June 10, 2021

Belly up to the Bar - Part 2: The Nose Knows

I’ve heard one man say that nosing a whiskey is like chasing a woman. The expectation is usually far more fun than the reality. Of course, this was a burly but crusty old master distiller who always displayed the pallor of unremitting constipation.
Conversely, we here at Reservoir find discovering the aromas in our Glencairn glasses to be equally as appealing as the actual taste. It’s like unwrapping a present. The bows, paper, and colors wholly add to the finished product.
Moving forward from part one of our whiskey tasting series, find yourself a tulip shaped glass. And because not everyone cleans their glassware with equal care, rinse the glass in warm water, running your CLEAN fingers around the rim and inside, ensuring you’re ridding the glass of residual contaminants that might affect the aromas and tastes. Lavender liquid detergent and whiskey do not mix.
Pour a measure of the spirit into the glass, and if you’re feeling as frolicsome and portentous as Master Blender of Scotch “The Nose” Richard Paterson, then violently throw that dram out of the glass and onto the floor. It’s flashy, suggests you’re either out of your mind or a serious professional, and according to Paterson, rids the glass of impurities.
There is a difference of opinion regarding the next step. Some say swirl the liquid, others insist you keep it flat.
Those that swirl believe the whiskey needs to aerate: to help the alcohol leave the glass—and it’s the alcohol that will carry the aromas to your nose, so this is important.
Those who maintain the method of keeping it flat feel that whiskey, being 40% + alcohol needs no help evaporating, and by swirling, you’re pushing all of the aromas out of the glass at once, making it more difficult to identify the individual nuances.
Further research on the subject finds consensus that the alcohol leaves the liquid in layers, and each layer reveals something different. Give each method a try and see what works best for you.
This next step helps me distinguish scents that exist in the glass that I might not get otherwise:
Dip a finger into the liquid and rub the whiskey onto the back of your hand. Wave your hand in the air to allow the alcohol to evaporate. Now sniff that patch. The aromas are much clearer. If you detect leafy, grassy or malty notes, the whiskey is probably fairly young. Darker scents, like chocolate and spices may signify something more mature.
Now again, we find differing advice for where to place your nose to obtain a profound experience. Some distillers pass over the glass quickly, others try to insert their entire face.
I find three deep sniffs in rapid succession has been a good rule. The first sniff, your nose prickles with the recognition of alcohol. The second sniff usually identifies the sweet, and the third, fruit. It’s on the back of the third that I find other aromas: the smoke, brine, molasses. It can be entirely different for you.
The challenge now is to identify those aroma components more specifically—if you wish to train your nose.
Sweet, is a broad term, but you can train to recognize particular forms of sweet with practice. Sweet like chocolate? With dark notes coming through? Sweet like honey? Like vanilla? Like flowers? What kind of flowers?
The same is true for other aromas. It doesn’t just have to be smoke. It could be smoke from tobacco, or toast, or tarry-like. Dive into the next layer and pause to ponder. It’s typically difficult to articulate what you smell but cannot see.
Oftentimes distilleries will provide a general framework on the back of the bottle or box for what the distillers have identified. Here at Reservoir, we go to great lengths on our website to provide you extensive details on what you may be discovering.
If you’re really interested in pursuing the training of your nose further, you can buy a whisky nosing kit. They’re marvelously helpful and great fun if you’ve got a small gathering of friends who want to enjoy the game of organoleptic analysis—or, in laymen's terms, identifying what scents are in each small vial.
Most people have no idea how much their noses contribute to the enjoyment of food and drink. The nasal olfactory system should be applauded and held in high esteem for all that it provides.
We’re not saying you should make a sketch of your appendage to tape on the fridge, but don’t turn up your nose at recognizing its contribution. Every whiskey connoisseur nose it’s important!
Shelley Sackier—Director of Distillery Education