Though it was years ago and I was certainly hungover, I vividly remember waiting to board a plane in Auckland bound for LAX. I am not a nervous flyer, but the plane had been delayed because of storms and, on top of that hangover I had Gilligan-esque anxieties about getting stranded in the south seas. But the kiwis around me, those returning to America, were disturbingly jubilant. The transatlantic flight was no bother to them, they had gotten though duty free with armfuls of their favorite biscuits to take home. They had childlike dream caches of snack treats. ToffeePops, MallowPuffs, Gingernuts and, a few brave souls, perhaps traitors to their people, had bags of Tim Tams.* They all had an intense love of these biscuits. And I get it, I have shortboard with Earl Grey and listen to the Answer Me This! podcast— it’s comforting. But the love of these biscuits reminds me of something I do truly despise: comparing their flavor to spirits.
Start digging around in tasting notes for spirits and things get “poetic.” You might say “in vino veritas” but really its more like “I was drinking and started using lots o’ words and couldn't stop.” The Scotch Malt Whisky Society bottlings are labeled and named with homeric epics that I wish I could get drunk enough to write. Many, if not most of them, will at some point make reference to a brand name candy, confection or tea biscuit. I consider myself a citizen of the world, though I have yet to have the Jammie Dodger biscuit that is cited in tasting notes for almost all non-Islay** whiskies. I won’t spend too much energy pointing out that this habit is lazy, hacky, Anglo-Saxontastic, and brand-whore way of writing tasting notes. Nor will I ever purchase a biscuit to better understand tasting notes because I feel like that would promote this exclusionary and flawed way to explain flavors and aromas. But I will buy fruit.
Another crutch of the spirit judge is saying “notes of tropical fruit,” which is not unlike saying, “meat intended for sausage,” it’s a bit vague. Tropical fruits include durian and dragonfruit, a spectrum that encompasses both rotting corpses and new car smell. Banana comes up quite a bit in tasting notes, as does papaya and sometimes mango but I think that perhaps the most relevant aroma and flavor to spirits is that of the jackfruit. The flavor of jackfruit shows up in plenty of malt whiskies and the aroma peaks out of agricole rhums and cachaças.
Before I also get accused of being exclusionary, I’ll offer this:
India, by itself, annually grows about 100 lbs of jackfruit for every person on earth.
So while you might have to go to a specialty grocery to find jackfruit, I assure you, it’s out there. There are 2 ways to understand what a jackfruit offers to your sensory perception and I’ll begin first with the one I am ill equipped to understand: chemical compositions. According to The Journal of Food Composition and Analysis, ethyl isovalerate, propyl isovalerate, butyl isovalerate, isobutyl isovalerate, 3-methylbutyl acetate, 1-butanol, and 2-methylbutanol are volatile compounds found in jackfruit. That’s a science way to say "how something smells at room temperature." But, this is an extremely objective way to to understand spirits. You will occasionally hear that Juicy Fruit gum is jackfruit flavored. The original package for Juicy Fruit boasts “A Fascinating Artificial Flavor,” which, may have been inspired by jackfruit, but way more likely inspired by the scientific understanding of ethyl isovalerate, propyl isovalerate, butyl isovalerate, isobutyl isovalerate, 3-methylbutyl acetate, 1-butanol, and 2-methylbutanol. If your version of showing off is to have the ability to name volatile compounds emanating from distillates, you will impress me and perhaps a few distillers but I can’t make guarantees for the rest of the world. And if you want to know more about this, I suggest you ask a scientist. Darcy O’Neil has done excellent work on this subject and I have attended a seminar he has given on it. For those of you, perhaps a bit less “beaker and flask” and a bit more “knife and cutting board,” I’d say you should call your local Asian market and request a small jackfruit.
I say small because apparently the smallest jackfruits ripen quickly and are less likely to be exported. The larger fruits are packed in shipping containers to better survive long trips. As they ripen, they get softer and change from a spiky green thing to more of a yellow-brown Godzilla turd. But this Godzilla turd is what you are looking for, you may need to allow the jackfruit to ripen for a few days in your home before cutting it up. This is a good thing because they smell amazing and remembering that scent is an important aspect of understanding and communicating better tasting notes. Should you decide to butcher a fresh jackfruit, here is a video on how to do it. But the main tips are simple:
Cutting up a jackfruit
Wait for the fruit to ripen/turn yellowish brown
Put plastic wrap down on your workspace for easy clean up
Oil your knife to avoid the natural latex
Quarter the fruit and remove the core
Remove the flesh from the arils and seed from the flesh
Repeat for another half hour
The Jackfruit aroma encompasses most everything you can think of in "tropical fruit." Though most often mango and pineapple are cited as explaining the scent, this is muddling the difference between aroma with flavor. The aroma is floral, citric, banana like and smells like baked confections amongst the light tropical scents. These aromas show up in rum, agricultural cane spirits and gin. The flavor is similar to mango, pineapple, sugar apple and most interestingly the savory notes of soybeans, or barley. These flavors show up in whisky, agave and agricultural cane spirits. Dividing this fruit’s aroma from its flavor is also a good skill to have when evaluating spirits— specifically botanical spirits like gin that have aromas and flavors that are often different. If you are having a problem acquiring jackfruit or finding a place to make a huge mess while cutting it up, note that jackfruit is also sold canned, frozen, pre-packaged and even in chip form at Trader Joe’s.
However to return to the title of this piece rather than just the point of it, it's completely fine for novices to proclaim "it taste like a Tootsie Roll." It's intimidating for new tasters to to say the first thing, which is often the most correct thing, that comes to mind when evaluating wine and spirits. For example, my wife who gives zero fucks about whisky, will smell something I'm drinking a say,
"vanilla flower, not bean, dried spruce, kola nut and toasted cacao nib"
"would you like to taste it?"
She reminds me
But professionals need to avoid brands. Brands bring forward incredibly strong feelings, outside of sensory perception that can change the entire tasting experience. Aside from being exclusionary and perhaps childish, it also promotes the concept that brands don't change or aren't different across borders. Ask any spirits nerd if booze brands change over the years and get ready for nap time because they will go on for a while. That same nerd might call out "Jaffa Cake" in tasting notes as if that is some sort of congenital truth about biscuits humans are born with. So, I encourage seeking out as many fruits, spices and culinary experiences to better understand spirits and to save the biscuits for catching up on your BBC dramadies.
*Tim Tams are fucking amazing, though from Australia. For a New Zealander to admit the worth of an Australian product belittles centuries of rivalry like that of Brazil and Argentina, America and Canada or France and everyone.
**Islay whiskies are traditionally peated and thusly taste smoky. These whiskies are actually, often quit fruity thigh it’s hard for novices to tell through smoky aromas. Most lazy tasting notes do not mention the fruity aspects of these malts.