Whisky Tasting: The Nose

The role played by the aroma of a whisky is as misunderstood as its colour. While a large number of whisky drinkers overlook the olfactory properties of whisky, although understandable this is a huge mistake. Tasting without being aware of the finer notes of your whisky directly influences your enjoyment. I won’t go as far as Heather Greene (author of the fantastic Whiskey Distilled) who claims that all whiskies essentially taste the same, but as she points out drinking even the finest malt with your nose pinched shut reduces your ability to enjoy the complexities you’re paying for.

Why Does Whisky Smell

For those (like myself) who never studied chemistry the idea that a whisky smells of berries, oak or pear might seem confusing, it’s really not. I’ve even been asked if these whiskies are infused in the way that Vodka is, they’re not. The smell of berries, pear, oak or any other fragrance you can think to name comes from molecular compounds that being the resultant combination of two or more separate elements from the periodic table combine at the atomic level. These occur naturally in fruit and plants, they can be synthesised or they can be created as by-products of the distillation and maturation process. As often as not these are crafted by the master blender who pulls together a number of expressions to create their lines, which are then distributed either as age statement or as no age statement whiskies.

What’s in a Rose

When you smell a Rose it fragrance may contain over 300 chemical compounds, yet only 4 compounds amounts for an incredible 90% of the smell of rose oil. A Whisky can contain over 400 chemical compounds, some will give of floral notes, others fruit, some are more musky, spiced or woody. When you enjoy the nose of a whisky you’re uncovering the subtleties of its own bouquet.

Whisky & Anosmia

Not everyone will agree what a wine, or whisky smells of, this is one of the most common reasons to dismiss the importance of the nose. However this is simple enough to explain, everyone has a specific anosmia (the inability to perceive a specific odour) but what’s more our olfactory ability varies based on temperature, what we’ve just eaten, whether or not we, smoke, have a cold coming on and our gender (women are believed to be more sensitive to olfactory clues). Despite this the way you taste the whisky is very dependent upon your sense of smell, which is why Master Blenders use a Sherry ‘sniffer’ Copita and why the Glencairn has become so popular.

How to Smell your Whisky

It might sound obvious but because of the strength of your whisky (minimum 40% ABV) you can’t simply sniff in the way you would a glass of wine without overwhelming your olfactory nerve, after which its sensitivity will be dialled down for the next half hour. Take it easy, go slow and have some fun with it:
  1. Swirl your whisky to aerate releasing the aromas
  2. Lean towards the glass and sniff, slowly move closer until you are able to pick out individual scents
  3. Let your mind take you back, olfactory senses are great nostalgia trippers. Describe it as it strikes you, don’t worry about the language

Optional: Add Water to your Whisky

Once you’ve decided to take the dive into your whisky, and completed your tasting, feel free to try the same again with a little water. There is no consensus over how much water, if any should be added to your dram for some this is deemed a crime, as the oft repeated adage goes “There are two things a Highlander likes naked, and one of them is malt whisky”, jokes about whether the other is a great source of wool aside, this viewpoint is at best old fashioned at worst it’s just plain bad science*. Adding water has a profound impact on the nose of a whisky, put simply the (exothermic) reaction which occurs when whisky and water combine releases energy. This sudden release of energy from a few drops of water can actually increase the temperature by as much as 2°C. Rachel Barrie the Master Distiller behind Bowmore, Auchentoshan and Glen Garioc points out that “By reducing the higher alcohol strength, it enables our sense of smell to work better,” said Barrie, “and the aroma paradoxically seems to increase in intensity when first adding water.” John Glaser has gone on record as saying that many master blenders dilute to as low as 20% when crafting their own expressions. *I’ve personally never been a huge fan of diluting my whisky, but there are always exceptions, and it works very well for cask strength expressions. So long as you’re limiting yourself to water that’s entirely your own business!