Let us wind the clock back. Jim Murray, the knowledgeable but not exactly popular writer who created the Whisky Bible, once said that sulphur was a Big Serious Problem in Scotch whisky. But he said this, probably, and who can blame him, to sell books.
He wants to create a bit of outrage perhaps. To get people talking. To do that, you have to create a bit of outrage. His background is in writing articles for red-top newspapers, so he knows how to slum it and stir up emotions. (Which, in a way, I kind of salute.)
But here’s the thing: his tub-thumping statements once gave rise to particular opinions that seemed to stick in the industry. There was once a time where JM had major influence – to a degree, he still does, but it seems to me to be only for whatever he rates as his top whisky of the year. (And that only usually influences people who want to flip bottles at auction – so not real whisky drinkers, in other words.) Anyway, Jim Murray is on the record as someone who does not like sulphur. He does not think it makes for a good whisky. But I think he is wrong.
Get yourself some ripe funky brie, and chutney, and spread it on a cracker, and you have a thing of beauty. Sulphur is a bit of a short-cut to that funkiness and although JM has declared it as the enemy, I would like to say that, actually, sulphur isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
It is just a thing.
It is inert, in and of itself, but when it’s delivered in the right way then it can absolutely work. I’ve had some amazing Springbanks that have gone the way of sulphur and they’ve been all the better because of it. Here’s how sulphur can work – this time from GlenDronach.
GlenDronach 1995 – 19 Year Old – PX Sherry Puncheon #3250 – Review
On the nose: ridiculous. Balsamic vinegar, prunes, a marvellous funky note, slightly sweaty (in a good way?), yeasty, with buttermilk and a ripe brie. Blackcurrants, elderberries, port. It’s rich as fuck, and way off the tasting wheel. Gunsmoke. A little bit… sulphury. Okay, there we go. But it’s not bad – sulphur can be good in a whisky. Sure some people say that it is an undesirable compound, but who the hell are they to tell me that I don’t want my whisky as funky as a Daft Punk concert?
In the mouth: well, if you thought the nose was so funky it had loft itself to the dance, then the taste is even funkier. Pan-fried grouse breast in a lovely rich sauce of autumnal fruits. Bloody, meaty gravy, with figs, dates, prunes. Sulphur! Yes, and it’s ace. The fact that it’s so oily somehow enhances this experience. Raisins, with that meatiness continuing, combine with a sweaty, carbide, rubber sensation, but it enhances this whisky. It works.
I would rather have a flavoursome sulphur-dominant whisky grassy vanilla profile from poor, weak wood. For me, that is the biggest crime in the Scotch industry right now: poorly made spirit in poor wood delivering a lack of flavour, a lack of experience. I want to feel something, I want a flavour kick, I want to be challenged. I don’t believe that this is something unique to veteran whisky fans either.
We should reward flavour and character. Being different and unusual is no bad thing. Having something to say is everything.
Lead image kindly provided by the Whisky Exchange