View Full Version : Varnish and Such in Bourbon

08-27-2008, 09:03
Often I read on the board a comment such as that a specific bottle has a varsol or varnish taste. Paint thinner, linoleum and other terms are often used.

I agree that a taste in this direction should not be dominant. Yet, IMO, traces of these flavours are essential to a good bourbon or (even more so) rye.

These are congeners, chemical compounds produced by fermentation of grain sugars, themselves derived from long-chain polymer starches, and which come over the still to enter and flavor the whiskey.

Young whiskey, historically, was largely defined by these tastes (which of course can also be spicy, fruity, etc.). The "tails" in whiskey production contain such elements (high boliers amongst the volatiles in the beer) and the extent to which they enter the whiskey is determined by distillation method. This is done mostly by determining final proof level but also by the type of still, e.g., Woodford Reserve's pot still element comes off the still at not far under 160 proof but is certainly a flavorsome new spirit with its share, I infer, of congeners.

Aging in new charred wood has the effect of covering over, partly, these tastes, but also, in concert with the oxidation process, altering some of these congeners, some of which turn into pleasant, fruity-like esters.

In my view, whiskey should have a balance of these pleasant, matured components and some effect from the original whiskey taste. Otherwise, the spirit becomes mostly just a woody taste that is otherwise (or can be) largely neutral.

Admittedly, the taste for the "whiskey" element of a grain spirit, sometimes called its distillery character, is an acquired taste, just as tequila, say, has its acquired taste which derives from agave-derived secondary constituents.

Wheat-recipe bourbons, in my experience, have fewer (at any age) objectionable congeners and therefore are a good entry-level bourbon and of course some people will prefer them always to rye-recipe bourbon. Question of taste.


08-27-2008, 13:12
My experience with Old Grand Dad BIB was very much one of varnish. I called it lacquor at the time, but varnish is a good way of describing it.

08-27-2008, 14:17
I get a distinct taste or whiff of paint thinner when I have to drink Jack Daniels Black Label. It ruins it for me.

I cannot blame it on the fact that it is not KSBW, but Tennessee whisky. I do not get the same sensations from the other Tennessee whisky, George Dickel.


08-27-2008, 17:03

As always a great analysis, however I must confess that I avoid anything with a noticeable varnish taste (may be why I tend to prefer wheaters). I find the topic to be similar to discusssions in the wine world on the desireability of a little bit of brett or "barnyard" in a wine. I've just never understood the desire to drink anything with a hint of crap.


08-27-2008, 17:24
Tom, thanks, and for these other comments.

I don't think we disagree, in that distillery character when properly matured still shows its stuff if you see what I mean.

In other words, if you put vodka in new charred barrels for 8 years, it wouldn't please us as much.

Those congeners are still there but working in the right way... When over-dominant or not sufficiently matured, they are obtrusive.