Appreciating any particular whisky’s taste is referred to as nosing. It’s only possible to ‘taste’ a whisky once in a session really, as after that the powerful effect on the palate renders it mostly impossible to accurately taste a different whisky. Also after tasting four, five, six whiskies or so, it can be quite hard to concentrate on the subtleties, or stand even!
This means that a whisky is ‘nosed’ to discover it’s hues and flavours. This for professional blenders and tasters is a life long accumulation of experience, for the rest of us it’s learning to identify the different aromas and flavours that we like in our particular whisky. This can be a simple as just passing the glass back and fore just below the nose to allow the aromas to gently waft up. Many flavours that we perceive as ‘tastes’ are actually mostly aromas. try eating a strawberry while pinching your nose, sweet but not that much else. Mostly it’s aromas we sense which is why strawberry is used to flavour so many products such as soap, sweets etc.
A professional I know likes to pour a little whisky into his hands, then rub them like he is washing them, then cover both hands over his nose to explore the different notes.
With or without water?
This is of course personal preference, however, it’s widely agreed that a small amount, a ‘tear-drop’ , can help relax and release the flavours sometimes hidden in the whisky. The water is best if it’s still and preferably from the same source, if you can get it! Ordinary tap water, not too cold or warm will suffice. It’s best to add water a little at a time until it suits the palate. I’m sure we’ve all had someone, or ourselves, add too much which ruins it, nothing worse for me than a wishy-washy watered-down whisky. Most of the time I prefer mine neat unless it’s cask strength (which can up to 65% ABV) in which case I add water so as not to burn my tongue and lips.
Whisky is often served in a tumbler or shot glass, neither of which is so good for nosing. A small or medium tulip shaped glass is preferred because it helps direct the aromas and flavours to the your nose in a similar way to brandy or cognac glasses. The whisky glass depicted here is suitable for tasting and nosing, available from our shop, of course!
What will I get in a nose?
To be honest, I’ve no idea! It’s all very subjective as to what notes, flavours, aromas you will discover in each of the many variety of whiskies. I read of some very exotic and sometimes , dare I say it, some very pretentious descriptions of aromas perceived, “roasted chestnuts from a street vendor on a winter’s morning”, “rich flowering currants and warm baked banana and walnut bread”, and “real-wood fired pizza with fresh pesto and pine kernels”, reminiscent of Jilly Goolden’s superlatives, or that Rowan Atkinson advert, ‘touareg campfires in the background’.
Professional blenders and tasters will have aquired a very astute palate to detect all the various components and complex combinations of flavours. Exploring a range of aromas using a kit like the one shown here at the Lagavulin visitor centre can really help to identify individual parts in the nose of a whisky.
By practicing nosing the pure scents in the bottle you can atune your smell senses to identify different notes. In the box are various essences such as; vanilla, new-mown hay, medicinal, nutty, smokey, peaty, caramel, buttery, woody, spicy, citrus and malty. Some the essences can be positively unpleasant to smell on their own such as ‘decay’, but combined together is subtle quantities produce the wide range of flavours we taste in our favourite whiskies.
Perhaps I’m just a simple highland lad, or not yet educated enough, or maybe my palate has had too many craturs, but I think the main flavours and aromas that I enjoy in Islay whiskies are the basic smokey, peaty, sea-salty ones.
Whichever way you like your dram, with or without water, straight shot or tulip glass, it’s worth taking the time to nose and enjoy the flavours before and after supping it.