Rancio–It Ain’t Just for the French Anymore
Adventures are always fun when they start out in a swank restaurant sipping single malt scotch that retails, in the U.S.A., for $7,000 a bottle, and that’s exactly how my journey into rancio, an earthy, cheesey, mushroomy flavor that can also hold hints of soy sauce, began.
In 1997 a group of writers and whisky fanciers were invited to taste the 40-year-bottling of Bowmore that had just been released in New York. Jim McEwan, the distillery manager, led the tasting in his usual expert, witty manner, and informed us that the small portion of whisky sitting in front of each of us was worth between $300 and 400. We didn’t gulp.
The whisky was a strange bird, indeed. It was almost as if it had gone through a metamorphosis. It had transcended into another dimension after so long in the wood, and one particular nuance ion the spirit completely eluded me. On my way home that day I discussed this flavor with my friend and fellow spirits writer, Paul Pacult. What the heck was it? We were both at a loss to explain this flavor. Eventually our conversation came around to rancio. Maybe that was it. But we’d never know. The tasting was over and we weren’t willing to spend the bucks for a whole bottle. “Let’s hold a tasting of the oldest malts we can get our hands on,” suggested Pacult. And that’s what we did.
We managed to persuade thirteen distilleries to delve way back into their warehouses and send us samples of the oldest stock they deemed still drinkable. A grand tasting was held at New York’s Rainbow Room where Paul and I thought that we detected rancio in six of the bottlings. It was most prominent in a 1966 bottling of The Balvenie which, luckily for us all, is now available to the public as The Balvenie Vintage Cask 1966.
But were we right? Was it really rancio? Rancio is such an elusive flavor–I’ve heard it described in many different ways by different people, and it’s one of those accents that not many people recognize until they’ve tasted it on quite a few occasions. They might say that there’s a mustiness in the spirit, or a flavor reminiscent of grandmother’s attic, and some people think that rancio is a flavor that suggests too long in wood. Maybe it does. But maybe it doesn’t.
It’s been almost three years since the Rainbow Room tasting, and during that time I believe I’ve tasted rancio in half a dozen commercial bottlings of single malt scotch, but it wasn’t until recently that I had a chance to prove the theory. Well, sort of.
I have an ongoing e-mail correspondence with Alexandre Gabriel, a partner in the French spirits company, Gabriel & Andreu, and early in 2000 I wrote to ask him what he knew about this baffling flavor. For once in my life my timing was impeccable. Gabriel is one of those people who loves to dig deep into every aspect of distilled spirits–the history, the distillation process, maturation, anything at all that will broaden his knowledge of the subject. At the time I wrote to him he was hunting rancio.
Initially he explained that, in his opinion, rancio could occur only in spirits that had been distilled out at low proof since this produced the congeners–impurities that are, for the most part, the flavor elements in a spirit–that, after long aging in wood, would develop into that earthy tone that had started my quest. But he didn’t stop with mere opinion. Gabriel had hired scientists to try to discover the chemical makeup of rancio, and he shared his results with me. (Jean-Paul Vidal of the Union Nationale des Groupements de Distillateurs d’Alcool was one of the main researchers.)
Unfortunately, the chemical terms he used were, of course, in French, so now I had to find a translator. Enter Dr. H. S. Dugal, CEO of Integrated Paper Services in Wisconsin. You might wonder how somebody in the paper business got mixed up in all this, but a chemist is a chemist, and this one spoke French. The two liquid organic compounds that Gabriel’s scientists had pinpointed for being chiefly responsible for the flavor were both ketones known as Heptanone and Amyl Ketone. But whereas they are necessary for rancio to occur, Gabriel explained that their “association” with other molecules was needed to complete the process. Perhaps the highlight of my conversation with Dr. Dugal, who, for religious reasons, doesn’t drink, came when he asked me what rancio tasted like. I gave him my usual explanation: earthy, cheesey, mushroomy, maybe a dash of soy sauce, etc., and to my amazement he said, “Oh, that’s definitely heptanone.” We were on to something here.
Next it was necessary to discover whether or not these ketones were ever found in scotch–for this I needed a couple of favors, both of which were graciously granted. William Grant & Sons sent a bottle of their 1966 vintage Balvenie to Gabriel, and in turn his scientists ran it through the same tests that they’d used to analyze the brandies. Both ketones were present. Voilà! Presque voilà.
It seemed to me that I should see if I could find one more scientific type to back up this theory before I went blabbing it to the world, so I approached the Scotch Whisky Research Institute in Edinburgh where research scientist John Conner was kind enough to give me an overview of the subject.
Conner broke the problem down into two separate issues:
1. Can the chemical reactions that produce the aroma compounds occur during prolonged maturation?
2. If the compounds were formed in scotch [as opposed to brandy] would their effect be described as rancio?
Here’s how he answered the first question:
“I cannot think of any reason, chemically, why the same reactions that occur during prolonged ageing of Cognac should not occur during the ageing of Scotch. The fatty acids that are thought to oxidize in Cognac are also present in Scotch whisky. However, the relative amounts present will vary due to differences in the raw materials, fermentation, distillation etc. Attempts by French workers to re-create rancio using only methyl ketones failed, indicating that other compounds, as yet unidentified, were important in creating rancio flavour. Without the full recipe, it is impossible to say how the variations in fatty acids between whisky and brandy affect rancio reactions and whether the result is the creation of rancio in Scotch every time or only under certain conditions (wood type, warehouse environments, etc.).”
That made sense to me, Gabriel had already said that it wasn’t just the ketones that were responsible for the flavor, but more their reaction with “other molecules” within the spirit. Conner also noted that the “odor potencies” of both heptanone and amyl ketone are “unremarkable,” so other forces, unknown to us at present, must be at work. But Conner’s answer didn’t deter me–after all, we had started this journey on our tongues, and as far as I’m concerned, taste buds combined with some fairly stunning chemical evidence is enough to convince me that Pacult and I had been right when we conducted the Rainbow Room tasting. The second question, though, raises some big issues.
Basically Conner is asking the question: If there’s rancio in scotch, should we still call it rancio? I think that that’s fairly simple to answer, too. We detect, say, peaches in both scotch and cognac but we don’t look for different terms to describe them just because they are in different spirits. Rancio is rancio no matter where it’s found. But although rancio is eminently desirable in cognac, does that make it something that the scotch fancier wants to taste in his/her dram? Conner noted, “. . . it may be regarded as a distinctive character of old brandies and therefore out of place in a well-matured Scotch.” There’s the rub.
Do you want rancio in your scotch? Is it a good thing, or is it a bad thing? Conner said that it’s possible that “woodinesss” is a term that might be applied to rancio when found in scotch, and we’ve all been taught that woodiness is undesirable in our malts.
I happen to love the flavor of rancio whether its in scotch, cognac, armagnac, or calvados, and I think that it’s possible that if you search deep into your soul, and re-taste a whisky that’s been described as “too woody,” or “over-aged,” you might just find that delectable complex earthy flavor that should be savored, not shunned.
Here’s a list of available bottlings in which I believe rancio to be present:
The Glendronach Vintage 1968
Murray McDavid 1967 Springbank
Springbank Local Barley Single Cask, 1966
The Stillman’s Dram: Dalmore 30-year-old
The Balvenie Vintage Cask 1966.