We asked Sean Baxter, former Master Chef contestant and Johnnie Walker Australia Ambassador to teach us how to nose whisky. We also picked up a few tips, tricks and recommendations on how to act like a whisky aficionado.
Why nose whisky?
It is within the nose of whisky where I believe the real magic of a whisky, be it a blend or a single malt, is truly revealed. We have the ability to recognise 32 primary aromas, while only 4 primary tastes, so it is important to take your time when nosing whisky. This is where the majority of the complexity lies. Even for someone who is inexperienced in nosing spirits, you will be surprised what you can often pick up. Indeed, even after tasting, the majority of what we confuse for “flavour” is actually “aroma” wafting up the back nasal passages after it is warmed by the heat of our mouth and throat.
What is the purpose of nosing a whisky?
The purpose of nosing a whisky is to establish, from the outset, the particular components of the liquid that might appeal to you. Aroma is also the most powerful stimulator of memory. You may often find that you unwittingly re-visit previous times in your life when you encountered similar smells. When nosing island styles of whisky, heavy in peat and smoke, I often recall the smell of a campsite in the morning or perhaps my grandfathers tobacco pouch. Sometimes the grassiness of a lowland style reminds me of lying in on a Sunday as my dad mowed the lawn under my bedroom window. It is these little discoveries and the power to provoke memories that make nosing truly exciting.
How does one nose?
There are many ‘How To’s’ online which I find incredibly entertaining. Often if you performed any of these rituals in a whisky bar you’d immediately be turfed out onto the street and told not to come back. I certainly don’t recommend pouring a small amount of the whisky into a tasting glass swirling it around and then tipping it onto the floor to clean the glass. I could never quite understand that one, my grandfather would have lost his mind over the spilt liquor.
I think the easiest way of nosing a whisky is to make sure the glass you choose is something that accentuates the nose of the liquid. While a heavy based rocks glass is great for a quiet whisky at home, I don’t think it truly is the best glass for nosing. Most great whisky bars will have a wide range of suitable nosing glasses on the back bar, if you are going to try a nosing, I would recommend one of these.
Step One: Rolling the whisky around in the glass makes you look like a bit of a legend and communicates to others that you know what you are doing. It doesn’t really do much to the whisky itself other than create a little more surface area for the liquid to adhere to. This does lift the aroma, but only marginally. Whisky is already very volatile, you can often pick up some interesting aromas the second you open a bottle, let alone agitating it further in the glass. Also, whisky experts will often do this so they can study the ‘legs’ of the whisky as it rolls down the inside of the glass. The very, very good among us will study the movement of these legs and will be able to tell you the age and strength of the whisky. I generally just look at the label. Job done.
Step Two: Bring the whisky up to your nose, but don’t sniff it like a wine. Just open your mouth and breath normally. This will allow the strong alcoholic vapours to circulate as opposed to getting drawn directly into the nasal cavity. It’s a far less aggressive way of nosing and I find it is more pleasant for those people not used to nosing whisky. My advice is to do this very quickly, don’t linger with the glass under your nose for too long. You are just looking for some familiar smells, you are not trying to snort Scotland’s finest.
Step Three: Repeat this process a few times, but don’t worry if all you get is ‘whisky’. I often find it enjoyable at this stage to ask the bartender for a whisky that is totally the opposite of the one you have selected, ask for a small measure, and compare the two. It’s easier to find points of difference when you have two totally different whisky’s in front of you.
What is a good, reasonably priced whisky that is worth nosing?
My two favourite whisky’s when it comes to nosing are Lagavulin 16 year old and Cardhu 12. One is a rich fiery beast from Islay, the other a softly spoken Speyside number. These two will give you a fabulous starting point for understanding regional style differences as well. Not to mention they both taste pretty bloody delicious as well.
What are your tips and tricks regarding nosing and whisky in general?
A great tip when nosing is to always have a little water on hand. By adding just a few drops you lower the alcohol content and also unlock a variety of volatile esters trapped by the ABV of the spirit. Whisky at cask strength (without dilution by the whisky company) anaesthetises the senses very quickly so it is always important to add water to these whisky’s if you truly want to experience their magic.
Also keep in mind that ice and chill removes aroma. This is why a cheap beer or wine will always taste delicious straight out of the freezer. While some whisky’s thrive with the addition of ice (I love Johnnie Walker Double Black over a big cube of ice, the way my dad drank it) others, like fine single malts, will loose some of their complexity.
Each to their own however, never let anyone tell you that you’re drinking your whisky the wrong way, it’s just not their way.