“For Years at A Time: Art in an Oak Barrel”

26 December 2021
“For Years at A Time: Art in an Oak Barrel”

A spirit that comes to life in an oak barrel to which it owes its color and fragrance… Whiskey is an artwork that deserves to be talked about with the underlying story and the great effort in its emergence. Dr. Burkay Adalığ is the right address for this issue. This long-term journey is already ready to make you feel a symphony on your palate.

Interview: Bora Yıldırım

Photos: Burçin Ergünt

Dr. Burkay Adalığ is a name who has turned his career helm into another adventure after reaching a point that many people dream of in corporate life.  A true gourmet, who seeks oak barrels and different notes by leaving behind emails and crowded meetings.  Dr. Adalığ has realized that his soul has quite verbal characteristics instead of numerical one with his whiskey blog “Angels’ Share” which he opened as a hobby. It was not too late for him to recognize that he was the first whiskey blogger in Turkey with the questions he faced with the blog.

What features must a whiskey have in order to be considered “good whiskey”?

There is a concept called balance. Even many well-known single malt whiskeys contain whiskey from different barrels. A 12-year-old whiskey doesn’t mean that I bought a filled barrel 12 years ago and put it in the bottle. The head distiller prepares the whiskey by combining the whiskeys in 12-year-old barrels. This is almost an art performed by the head distiller and the head blender for blended whiskeys. They have perfect sense of smell, just like a perfumer. The formula of whiskey changes every year, but you have to find the same taste. For example, let’s say that the product used last year is out of stock this year… That product cannot be used, and another product is put in its place, but the same taste is achieved. However, the recipe naturally changes. It’s crazy work! Every year, you mix 40 whiskeys, from different ages, and you come up with preferred flavors that have not changed for years. There is a misconception in the society that “Blended whiskey is bad, single malt is good”. Sometimes 30-40 whiskeys are mixed to make a blended whiskey… Balance is very important. It is very difficult to produce a well balanced whiskey.

Inspired by the whiskey drinking scenes of Dallas, the favorite series of a period, and with the taste and smell that developed over time, Dr. Adalığ turned into a whiskey connoisseur and began to generously share the flavors he pursued. He immortalized the issue of sharing his knowledge and experiences by preparing an important resource for whiskey enthusiasts with his book Angels’ Share: A Whiskey Adventure, published a few years ago. Other areas where he is assertive are cinema and classical music. As it might be seen, he has a natural ability to choose the “good” with what he watches and listens to.

According to Dr. Burkay Adalığ who tastes 200-250 different whiskeys in a year, there is still a long way to go and a lot of whiskeys to taste. He smells, tastes, and takes us on an unique journey among the aged barrels after taking notes in the tasting book. We, on the other hand, listen to him with curious eyes and learn new information about whiskeys that are created with great effort like a work of art. We listen to distinguish the good, discover the great ending, correct the false facts, and embark on a pleasant journey… Now, we start a delicious conversation with Dr. Burkay Adalığ by saying “Slainte mhath”.

Among the misconceptions about whiskey, which is the most misunderstood?

“Blended whiskey is bad, single malt whiskey is good.” This is the biggest known mistake. Because there are malt whiskeys in the blended whiskey. Unfortunately, sometimes we experience whiskey snobbery… I am interested in classical music, and I give an example from there. Consider Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. In the piece, 70 instruments are played at the same time and there is no one in the world who does not know or love that melody. Blended whiskeys contain many instruments, just like a symphony. Single malts are like the violin or cello in them. Single malt whiskeys, on the one hand, are like listening to a single instrument… More specific, more unique. I cannot say to someone who wants to start classical music, “Listen to the violin concerto”. I say listen to Beethoven’s and Mozart’s symphonies. After a while, you already understand what you like… You can decide whether you like piano or violin by listening to the symphony. Then you start listening to piano and violin more… Finding the right whiskey is very similar to this.

What are the unique characteristics of blended and single malt whiskeys?

Whiskeys have a clear character. Some give notes of apple and pear, some are smoky. Others have floral notes. The barley, distillery and water used affect the characteristics, but I think the most important one is the barrel.  We can say that 80 percent of the smell and taste of a whiskey and 100 percent of its color comes from the barrel. Blended whiskeys also have tasting characteristics based on single malt and grain whiskeys in their formula. If you add a lot of smoky whiskey in the blended formula, you will have a B4 style smoky blend. If you add sweeter/floral-smelling whiskeys, you will get a B1-style, lighter and sweeter blend.

&Quot;For Years At A Time: Art In An Oak Barrel”

What effect does the barrel used in the production phase of the whiskey have?

Oak is a wonderful tree because it can breathe. It preserves the whiskey for 12 years, but also allows it to mature. This is where the concept of “Angels’ Share” comes from. Oak barrels expand and contract every year with the effect of the climate. This creates a chemical reaction. The transparent alcohol turns into a whiskey that smells like apples and bananas and gives a light woody scent after 10 years. The oak barrel and the climate have an effect… You put 200 liters of transparent alcohol in a barrel and some alcohol and water evaporate every year. It is thought that the angels received the amount that evaporated. This is actually a whiskey term. While opening my site (, I looked for a special name and decided on this term. There is also a movie called “Angels’ Share”. In fact, our friendship developed over the years with the whiskey expert Charlie, who played himself in the movie, and he made me proud when he wrote the foreword to my book with the words “Scotland is proud of you”. Charles MacLean is an excellent whiskey writer, and he has perfect sense of smell.

There are many countries producing whiskey in the world and especially in Europe. Who is among the best of them all?

When we look at the written records, we see the first whiskey in Scotland. We see the term “Uisge beatha” in a tax register from 1494. The word “uisge” means “water of life”, equivalent to the word “aqua vitae” in Scottish Gaelic. Over time, “uisge” or “auqa vitae” evolves into whiskey. Both whiskey and aqua come from the same root. We can say that the Scots have achieved perfection because they have been doing this job for many years. That’s why most whiskeys come out of there. The Scots owe this success to being very old in whiskey production. Thus, they have whiskey brands that can celebrate their 200th anniversary. Of course, the Irish also make very good whiskey… However, Ireland is a country that has experienced bad times, famine, and drought. At that time, many people immigrated to the USA for these reasons. Ireland, which had an important whiskey industry in the 1800s, lost it in the 1900s. Now, they are attacking again with the support of the state. When I started writing about whiskey in 2013, there were four whiskey producers in Ireland; now this number has increased to 32.

Do we have a special preference? What whiskeys are the most popular in this geography?

We are a dessert lover country… We love sherbet desserts such as baklava and kadayıf. For this very reason, we prefer whiskeys in the category of sweet blends. In addition, we are a nation that seeks sooty flavors, barbecue, the scorched side of meat, and the burnt crust of bread. Thus, we can understand that smoky blends are loved so much.

Apart from keystones like Scotland, Ireland, and the USA, we’re curious about the rising stars among whiskey producers. Indeed, which countries are on the rise?

We can point to Taiwan as the rising star. The production techniques are the same as in Scotland, but Taiwanese whiskeys mature so well that when you taste their four-year-old whiskey, you will encounter a wonderful result. The effect of the climate and the barrel transforms whiskey into a magnificent drink, almost like molasses. Think of a warehouse like a hangar, the upper part of the warehouses can reach up to 46 degrees. Under these conditions, whiskey evaporates unbelievably, but it provides a magnificent result. I first experienced Taiwanese whiskey in 2013 in France. Three or four months after drinking it, I did not need to look at my tasting book while writing on my site… Its smell and flavor were so engraved in my brain… Taiwan’s whiskey, which has a tropical climate, has been receiving many awards for years. Whiskey, which is kept for 18 years in Scotland, can be produced in four years in Taiwan with the effect of the climate.

What should and should not be at an ideal whiskey table where we will sit by saying “Slainte”? Could we talk about a special ritual?

“Slainte” means “health” in Welsh. “Slainte mhath” means “Good health”. It is pronounced as “sılançı va”. In the past, everyone in Scotland produced whiskey in their own home, so they served whiskey to their guests. Whiskey was served to the guest with a cup named “Quaich” held by both sides. Two-handed holding creates a ceremony of friendship and trust. Having both hands visible and on the cup gives the message “I won’t hurt you”. It is like the ritual of drinking mırra coffee in us.

In Scotland there is someone who opens the tasting or table by officially saying “Slainte”. In my tasting trainings, this person is me… If the table we are talking about is a tasting event, if the meeting is for learning and taking notes, there should be plenty of water on the table to clean the mouth. In addition, tasteless crackers that will clean the palate should be preferred. If it is not a tasting event and meeting for pleasure, everyone’s request for snack may be different. Dark chocolate and dried fruits can be preferred. There can be healthy snacks such as dried apricots, dried figs, raisins, dried mulberries… I also like dried meats and cheese with whiskey. Old cheddar and Erzincan tulum cheese can be preferred. You can get very interesting results when you try fruity whiskey with dried apricots. Don’t be afraid to taste different flavors… If you’re drinking a sweet whiskey, you can also try dried meat… We call this as a palate surprise. Some may prefer a sweet chocolate in addition to a sweet whiskey. Since I am a sour lover, I prefer to eat pickles. For example, I like okra and plum pickles with whiskey. I do not recommend the mixed nuts plate. Chickpeas, peanuts, and hazelnuts create a mixed taste. If your snack will be nuts, put the chickpeas, peanuts, and hazelnuts separately. When you consume it one by one, the taste in your mouth will match accordingly.

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How would you describe a finish that could be described as stupendous?

When I evaluate a whiskey, I consider the nose, palate, finish, and overall impression. I score each category out of 25. If I’m giving a whiskey above 90, it’s usually because of a finish that I score highly… Let’s consider a whiskey; it smells great, I say 23 points, I give 22 points for good palate, but if the taste is gone two or three seconds after drinking, the finish score remains at 17-18. Sometimes you drink a whiskey, and you continue to feel a great taste on your palate for almost minutes… That’s when I give points like 24-25.

Let me explain the practical meaning of the long finish concept as follows: Imagine that we are sipping whiskey together… When will our hands go to our whiskeys? Not because we want it, of course; because we are chatting. We don’t drink whiskey by saying “take your hand and drink the whiskey”. Our brain says that “You have no taste in your mouth, reach out and take some more; there is something you love in front of you.” In other words, raising our hands to the glass is actually an unconscious action. If your whiskey has a short finish, your hand goes to the glass more often. A long-finished whiskey is consumed more slowly. If we have taste in our mouth, the brain gives us time. Because that taste does not disappear for seconds.

A Gourmet’s Whiskey Journey Route

Scotland America Ireland Japan India Whiskey Dictionary*

Finish: The impression left on the mouth and palate after whiskey is swallowed during whiskey tasting. It can be defined as short, medium, and long.

Balance: A whiskey tasting term in which the different flavors in the whiskey are in balance with each other and do not suppress each other.

Drama: A term used in Scotland to describe “one single whiskey”. The exact size is unknown.

Distillery: Special apparatus of a special shape, mostly made of copper, in which whiskey is distilled.

Moonshine (Newmake): A colorless and transparent spirit alcohol that is newly produced and has not yet entered the barrel.

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