What is umami and what does it have to do with whiskey? The taste of umami is a big topic. There’s been whole books written about it. In today’s post, though, we’ll cover a brief overview of umami, help you learn to identify it in foods, and then connect your new knowledge to whiskey.
What is umami?
Your tongue senses 5 different tastes - sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. In 1908, Japanese professor Kikunae Ikeda first scientifically identified umami. I say “scientifically identified” because people have been cooking with and enjoying umami since the beginning of human history. But it didn’t have a name until professor Ikeda gave it one. He combined the words umai “delicious” and mi “taste.” Why? Probably because when umami is present, food tastes delightful and your tongue loves it.
What causes the umami taste? An amino acid called glutamate. If that’s not ringing a bell, you’ll probably recognize it’s condensed and packaged form called MSG - monosodium glutamate.
When you read tasting notes on a whiskey and it says “umami,” does that mean the distiller put MSG in your whiskey? No. Glutamate is naturally occurring in food. Some fruits and vegetables contain glutamate, but it mostly comes from cooking meat or fermentation.
What does umami taste like?
It can be a tricky taste to identify. One reason it’s hard to nail down is because umami is almost never isolated. Like vanilla extract, umami on its own doesn’t taste very good, it’s a potent enhancer. Nonetheless you can learn to identify it even when mixed with other tastes and flavors. I’ll give you some examples, and then let your right-brain sort out the similarity.
Non-meat: ripe tomatoes, olives, celery, potatoes, walnuts, asparagus, spinach, seaweed, ketchup, green tea, soy sauce, yeast extracts, cheeses – especially parmesan, mushrooms - particularly dried shiitake mushrooms.
Meats or fish: Smoked or fermented fish, fish sauce, shellfish, cured meats, chicken, anchovies, pork, beef.
If the taste of umami is still evading you, instead of thinking about it as a flavor, think about it as an experience. Have you ever had a rich broth fill your mouth with flavor and coat your palate with tasty goodness? Have you ever tasted something that was more than ordinary salty; a saltiness that had depth or layers? Or have you ever tasted something that was more than just sweet; sweet with a shape that you can’t quite describe? If yes, you’ve tasted umami.
How does umami apply to whisk(e)y?
When it comes to whiskey, umami usually isn’t a big player in the flavor profile. It’s a subtle flavor that enhances salty and sweet. You’ll notice it more in whiskeys that have a briny character, such as an Islay Scotch. Salt and umami go very well together. Sweet and umami also go well together, but the combination is less pronounced.
What are the benefits of learning to pick out umami in whiskey?
Understanding this tricky taste will bring depth to your whiskey palate. You’ll appreciate complex salty and sweet notes and know why you like them. You won’t be left out when others use umami as a descriptor. And best of all, once you understand it, you can help someone else discover umami and watch their eyes light up. Trust me, it’s fun.
Did this article help you better understand umami? If so, let us know, we’d love to hear about it!
— Zac Smith