E-pistle #18/21 – Sulphur

By Johannes van den Heuvel, Holland

When I write this we’re about to ‘freeze’ Malt Mandness and Malt Maniacs for a while for a major reconstruction.
There’s one little discussion I’d very much like to share with you before I close the site, though…
It originated from a remark made by Luc about sulphur.

Luc –  Peaty, Grainy, Grassy, Fruity, Floral, Feints, Woody, Sweet, Stale, Sulphury, Cheesy, Oily.
I always had trouble with the “Sulphury” part of this Whisky Flavour wheel……is Sulphury even supposed to be there in the first place….isn’t sulphury an off-note?

Davin – No, not always. Not in old sherried whiskies for example. I give extra points for gunpowder. Checking the matrix for that PLOWED Port Ellen, the team seems to be divided into two camps and no one is left in the middle. Very interesting.

Charlie – Luc, You are potentially starting another thread, and opening a discussion which I have never had a final answer to: ‘Why are the whiskies from European casks often sulphury’? First, I am astonished you have never come across any sulphur, struck matches, matchbox-striker, even cordite notes in ‘sherried’ whiskies – not even in some Glenfarclases (or should that be Glenfarclae?) The question is where does it come from. Two answers are commonly supplied:

1) The original spirit was ‘sulphury’ (like Glenkinchie, surprisingly, or Mortlach), owing to the lack of copper contact during distillation (copper extracts sulphur), and this is not extracted by the butt – which, remember, is toasted not charred (char removes sulphur compounds, which is why you don’t find many (any?) sulphury whiskies from American oak casks).

2) The butt has been fumigated with a sulphur candle prior to having been emptied of sherry or wine, and some sulphur compounds have adhered to the walls of the cask, or even some drops of sulphur remained in the cask.

What do you think, guys? No chemist I have spoken to has been able to say for certain what causes sulphury notes, except that they are not uncommin in new-make spirit, and are often lost during the early stages of maturation – especially in an American oak cask.

Luc –  Hi Charlie, Oh yes, I have come across quite some sulphury sherried whiskies…..like in lots of sherried PE’s and more in sherry version in my opinion then in Bourbon matured PE’s….and less in older sherried whiskies (especially 50’s and 60’s….)… I would definetely like to find out what caused it….

Serge – Charlie, I can’t really think of anything to add to this short and brilliant summary (lots of things I didn’t know), except this small typo: I believe sulphur is burnt after the casks have been emptied rather than prior. They use different systems and yes, one can leave drops on the bottom of the cask (the ‘candles’).

Basically, the problem, again, is that a winemaker who’ll re-use such casks will rinse them properly, because he’s not interested at all in what was in the cask before (quite the contrary) whilst the whiskymaker may be interested in what the casks did contain, and hence might do anything to ‘keep it’ (i.e. just nothing!). That’s particularly true if you think ‘finishing’.

Some wines may get ‘sulphurised’ (to prevent oxidation) before they go into the casks as well but I’m not that sure whether that’s done before or after cask filling – Olivier will tell us. That’s why we can now all read ‘contains sulfites’ on our labels. I think this sulphur is then undetectable in the whisky (it’s not even detectable in the wines, or rarely).

Lawrence – Charlie, that is an excellent answer, I have experienced a few bottles with sulphur in the last few months and have know about the candles etc but had not realized about its absence in American casks.

Mark – I , too, join the MMchoir of thanks to Charlie for his well stated sulfur bit.
Sulfur pops its head up fairly regularly in my dramming. Anyone dramming with me has heard me say “ew! squished bug!”, or “spent solid rocket motor”, and “freshly fired ammo casing”. These all must be sulfurous in origin. The one which I like the most, even to the point of buying more bottles of it just to get the high again, is the spent solid rocket motor. That stuff rocks!!!
Btw, I thought Serge and Olivier’s Marc Gewurtz new make exhibited some sulfur.

Johannes – Whoa!!! Squashed bug? That reminds me of another weird descriptor I sometimes find: ant acid.
Very distinctive – you can often smell an ant hill from quite a distance on a good nose day.

Davin – Yes that’s Formic Acid.

Dave – Sulphur = rubber for sure but neither of these could remotely be considered perfumed!
Sulphur doesn’t come from peat but from lack of copper contact in the still and condensing system.
Worm tub distilleries can produce a sulphury new make: Dalwhinnie, Glenkinchie, Cragganmore, Mortlach. Unlike the perfume, sulphur in new make shouldn’t be seen as a fault. It disappears during maturation (providing the cask isn’t knackered)

Michel – Ever since I had a anti-biotics treatment last year I’m very sensitive to sulphur.
I got three types of sulphur in my notes…

1) Sulphur as off-note is IMHO So2 (rotten eggs in worst case)
2) Sulphur as acceptable off-note: rubber (Port Ellen, anyone?)
3) Sulphur as ‘added’ note (S). ‘Clean’ sulphur acts as very refined white pepper, leaving an ultra narrow burn on my tounge.

Funny thing is, that what I consider a clean version of sulphur, it seems to give an otherwise lean malt the feeling of being ‘bodied’ and ‘shouldered’.

Thomas – Michel wrote: “Rubbery sulphur as with rubber bands…”
Interesting. I get these ‘rubberband’ aromas a lot, too, and usually I don’t like them.
But I would have described them as feinty or even estery (because of the ‘chemical’ character) rather than sulphury.

Serge – Very right, Michel. I always feel the need to add ‘in a nice way’ when I detect sulphury notes that I like, and ‘too sulphury’ when it’s not the case. I believe there’s two kinds of sulphur to be found:

    * Sulphur because there was actually lots of sulphur in the cask (especially ex sweet wine casks)
* Sulphur because it’s one of the malt’s markers (yes, Port Ellen)

On the nose, maybe we can get:

    * Burnt sulphur, yes often like H2S (rather than SO2?) – I don’t like that.
Probably from poorly managed casks (not properly rinsed).
* Plain sulphur – I admit I don’t quite get it in fact, I have to work on that.
* Rubbery sulphur as with new tyres – I like that
* Rubbery sulphur as with rubber bands – sometimes it’s OK, sometimes I feel it’s a flaw.

And again, I agree it can give quite some structure to a malt that would otherwise be too sweetish.

Luc –  Oh yes, very right indeed Serge….
But I don’t agree that Port Ellen has this marker in its profile…..
The Port Ellen 22yo 1978/2000 (60,5%, Rare Malts Selection) does not have any sulphury notes if you ask me, nor has the Port Ellen 24yo 1978/2002 (57,9%, DL Platinum for 10th Anniversary Bottling The Whisky Shop, 602 b.) or for that matter the Port Ellen 1982/2005 (55,7%, M&H Cask Selection, Bourbon Cask, 240 b.)…… and many many others for that fact.

But these are full of sulphur and with some of these I have a lot of difficulties…..
Port Ellen 22yo 1982/2004 (61.1%, Douglas Laing for PLOWED, sherry cask #748, 264 bottles) was loaded with sulphury notes, the rubbery kind, the burnt tyres, but I ask myself whether this is still bearable…… Port Ellen 23yo 1979/2003 (46%, Wilson & Morgan, butt #6769) had quite some sulphury notes too…..questionable…. My first impression is that it comes in PE sherry casks….so for me this is not a PE profile marker but rather a result from the cask…. Same with Highland Park….. Some are loaded with sulphur, although HP does not have that in its profile…..so, still for me subject to discussion whether this is an “off” or an on-note for that matter…..

I admit that in the past these notes did not bother me that much…. I even scored malts high having loads of burnt tyres, sulphury notes….like the PE Plowed….but now these same notes disturb me more and more…resulting in a much lower scores for these malts, since I don’t like them anymore…..

Even yesterday evening, I tasted the Macallan 14yo 1990/2005 (46%, Whisky-Doris, Sherry cask).
Here the results: Nose: Malty grainy start, cereals, quite some hay and grass with a sweet mineral touch, quite some vanilla wood, butter and candy sweet, some fainted woodsmoke even, a little crême brulée, nice and delicate (22). Taste : Bold and coating start, starts malty sweet buttery but then bang, bah, sulphury notes take over, all rubery now, this ruins my palate (19). Finish : Oh no, those bittery notes, rubbery sulphury notes stick now, feinty too….(18).
B/C : Nose was promising……..(17) Total points : 76/100 (perhaps even too much…..)

A few days ago I retried the Highland Park 26yo 1977/2003 (52.1%, OB, Cask 4258, Scottish field merchant’s cask), which I had 2 years ago for the first time in the Craig hotel…..and yes, this time I dedected for the first time some rubbery/sulphury notes…..drawing my immediate attention…..my tendance is to lower the score (which I had at 92) for this…..or I’m getting too much focussed on these notes now that they are troubling my mindset…..I don’t know….but it is a fact and it happens with a lot of whisky-enthousiasts……we should invite Carsten Ehrlich (from Mara) with whom I had a lot of interesting discussions on this matter too…….

Same with the recent released Ledaig 32yo 1972/2005 (48,9%, Alambic Classique Collection, Oloroso Sherry butt #8721, 396 b.), some love and adore this one for its rubbery undertone….but quite some enthousiasts…..hate this one for those aspects too…….I had the sulphury notes the first tasting right away…..but they did not trouble me that much …. but again the more you drink it, the more they start disturbing you…..and the lesser points I would give to this malt….. Interesting subject, which is amongst whisky-enthousiast nowaydays a topic that is being discussed heavily, especially during tasting sessions and festivals……. But again….MHO

Thomas – Indeed that Laphroaig from the awards had some sulphury notes too…….the reason why a good friend of mine also blind detected these as off-notes………  I still consider this Laphroaig as a stellar malt, but the more you try it, you get tendancy to detect these notes more and more pronounced…..” Finally, another voice of reason. Oh, it’s from the Scapa master.
Never mind…  😉 As for sulphur, I agree with Michel and Luc. Very often I find these notes in sherry casks.

Michel – I think PE, sherry casks and sulphur is spot on, Luc!!!! As far as I know PE was handed 2nd choice casks from Lagavullin. No doubt most of those were poluted with some sulphur from cleaning with candles. Personally I like vattings between bourbon and sherry from PE. Altough there’s a romatic side to that. Standing by the PE warehouses, wind comming from Port Ellen Bay. It can be a smelly experience (dead algea and rotting seeweed) Everytime I have a ‘sulphury’ PE I’m at that spot on Islay…
Anyway, personally I think it’s the poor choice of casks that gives PE its personality…

Davin – Well, there are a lot of big PE fans out there – just check the Matrix/Monitor – so if poor choice of casks is the secret to the PE personality let’s hope everyone else starts choosing poor casks.

Johannes – Erm… I don’t want to nitpick here, but I think we should distinguish between two things here…
First, there is the ‘quality’ of the cask itself – and I guess you could measure ‘quality’ in a few different ways.
And then there’s the SELECTION of casks available to the people at the distillery – measured in quantity and/or quality… But maybe that’s a topic for another discussion… Erm, sorry – carry on…

Michel – A poor cask in this case is something different from a BAD cask… 😉
Anyway, personally I think it’s the poor choice of casks that gives PE its personality…

Davin – So we can say a poor cask produces a rich whisky. Tryin’ to get out of the ghetto I suppose. 😉

Michel – No we can’t!
Only thing that’s for sure, is that a great cask will turn even poor spirit into something good!! 🙂
We all know the standard Lagavulin had no need for huge amounts of great casks, distilling for just three of four (?) days a week. That means a turned down cask by Lagavulin could mean a very agreeable cask somewhere else. From what I’ve read people at PE were quite frustrated by the fact they had to work with the left-overs from Lagavulin.

Now let me rephrase for my own sake:
‘Anyway, personally I think it’s the ”””’poor choice””” of casks that gives PE its personality…’
Hey, that really helped…

Klaus – Serge, Michel, when I had a glimpse at a heavy duty chemical article about aromas I noticed that a lot of compounds (which are normally not connected wih sulfur aroma) have sulfur atoms, e.g. grapefruit, blackcurrant,…
I associate sulfur in malts with:
– fireworks
– organics (shit, H2S)
– and rubber

Michel – Yes, especially blackcurrants/cherries…
The Longmorn 1972 Serge mentioned on WF had a lot of those. Altough Serge hardly mentions them to my surprise. Govert (owns that bottle, the lucky B.) and I had the feeling we were tasting Crème de Cassis or atrisan Krieken Beer at 60% ABV. (A descriptor close to the ‘gunpowder’ that Davin mentioned earlier: clay mask – you know, the ones we know our wives are putting on when the bathroom is closed for an hour or so. Serge calls it ‘wet chalk’…)

It is however difficult for me to write down such intense fruity aroma’s as something as ‘earthy’ as sulphur.
The signal just takes another path in my brain… It tastes like fruit, my hand writes down accordingly… One exception is Port wood. Smells allright, tastes awfull. My stomach really protests as does my oesophagus (ahem) It gives the same ‘sensation’ as some sulphury malts do on my tounge… You’ll understand why I find port Wood on the jumpy, sulphury side of the spectrum… 😉

Charlie, would you say a distillery can make a sulphurous run, on demand, to create a spirit that can give some body to another bulk spirit. What I mean, i.e. Speyburn appears quite sulphury, but it’s the clean stuff. Acting like a subtle pepper. Speyburn lacks taste but it does have some sort of body which stands out (to my taste). I can imagine a spirit like that can give some muscles to a blend which has to be completely smokeless or easy going if you will… There’s a thin line between clean sulphur and ‘white pepper’, I often pair them in my notes. My feel is that ‘white pepper’ comes from the oak, being a second or third refill (non juveniled) cask. Lots of the Dewar Rattray and Cadenhead casks appear to be very jumpy and nervous and judging from the colour they must have come from that kind of cask.

Chalie – Michel, Yes, up to a point. By running the stills hot and fast, and running warmer water in the condensers – in other words by reducing the copper uptake in the spirit. But it would be difficult to achieve greater ‘weight’ where the stills are designed to produce a lot of reflux (Glenmorangie’s tall still, for example). Lochnagar is a good example – small stills, worm tubs, wants to make a heavy spirit, but for some reason Diageo demands that the make is ‘grassy’ (i.e. light and estery). To achieve this, they run hot and fast and allow the water in the worms to warm.

Speyburn has worms, which will lend body (less copper contact). I know what you mean by ‘white pepper’. I am not sure whether this is related to sulphur, and like you, I think it may have something to do with maturation.
On the other hand ‘chilli pepper’ (as in Talisker) is present in the new make.

Luc – BUT BUT Michel, I don’t agree with your earlier statement that a sherry cask gives sulphur, they often do……..only the bad ones do, no ?  Or is it the combination of a peaty malt on a sherry cask….no I don’t think so……the Ardbeg 1976/1999 Manager’s choice (56%, OB, 497 bottles, SherryCask n° 2391)  or for that matter the Ardbeg 1976/2002 Feis Isle 2002 (53,1%, OB, 494 bottles, Cask n° 2390) don’t have them……and lots of other examples for that matter……..

Michel – Hold your horses my dear Luc :-))
I’ve never said sulphur is tied to sherry casks persé…
No way, the two Ardnbeg’s you quote are beauties, without any doubt some of the Great Ardbeg’s.
In the case of the Laphroaig 31 sherry cask that won at the awards, I would say it came from the cask…
I agree it’s the kind of taste that becomes boring after a while. I have the same problem with peat these days… Ermm… Don’t shoot guys!!! I never feel sorry for only having a few ml’s from a screamer of a malt. Even if they notch a deserved 93pts… Also, once I got a good feeling for a marker I tend to focus how well in blends with other components, or the way it stands out, or the other way arround, carries the rest of the aroma/taste, harmony and balance in short… Perhaps we’ve reached parallel stages in our quest?

Luc –  Michel….no shooting here….me too, I have a tendancy even to dislike those young peated beasts…….
Who likes to drink a dram of a VY Ardbeg every evening, not a real enjoyment…..no wonder most people like Speysiders the most and this is the most active region still…..but a fully matured Islay malt that removes these sharp beasty, peaty edges…..can be absolutely adorable….. I could drink a whole day an Ardbeg 1976/1999 Manager’s choice (56%, OB, 497 bottles, Cask n° 2391) or a Longmorn 27yo 1969 (43%, Prestonfield, Cask 4252, 296 b.) or a Longmorn 25yo “Centenary edition” (45%, OB, bottled 1994)…….but enjoying a Ardbeg 6yo 1998/2004 ‘Very Young’ (58.3%, OB, committee approved) every day… No way……

Michel – My great concern here is that we nail down single cask bottlings as a solid ‘expression’ of a distillery’s marker. I just refuse to do so…  Let me put it this way… The sulphur in Port Ellen is what makes PE errmm PE!! 😉  A sulphurless PE is in its best a very good to beautifull medium peated Kildalton whisky.

Serge – Gentlemen, I don’t want to sound patronising but I feel you’re reaching a well-known conclusion: seek variety! Anybody can get fed-up with the nicest things in life, should he have too much of them. It’s just the same with caviar, white truffles and God knows what else… (no, not that)  That’s why, with Olivier, we changed the way we organize our little tasting sessions. We used to do thing like ‘nine Ardbegs from the 70’s’ and that became very boring (I couldn’t have any other Ardbeg for weeks after that, even the grandest). Now we ‘work’ with very different pairs or triplets and it’s much more fun.

As for PE and sulphur – let’s rather say indeed ‘sulphury’ rather than ‘sulphur’ (like in smoked vs smoke) but I agree it’s closer to tar, tarmac, tyres… I find ‘sulphury’ smells in tarmac, as kind of a sub-aroma, hence find it in many Port Ellens, not just sherried ones. These ‘sulphury’ aromas are not the same as in ‘sulphur from the cask’ and that’s why I feel the need to divide ‘sulphur’ into several categories. I guess it’s just a matter of definition. Yeah, same, MHO. Serge – who tries to manage his blatant hedonism.

Luc –  Oh yes, Serge I fully agree we should be carefull with the notes and description of these aroma’s…..but lots of people nowadays look for that in the description, if they see, sulphury, rubbery….they don’t even buy the bottle anymore (and this is very true…….) Another example……the Highland Park 16yo 1989/2005 (57,3%, OB for Belgium, Sherry Cask 4386) was released last year and everybody loved it, the rubbery compounds were detected and everybody loved it……..then…..then….. but a few weeks ago Paul De Jong hosted an offnote tasting session (yeah no fun, agree, drinking bad whiskies, but very academic) and guess what………..they all found this one PRETTY BAD !!!  Due to sulphur……bad sherry cask…….I scored it the first time I tasted it only 68 points and for that the organiser of the festival hates me…..but now…..lots of people dislike it….

Davin – Luc, that just proves most people will believe whatever you tell them. They like it when they think everyone else does, then they hate it when they think everyone else does. A good reason for blind tasting without a theme.

Serge – Yeah, Davin, Luc is a genuine trendsetter in Belgium.
He could tell the boys bubblegum in whisky is the thing, they’ll all start buying Old Rosdhu… 😉

Davin – Yeah, Serge, but not necessarily a bad thing.
We all have to start somewhere, but we hope to eventually learn enough to develop our own taste. My biggest breakthrough was losing my inferiority complex over not being able to enjoy Macallan as much as Michael Jackson seemed to.

Johannes – indeed, Davin – and this might be a suitable occasion to wrap up this discussion.