted cereals.”
Ooh, now that does sound appealing. I already love a rich marmalade, but nothing compares to being in the room with a slowly roiling vat of it, all steam and sweetness.
“Full and rich, sticky toffee pudding with dates and vanilla custard, warm pear and cinnamon”
Say no more. There are few things better than a sticky toffee pudding. I really want to drink this whisky!
These three whiskies (A Glenrothes, a Glenlivet and a Glengoyne if you’re interested) have all leaned heavily on their tasting notes to create a certain allure. A desire to bewitch you through suggestion, to invoke pleasant memories of sensory experiences, and to keep those memories deeply anchored in the soft mud of your psyche when that whisky finally passes your lips. I’d even argue this whole process of association really helps to enhance the taste of the whisky.
Tasting notes can be a little controversial. Some tend to see them as a bit of wishful thinking – a romantic imagining of flavours that might not be present in the drink. Words can’t change the taste of the whisky.
I don’t take this view myself; I’m a fan of the well crafted tasting note. Whisky is very complicated – a product of grain, malting, fermentation, distillation and years of maturing in oak. Each of these processes can subtly change the flavour of the finished product and create a liquid that is a complex interplay of many moving parts. Delicious, but far too complex for any one mind to comprehend.
Tasting notes are our way of sharpening the senses – if you’re presented with some nice, clear and familiar flavours, it cuts through the confusion and gives you something to look for in the whisky. The power of suggestion can’t be understated either. If you’re already primed to look for those notes of sticky toffee pudding, you’re that much more likely to find them. And who isn’t overjoyed at the prospect of sticky toffee pudding? I’ll tell you who.
A British Hegemony on Tasting Notes
Though certain elements of British culture have had stonking success abroad, sometimes the spotlight of fame passes right over a deserving candidate. Sticky toffee pudding has not become a global cultural icon, despite how beloved it is over here. In fact, a lot of whisky tasting notes that we love so dearly are quite closely tied to the United Kingdom, without direct analogues abroad.
Take the classic Speyside tasting note ‘Pear Drops’ – it’s commonly used to describe those lively, estery notes in a (usually) bourbon cask whisky. Unless you’ve grown up in the UK, though, pear drops are unlikely to have been a part of your sweetie regime. They’re a beloved tasting note, however, far better than just ‘pear’. A pear drop is a three part candy; pear flavour, banana flavour and a little hint of nail varnish to tie them together. A very particular combination, etched into the British psyche of a certain era. Roald Dahl knew pear drops well, writing in ‘Boy’:
‘Pear Drops were exciting because they had a dangerous taste. They smelled of nail-varnish and they froze the back of your throat.’
As a tasting note, they’re perfect. The collaboration of estery notes, strong enough to almost become varnish, not only describes the sharp-sweet flavour you may well find in a fragrantly estery Speyside malt, but is also lodged in the pleasant memories of a whole generation of British whisky drinkers.
So, then. What if you’re not a British whisky drinker? What if you don’t have sticky toffee pud, pear drops and bubbling marmalade as cultural touchstones? Whisky outgrew Scotland a long time ago and has grown into an incredible global success, so clearly our tasting notes have not been holding us back. But perhaps whisky can still learn some tricks during its international travels.
The further you get from the culturally European places, the less likely you are to find an overlap with food and flavour.
Let’s take China as an example, where even a simpler tasting note might not be quite so straightforward.
“Raspberries? Don’t really know what those are, or how they taste. Is it like a strawberry?”
They might say.
“Marzipan? That’s made of almonds right? And… it’s the outside of a… Christmas cake?”
Not just a lack of marzipan, but also a lack of Christmas could make this a particularly challenging tasting note in China.
“Sticky Toffee Pudding? Sweet, eggy and creamy, right?”
Pudding refers to more of a wobbly custard/crème caramel kind of thing in China, and so the word is potentially a false friend in the world of tasting notes.
Expanding Whisky’s Influence in China
China’s emerging middle class are being heavily courted by the Scottish Whisky industry right now. Every Chinese new year brings new bottles themed with the current animal of the Chinese zodiac, and the commissioning of a new $150m whisky distillery in Sichuan by Pernod Ricard shows that our whisky brands are serious about getting whisky onto dining tables alongside its Chinese counterpart ‘Baijiu’.
If we want to help whisky along a bit, then it might be an idea to do a little localisation of tasting notes. Equip Scotch to be able to better find that soft spot within deep nostalgia, and give the folks in China some familiar tasting notes that they will find easier to track down within the complex taste of the whisky.
China has an exceptionally long and rich culinary tradition, supported by diverse regions, climates and very fertile lands. There are comfort foods, medicinal foods, celebration foods and casual snacking foods. To a Western palate, many of these flavours may seem novel, but the raw materials of nature are more limited than we might imagine. It’s in the combinations of tastes and aromas that flavour is created, and if you really start to pay attention to the tastes of many Chinese foods, the similarities will become apparent. And, dear readers of this whisky-themed blog, I imagine that paying attention to taste is something you’re already adept at.
The guide that follows makes links between the tastes of whisky and some of China’s most beloved delicacies.
Roasted Watermelon Seeds
Hēi guāzǐ –黑瓜子
Let’s dive straight for one of the most nostalgic Chinese snacks of all – the Roasted Watermelon seed. These have been a traditional New Year or Tea House snack since time long forgotten. A long, rainy afternoon with friends, beer and the pattering on the roof can become a treasured memory. The sound of raindrops melds with the sound of the cracking of shells between teeth, and if someone happens to walk on the sea of discarded shells on the floor. I should point out that these seeds are far larger than those from western melons, and contain a soft and nutty, pale white kernel.
There are many ways to prepare these watermelon seeds for roasting, but one of the most common preparations is a dark soy glaze, fortified with either star anise or liquorice root. That makes these little seeds an ideal tasting note comparison for those heavily oaky whiskies that carry aniseedy notes onto the palate. So the next time you’re in Chinese company and you have a hankering to say that your whisky reminds you of liquorice all-sorts, or spicy mulled drinks, or something a little woody and nutty – just remember the aniseedy roasted watermelon seeds with their nutty centres.
Red (Brown) Sugar Stewed Dates
Hóng Táng Dà Zăo Shuì – 紅糖大枣水
While we often associate aniseedy, woody flavours with sherried whiskies, there are much stronger and sweeter flavours that are frequently mentioned when a sherry cask is used for maturation. For this reason, the watermelon seeds are not alone in the photo to the right.
In China, many things are eaten and drunk not just because they’re delicious (though they usually are), but also for their medicinal and curative properties. Parents enthusiastically prescribe certain foods for their kids to keep them at peak healthiness, and many people in China have grown up with regular servings of red sugar stewed dates. This rich brew can warm your body, boost regeneration of blood and help calm anxiety. It’s also got that lovely hot bubbling marmalade aesthetic.
They’re exceptionally simple to make, too. A handful of Chinese giant dates (Jujube) thrown into a boiling mixture of water and red sugar (quite like dense, moist muscovado). The dark liquid is stewed for about 20 minutes and drunk hot; and the dates eaten entirely, once cooled and except for the stone.
At the beginning of this article I mentioned that ‘Sticky Toffee Pudding’ has no cultural equivalent outside the UK. I may have written too hastily. Having stewed my own red dates and drunk their liquor, I can happily say that they bear an astonishing similarity to the dense, datey syrupiness of the classic British dessert.
Next time you find yourself floored by the succulent sweetness of a Pedro Ximénez matured Scotch, and feel the desire to compare it to a rich sticky toffee pudding, sit comfortably back and remember the stewed red dates.
The Asian Pear
Those pear drops and fresh pear notes, though. You can’t navigate through Speyside whiskies without mentioning them, so we’ll need to find a good Chinese equivalent. For those fresh fruity notes, the asian pear is an excellent candidate. With a flavour somewhere between a conference pear and a granny smith apple (but far milder than both), and an exceptionally juicy texture, this is the perfect descriptor for those exceptionally light and fruity whiskies. There are a few varieties that are local to different regions, but the overall archetypical pear will be familiar to folks all over China. It’s incredibly refreshing, too – a perfect antidote to hot summer dehydration.
For those more intense, estery fruit flavours, dried fruits of many kinds are popular snacks all over China. Dried jackfruit, pineapple and mango are well known, and their flavours can overlap with many Scotch Whiskies. Make sure you’re armed with foreknowledge of a few different fruits, though. The region of China a person grew up in will affect the ones they feel particularly squishy and nostalgic about.
The pear is a very safe bet, however. It’s also a safe bet because its name is far easier to pronounce. Just make sure you give it a rising inflection.
White Rabbit Creamy Candy
Dàbáitù Nǎitáng – 大白兔奶糖
We all have childhood sweets that we remember particularly fondly. For some, it will indeed be those dangerous pear drops. There are many others to choose from, though. Judging by the way I like to describe the flavours in whisky, my fondest memories are for gummy bears (you know which brand) and Fruit Salads. Not Blackjacks, though – bleaurgh. I was not a liquorice kid.
In China, the sweets of choice since the 1950s have been White Rabbits. Almost as prolific as roasted watermelon seeds at new year, White Rabbit sweets are a cultural touchstone, they’re sometimes seen as a milk supplement – and are even reported to have been given as a gift to Richard Nixon on his visit to China.
In short, they’re kind of a big deal, and their flavour is very familiar to almost anyone who grew up in China. Is that flavour anything like whisky? But of course – that’s the format here!
White Rabbits are sweet and creamy, but above all, they’re flavoured with vanillin. The same vanillin that is abundant in American white oak and strongly lends its vanilla flavour to Bourbon Whisky, and any Scotch that has spent time maturing in ex-Bourbon oak. So if you’re drinking a nice, yellow-gold ex-Bourbon hogshead whisky, and you’re in need of a Chinese tasting note for something creamy, white-chocolatey or vanilla-y: White Rabbits will see you right.
Roasted Seaweed Snacks
Tàn kǎo hǎitái 炭烤海苔
Despite our miles upon miles of beautiful coastline, the consumption of seaweed has never really taken off in the British Isles. Gentle reader, you may even have had a little involuntary spasm at the mention of it. Supposedly, ‘laverbread’ is a traditional delicacy in Wales, but I’ve yet to meet a Welsh person who sings its praises fondly.
Not so in Asia, where seaweeds of all types are used to infuse soups, create gummy marine salads, or just to snack on between meals. Laver can be turned into thin, paperlike sheets and then roasted with a little salt and sesame oil to produce an exceptionally popular snack. It’s salty, savoury, crisp – and has that particular oceanic tang of iron and iodine that is also found in oysters and black olives.
But if you, devoted whisky drinker, think that the taste of ocean spinach isn’t for you, then let me change your mind.
The peculiar bouquet of roasted seaweed is also a hidden component of some of the most distinctive and desirable Scotch Whiskies – the west coast peat bombs. If you’re a fan of whisky distilled on the coastlines of Scotland, or the Isles, and you crave that medicinal peat-smoky sensation, then thank the seaweed. Lying in saltwater peat bogs for many thousands of years doesn’t dull its flavour, especially once the peat is burned and the antique smoke infuses the drying grains of barley.
And there is my final Chinese tip to you. If you’re ever struggling to describe the taste of an Islay whisky, simply ask your audience to picture their favourite crispy seaweed snack. Ask them to imagine rolling that seaweed around some tobacco and beef jerky, lighting the end and taking one long, unforgettable puff on the whole construction. Islay whiskies are the favourite of anyone who enjoys writing tasting notes.
Breaking the Hegemony
A large part of whisky’s appeal, I’d wager, is that shared social aspect of simply talking about the stuff. Let this article be a little pocket phrasebook for your whisky tastings. A scattering of useful words and phrases that will help you over those cultural bumps in the road and forge a new bond over a shared dram! Being relentlessly British about it is needlessly limiting.
Here you have five examples out of potentially hundreds, five ways to relate whisky more closely to a culture that comes at it from a different perspective. So long as you can successfully make that appeal to nostalgia, the rest handles itself. Nostalgia is, after all, the most powerful force in the universe.
Hopefully I’ve also inspired you to think more out of the box when it comes to describing the flavours in a whisky. Think to the cuisines around the world, scan the hundreds of thousands of delightful savours and sensations and imagine which would go best with a dram of Scotch.
The green herbiness of Iranian cuisine with a grassy and fresh Lowland whisky perhaps? A selection of intense Russian fruit jams with whisky substituting for the tea? Or perhaps a musty and sea-sodden Islay with whatever this Chilean monstrosity is:
The world may be complex, with millions of different ways of doing things – but there’s always a place for the whisky alongside.
This article was fun to research, and my thanks go to Joanna Zhou for her expertise in Chinese foods and their preparation. This article has a Mandarin Chinese counterpart on the Cask 88 WeChat, written by Joanna. I’m sure it can be provided on request. All uncredited photos are mine, and are the reason the research was so much fun.