What is petrichor?
Sometimes found in tasting notes, it describes the earthy scents that you might have experienced in some malts. Some may know it better as the smell experienced with the first rainfall, following a period of dry weather. If you’re scientifically-minded, you may have heard of the organic compound produced by certain bacteria, called geosmin, which emits this kind of damp aroma. For example, it is responsible for the odour you get from beetroot: muckiness from the outside and sweetness from the flesh inside gives it that sugary earthy flavour.
I had never come across the word petrichor until I started writing for Malt. From various online notes, whisky tastings and chatting to people on Instagram, I was exposed to a wider vocabulary for describing the tastes I encountered, thus making it easier for me to convey what I was savouring.
There is a flavour, however, which I find really hard to explain. Being bilingual, I do my thinking in both languages. Sometimes when I struggle for the word in English, I will think of it in Cantonese and try and translate it back. It is better than saying ‘thingy’ that I am sure a lot of people are guilty of. The symbol for the word in Cantonese that I use to describe this particular flavour is as follows: 甘.
It sounds like the word for gold, the pronunciation is closest to “gam” in my mother tongue, and it is generally used to convey a good taste. It is like a flavour within a flavour. Unfortunately, try as I may, I have never been able to find a direct English translation, and it may be that it doesn’t exist. Some friends suggested astringent, which is definitely not wrong, but doesn’t capture the full picture. The closest I can get to explaining the word is that it means a little bit of bitter, sweet, earthy, herbal, metallic, tannic and medicinal all rolled into one. It could be confused with the Japanese word umami, but again, this does not quite capture the whole picture. That said, there are some similar flavours that overlap. Confusing, right?
If you google the symbol, the translation given is “sweet,” but that is not entirely correct; there is already a symbol for that. The closest foods I can use as an example of “gam” are ginseng root or angelica. If the root is brewed in water, you will get all of those flavours simultaneously, resulting in this odd sensation in the mouth where, when the liquid is gone, the aftertaste lingers. It is almost like a thick, dense air that seems as if you can bite into and smell it at the same time. It is one of those perfect words I use to describe some whiskies, but unfortunately, if you don’t understand the Chinese language, it is not too helpful as a tasting note!
I see this as just one more good reason why it is so positive to have a group of whisky chums whose experiences vary widely. Bouncing off each other and picking up new things. You and I could sit down together and enjoy a particularly “gam” whisky, after which you could take that new flavour note away for future use. Every individual’s perspective on whisky (and all of life) is informed by their personal experiences and unique pasts, and when we share these, we are sure to learn something new and, hopefully, useful.
As much as I enjoy drinking whisky, it is not a solitary thing for me. I love sitting with people, albeit not talking much; rather, I prefer to spend time listening to the thoughts of others or taking notes…until too much alcohol is consumed; then, it is hard to shut me up!
For my review today, I decided on the Glenmorangie Signet. Jason did his own review in 2014, about the time I started my own whisky journey, and more recently Taylor has also reviewed it. The reason for my choice is because I definitely get the gam flavour with this particular dram. I have experienced it with a handful now, but this comes to mind as the best example. It was the standout dram when I tasted it amongst other Glenmorangies and Ardbegs at an event with my whisky club. As a big bonus, I won a sample bottle’s worth at the end of year “heels lottery,” giving me even more time to enjoy it at my leisure and add to my tasting notes.
For those wanting a bottle you can purchase this almost everywhere. For online starters, Amazon have it for £140, Master of Malt demand £134.95, The Whisky Exchange seems slightly out of line at £158 and then Stateside, Shared Pour have it for $302.99.
Glenmorangie Signet – review
Colour: terra cotta.
On the nose: it is sweet with goji berries and jujube dates dusted with icing sugar where you can almost feel the powder hit the back of your throat when you inhale. There is an earthiness to it almost like wet soil and silage, even going towards overripe fruit. The aromas of mushrooms simmering in water come to mind. Coming in and out I experience that gam flavour with ginseng root and herbal Chinese medicine. I also get some spices that remind me of cinnamon and cloves. There is a delicate coconutty flavour, too, like the desiccated kind, intertwined with toasted marshmallow.
Revisit – as well as what it listed above, I detected punchy chilli spice and sweetness from spiced cinnamon apples drizzled with a buttery toffee sauce that strays towards a creamy chocolatey-caramel over time. I detected a hint of perfume almost like potpourri and deeper yeasty notes akin to rye bread. As the liquid oxidised, cola cubes and raspberry and coconut sponge cakes presented itself.
In the mouth: it is sweet with soft powdered vanilla sugar and with the sensation of the tiny particles tickling the throat. Spiciness from white pepper cuts through the sweetness. Again, I get hints of lightly toasted marshmallow dipped in desiccated coconut. The mouthfeel is oily and waxy, but when that ginseng root note hits, it becomes medicinal with hints of bitterness and tannins. Sweet earthiness is there, recalling the leftover water in which dried mushrooms have been soaked. It releases a pungent aroma, and the strange sensation of being able to chew the air in your mouth is present. There is also a tinny feeling, a metallic tickle which I attribute to the gam notes in this whisky. Cinnamon powder is present at the back of the throat as well.
Revisit – in addition to the first time round, I detected tannins and menthol that created a slightly bitter coolness within the mouth. The gam came in the form of numbing cloves, and the ginseng, of course. This time round, the sweet toffee from my revisit translates to a more burnt version on the palette. Fentimans botanical cola notes and an interesting sherbet tickle on the tongue.
Finish – bitter and sweet. The tannins give the mouth a light numb feeling that is medium lasting. The soft burn from the white pepper lingers on the base of the throat.
Revisit – a similar finish as before, but now with an added malty chocolate flavour not too dissimilar to Ovaltine.
If given the time and a little more liquid in my glass, I reckon I could have picked out even more flavours when I first tried this at the tasting. However, the ones I did manage to get were interesting and varied. I was very happy to then get the chance to revisit this whisky, taking it at my own pace and giving it the time I feel it deserves. My notes were consistent, but I was able to find even more on the second go, maybe due to having more time to relax and enjoy the dram with a fresh palate. On my revisit, the flavours were much more intense, but in a good way. The spiciness and sweetness was much more prominent. I found this to be a richly flavoured whisky with plenty to pick apart, and with consistency from the nose on to the taste. The punchier flavours could be attributed to the fact that I had my lottery dram first, whereas at the tasting, it was fourth in the line-up. That said, this did not make the whisky any less enjoyable.
Many times I have nosed a whisky, and the taste doesn’t quite compare. I am disappointed when this happens. It is almost always better to have it the other way round: meh nose but wonderful taste! When it is the opposite, with a lovely nose and underwhelming taste, I feel cheated. In this case, both senses delivered, and it’s one I would love to have in my cupboard to enjoy as a treat. It is definitely closer to the higher end of the price scale, but I think it is one to consider buying for a special occasion. This whisky is a great example and a future reference point for me to experience gam; it ticks every single one of those boxes of what I understand the word to mean.
A final thought… how short would my tasting notes be if I managed to find a direct translation?!
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