Smell is crucial to enjoying good whisky, says Simon McGoram, Diageo's National Whisky Ambassador and all-round whisky expert.
“We've got thousands and thousands of receptors in our nose compared with our palate,” he says. “There are only a few different flavours and textures we can pick up with our palate. Aroma is really important.”
A flavour is comprised of both aroma and taste, McGoram explains. “Without aroma, you're not getting the full flavour of a whisky, so it’s important to be able to nose your whisky,” he says. “Especially if you're looking at a luxury brand. If you spent the money on it, take the time to appreciate the aroma to really capture the full flavour.”
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How to nose whisky
Nosing whisky requires all five of your senses – not just your nose.
First, look at the whisky in front of you. Observe the colour for clues about what sort of cask it’s been rested in. “For example, in a Talisker 18-year old, we're looking at the result of American oak barrels.”
Next, if you’re tasting with a group of people, use your ears. “Listen to what other people are saying about the whisky,” says McGoram. What you hear might help you identify some of the whisky’s key aromas and flavours that you may have otherwise missed.
Now it’s time to nose the whisky. “The important thing to keep in mind is that it's got a much higher alcoholic strength than a glass of wine,” he says. “If you take a big sniff of the whisky, you might desensitise your nostrils.”
Put your nose and mouth in the glass, part your lips and breathe in gently through your mouth. This activates what is called “retronasal olfaction”, or “mouth smell”. “You're able to pick up the aromas of the whisky without it desensitising your nostrils.”
Finish by taking a sip of the whisky. McGoram says take time to observe how it feels on your palate. “Is it rich and oily? How long is the finish? Does the flavour linger for a long time, or is it quite short? Does it feel quite sweet in the front of the palate? Or is it quite dry and tannic? These are the sorts of questions you want to ask yourself when tasting,” he says.
If nosing numerous whiskies in succession, it helps to reset your sense of smell. It might sound odd, but a simple trick is to smell your forearm or the back of your hand. A sniff of coffee beans will also cleanse the palate (which is also why you often find them at perfume counters).
What does whisky smell like?
Common whisky aromas come from the oaks in which single malt whisky must be aged by law. “American-oak casks offer up a lot of vanilla, caramel, hazelnut, chocolate and coconut aromas,” says McGoram. “European oak, especially if it once contained sherry, might offer up things like leather. It might be a little bit spicier. You might also get some stewed fruit characters from sherry oak cask.”
The whisky’s place of origin will also affect its aromatic character. Lagavulin from Islay in Scotland is a rich, smoky whisky with heavy maritime notes, says McGoram, who’s happy to be imaginative when it comes to describing aromas.
“I like throwing out some quite unusual tasting notes,” he says. “Boot polish, wet rope, damp sand, dark chilli chocolate, campfire smoke are all things you might find in Lagavulin. Even things that are quite medicinal, like iodine.”
On the other side of Scotland, Speyside whiskies are associated with notes such as orchard fruit, stone fruit, hay and freshly mown grass. The Singleton of Dufftown is a Speyside single malt Scotch whisky that has a “rich orchard fruit character with lots of green and red apples characters coming through and beautiful light grass,” says McGoram. “It's quite distinctive.”
Whatever whisky you’re trying, make sure you take your time with it. With so many varied aromas, tasters are limited only by their imagination.
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with World Class. Drink responsibly.