Glenmorangie launched a fascinating initiative several years ago. The innovative distiller invited renowned Parisian perfumer Christian St Roche to ‘nose’ Glenmorangie. Monsieur St Roche is a man who has dedicated much of his life to perfumery and was unquestionably qualified to conduct such an experiment. Astonishingly, he detected 26 different aromas; from apple to almond and ginger to geranium and ignited further research to pinpoint where they actually originated from. There is undoubtedly a remarkable array of nuances in Scotch whisky but do you have to have a perfumer's nose to discover them?
It helps, but a little assistance goes a long way...
START OFF WITH THE RIGHT KIT
Whisky, water, your senses and the right glass. Tulip shaped are the best and I recommend The Blenders Glass from Glencairn Crystal. It was developed for the task and it does what it was designed to do well. Sherry, brandy or wine glasses are satisfactory but steer clear of tumblers - too many aromas are lost to the atmosphere.
INSPECT THE COLOUR BUT BEWARE!
Normally sight is our dominant sense but it is prone to devious trickery. Whisky’s colour largely tells you about the cask(s) used for maturation. Generally a lighter colour signifies ex-bourbon and softer vanilla flavours. Darker suggests Oloroso sherry and an expectation of fruit and spice. Note: I did say be careful. A fino sherry cask will deliver a paler whisky as will a tired cask and whiskies tend to darken through a longer period of maturation. Don’t trust your eyes!
GET THE MOST OUT OF YOUR WHISKY
Smell is by far our most sensitive sense and most of what you taste is what you smell (remember the ‘onion/apple/close your eyes/hold your nose/take a bite’ biology lesson?). The tongue can only detect four principal taste whereas the nose detects 23 principal scent groups. Whisky aromas have helpfully been classified into seven groups (displayed in table).
There is no perfected nosing regime; this is purely how I get the best out of my whisky. Others offer more ingenious methods but give it a try, it may well work for you. Swirl the whisky around in a cognac-like fashion and nose by hovering over the rim, progressively delving deeper into the glass. The likelihood is that a form of nasal combustion will stop you abruptly or slow you gradually. Where you yanked the handbrake is a fairly good indicator of alcoholic strength but regardless of potency, you will need to dilute - unless of course the whisky invites you to dive in and explore. In my experience this is rare and primarily limited to a collective of delicate vintage whiskies. Of course you may well have an asbestos mouth and a prosthetic nose (even prosthetic nasal hair for that matter) or just crave strong alcohol, but the objective here is appreciation.
Try a sip before adding water. Although there is too much alcoholic influence this, combined with the tentative nosing, introduces the house style and affords an opportunity to identify key characteristics.
Pay no attention to that macho rubbish of drinking Scotch straight. You need to get your nose right in and to do this you must cut with Scottish mineral water (tap if you are blessed with pure, chlorine-free, soft water but no bubbles please) until you can investigate and freely inhale without the scorching. This may mean no more than a drop for some and a dollop for others, so a degree of skill is required to cajole the whisky to the optimum nosing point which I believe is the moment that ‘nose-prickle’ disappears. Water naturally subdues the alcoholic influence and softens the whisky but crucially it releases the full bouquet by breaking down the ester chains and unlocking nuances you would never have known existed.
By now the whisky should be opened up and time for you to see if you can find those fragrances. Take your time; dive in and out and give the malt time to breathe; cover it and come back to it - even close your eyes to get into the ‘zone’. Everything you have ever smelt is recorded in that great filing cabinet upstairs, you just forget how to find it. A useful companion is the list of primary whisky scents. Initially the most predominant styles will emerge and before long the more subtle. The more you nose, the quicker your brain makes the connection regardless of individual sensory talent.
How long you take to nose the whisky is up to you. Personally I give most whiskies at least five minutes and in some cases up to around 20 minutes if I’m particularly impressed or confused.
We have ascertained that taste largely comes from the nose but don’t underestimate the tongue. It may only be able to detect salt, sweet, bitter and sour but it can feel. Your nose is not going to sense texture or body for instance, which are equally significant aspects of whiskies appeal. Hold the whisky in your mouth, move it around to cover the tongue, chew it, gauge the ‘mouthfeel’. The whisky should be diluted to taste and therefore you should be tasting but don’t knock it right back; if its taken 30 years to mature you can surely allow it time to perform. Likewise don’t stop evaluating after the gulp. Richard Joynson has been perceptively talking about ‘the swallow’ for a while and then there is the ‘finish’. Can you still taste it; or more appropriately feel it after 15 minutes? Regardless of how you drink your whisky, involve your mates, drink sensibly and have fun. Slainte!
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