We are taught how to read and write why not to smell?
Whisky offers a bouquet of aromas in a surprisingly rich range. We need to train our olfactory memory to be able to recognize the aromatic notes found in Whisky. These aromas are also found in food and in nature. So we know them yet they are difficult for us to identify since we are not trained to recognize them blindly. Training our memory is key and is the foundation of the art of tasting.
Train and enrich your olfactory memory…
The sense of smell constitutes the most important sense in the perception of whisky. But it is often difficult to identify an aroma in your glass of whisky. Have you already encountered the feeling that you know a smell without being able to recognize it? Nothing is more normal! In the same way that we learned to read, write, or count, smelling also requires training.
…to better analyze the whisky that you taste
But “What use is that?” First of all, recognizing aromas enriches your tasting vocabulary. Being able to attach a word to your impressions increases your tasting pleasure and allows you to share your ideas with others. Then, the aromas of a whisky inform us about its geographic origin and the different steps in its creation: malting, fermentation, distillation, and aging in casks. How does our powerful and complex sense of smell work? How can you train your olfactory memory? What are the aromatic groups of wine, coffee and whisky? How can you successfully pair food and drinks based on aromas?
The kits and accompanying guide booklets make whisky, nosing and tasting an even more pleasurable experience and dramatically increase your whisky/gin/wine nosing and tasting knowledge!
Let this aroma kit guide you as you are introduced to a series of key reference whisky aromas! Educated to nosing terminology/vocabulary! You will be taught how to expert the whisky/gin/wine nosing and tasting process whilst being taught to identify the key aromas to be found in your favorite single malts, gins and wines!
The Aroma Nosing Kits contain 24 aroma nosing samples carefully selected by a leading specialist Aroma Scientist, Dr. George Dodd.
These superb kits include booklet guides to not only “lead you through” the individual aroma samples but also through a recommended process for nosing and tasting. The kit includes a guide to lead you through” the individual aroma samples.
So, if you have you ever wanted to know how best to nose a premium spirit and have ever wanted to know what the experts mean by;
• Phenolic aroma
• Grassy aroma
• Spicy aroma
• Peaty aroma
• Woody aroma
The Basics of Nosing and Tasting Whisky
Wine is easy, whisky is hard.” That’s one lesson I’ve learned from both my own training and training others in the art of whisky tasting
Perhaps that’s oversimplifying; becoming an expert at wine tasting is hard, too (just look at how hard some of the Sommelier levels are!) but whisky can be particularly challenging especially for folks new to the category.
Wine is lower proof and therefore gentler on the palate. Whisky must be high proof (at least 80 proof by law in most countries) and is typically perceived as dryer in the mouth. Whereas wine is always fruit dominant but still with a potential for a beautiful depth of flavor in that category and in other secondary categories, whisky can be heavily smokey, peaty or grainy which can appear to skew the flavor profile.
So the bottom line is that the rules that apply to tasting wine often don’t apply to Whisky – and very often it can be the opposite! When nosing and tasting Whisky, approach it with respect. Start by remembering that all Whisky will have some.
The “heat” (or “burning” from some whiskies) comes from the concentrated ethanol molecules triggering the nerves in the nose, tongue and throat that respond to heat. It’s called “chemesthesis,” which basically means a chemically induced sensation; in this case, it’s a thermal sensation and certain secondary compounds from the grains and barrel can exacerbate it. This is actually the same mechanism triggered by the capsaicin in spicy foods that makes them hot.
This sensation is sent to the brain via the trigeminal nerve in the back of the jaw and is specifically a pain sensation. And when your brain receives a pain sensation, it actually minimizes your other senses including smell and taste. Which means if your experience of the whisky is that it’s hot, then your brain will actively filter out the aromas and flavors and you’ll be missing out on the potentially very enjoyable spirit. The two most basic techniques for nosing and tasting whisky are retro nasal breathing and multiple sips, both of which are designed to assist in overcoming that pain sensation and get into the flavors.
Start with your whisky poured neat, preferably in a glass designed for tasting whisky. Swirl, then gently breathe into your mouth, close your lips, then breathe out slowly through your nose. This will likely feel a little awkward at first but it’s easy to get the hang of. Some folks might recognize this as a cigar breathing technique. Immediately you should begin to “taste” the aromas without risking an ethanol cloud blasting across your sensitive olfactory membranes.
After two or three retro nasal breaths, move to breathing directly into the nose (called “orthonasal” breathing) but keep the breaths slow and shallow at least to start. I always find I get slightly different aromas which each technique.
When that first sip hits your mouth, it’s likely going to be hot, or at least warm. That’s okay. Give the liquid a few seconds and really swirl it around to hit all of your taste buds before swallowing. But here’s a key – don’t judge it yet. Don’t even worry about trying to notice any flavors just yet.
Unlike the capsaicin in spicy foods which is oil-based, any lingering ethanol will evaporate off giving your brain time to acclimate to the new pain sensation. Fortunately for us, the human brain is very adaptable and this acclimation takes only about a minute! So after you’ve paused, go in for a second sip. This time start to notice some of the flavor. You’ll actually get progressively more sensory information (e.g., taste) with each of the first three or four sips.
Long-Term Adaptation & Tasting With Friends
Just like spicy food, ethanol heat can be adapted to such that the initial hit becomes less impactful the more whisky you taste. This only requires the effort of tasting more whisky!
But remember that your friends might not have the same resistance to whisky burn that you have. When introducing other folks to your favorite drams, consider that they might be best served by lower-proof options to start and might even benefit from some guidance in nosing and tasting techniques.
A few rules of thumb are to not judge them for experiencing the whisky as hot and to encourage them not to judge the whisky until they’ve had at least a few sips. And a slash of water a good thing to help cut the proof a bit and open up the flavor.
Olfaction and the Science behind Nosing A Whisky
Olfaction (the ability to detect and discriminate between different odors) is the most ancient of our senses, being the first one in evolutionary history to develop. Nearly all air, water and land-dwelling creatures have a sense of smell, and it plays a significant role in nutrition, safety and maintaining our quality of life.
Essentially, the sense of smell is a chemical detection system that allows creatures, including ourselves, to discriminate between chemicals in the environment that could be either harmful or beneficial. It originally developed as a way for our most primitive of sea dwelling ancestors to follow a chemical gradient away from a dangerous source or towards a nutritional source, and this original discrimination, developed over 400 million years ago, remains with our sense of smell today. We are attracted to smells that we find pleasant and repelled from odors that may do us harm.
However, our sense of smell is one of the most downplayed and misunderstood senses.
One of the reasons for this could be that it interacts very differently with our memory compared with our other senses. For example, if you try and conjure up the odor of freshly cut grass, you cannot. Yet, if presented with a sample associated with this aroma you will immediately identify it. Furthermore, you will be able to recall events/moments associated with that odor from many, many years ago. Effectively, due to the way our olfactory system works with our brain, we cannot recall an odor to our conscious mind without some external olfactory stimulus.
Any expert in the flavor of whisky must know how the sense of smell works, otherwise it will become difficult to build up an appropriate sensory memory and use that to discriminate between different whiskies. So, for those of us who do not have detailed knowledge of the anatomy and physiology of smell detection, how can we build up our sensory memory to allow us to hone our whisky nosing skills?
Firstly, we must touch on olfactory cognition. This is the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through the sense of smell. Historically, this was poorly understood. However, a number of recent studies have looked at the sense of smell between experts and non-experts, throwing light on the way we acquire and process olfactory information.
Odor sensitivity and discrimination
The above-mentioned studies found no difference in sensitivity between experts and untrained subjects in odor sensitivity. The reason behind this is that our sense of smell is not designed to detect single odors, but rather to discriminate complex odors made up of many individual odor molecules.
If you look at odor discrimination in mixtures of single compounds, each with an individual smell, the maximum number of individual compounds that an individual can distinguish is three or four at most (this is the same for experts and non-experts). When mixtures get more complex than this, like with a whisky, we tend to classify the smell into types (i.e. floral, peaty or feinty). Where experts score more highly is in their ability to be more accurate in naming single individual compounds.
Perceptual learning in odor discrimination is also very important. The more smells we are repeatedly exposed to will enhance our ability to discriminate between smells. The old adage of practice makes perfect rings true with this as well – training our nose will make us better at discriminating between different whiskies, as well as discriminating between different whiskies we have not previously been exposed to.
Odor memory and identification
We now know that odor familiarity will increase with repeated exposure. However, whilst we might possess perfectly good odor detection and discrimination systems (through practice), smell is the most difficult sense to verbalize, and we have to learn how to identify a particular smell and communicate it in non-personal terms for general understanding (most odors are explained in terms of personal experience). Doing this in a group or classroom setting, with other people who are learning how to verbalize smells, is good practice.
This is where experts excel as they are able to verbalize their olfactory experience and identify odors in a way that is repeatable and identifiable both to themselves and to others. The industry has reacted to this by producing specific terminologies used to describe and classify different whiskies, usually assisted with a version of a flavor wheel.
So, with training and the development of olfactory memory, one can describe the whisky in a more analytical manner, whereas the novice taster will describe a flavor in a manner which stresses the enjoyment and richness of the flavor.
In essence, there is no reason why we cannot all become whisky tasting experts through repeatedly nosing whiskies and learning to verbalize our findings. Once a whisky is recognized through smell, then the expectation of whisky characters and traits are much easier to find.