You could make the argument that the most important dividing line in American whiskey is citrus. Of course, there’s no citrus in whiskey – but there are chemical elements that the brain recognizes as citrus, most often oranges or lemons. And when they’re there, they lighten a whiskey in a way some people like, and some don’t.
Citrus aromas are a top note, meaning when it’s there, it tends to really pop in the first sniff, or the first time the whiskey touches the tongue. It’s quickly overwhelmed by heavier notes like brown sugar or vanilla. Citrus aromas are more common in barley single malts than in corn whiskies, but if you leaf through a pile of reviews, you know smart noses are finding plenty of citrus in Bourbon, too.
WHERE TO FIND CITRUS NOTES
A review of the reviewers indicates citrus aromas seem to travel with spice notes, so you may tend to find it in ryes and high rye Bourbon. Orange is pretty obvious in Whistle Pig Rye after it opens up in the glass. Just regular old Bulleit Bourbon, which is 28% rye, has notes of orange in both the nose and in the first sip. That noted, it’s also there in the first sniffs of Buffalo Trace, which is made from the distillery’s low-rye Mash Bill #1 – so go figure.
Reviewers seem to find citrus peel in Elijah Craig, but I’m not convinced. Clynelish 14 from the Scottish Highlands has big, round tangerine in the first sniff and then high on the palate before the smokiness takes over. Glenmorangie 10 brings lemons to the early sniffs. Among the Irish, Jameson has citrus, as one reviewer put it, “wandering around” in the nose – which sounds, to us, mostly uncomfortable. There are unconfirmed sightings of grapefruit in Yoichi Single Malt from Japan.
Citrus aromas are in the Aroma Academy aroma sets for both Bourbon and Scotch and Irish whiskies and are based primarily on the oils found in the peels of the fruits.