When one thinks of the qualities of a whisky is it not true to say that it is the flavour that enjoys most, if not all, of our attentions? Of course, being a drink other than water, we are consuming it for pleasure, not out of necessity, although a few people will give strong arguments that a life without pleasure is no life at all. As we sip, savour and swallow, the primary essence of the dram is certainly its taste. However, without a nose we would taste nothing!
If this seems controversial put something tasty in your mouth then hold your nose and unless you have a peculiar physiology the point should be proven. So, how a whisky smells is every bit as important as how it tastes. Not only is aroma essential in helping to deliver flavour but the nose can bring just as much pleasure and sometimes even more than the tongue.
Apologies if this is old news to you but I am constantly finding individuals who never stop to consider what a glass has to offer beyond simple taste. There are many similar issues involved with whisky where those who have discovered this secret have gone on a crusade to bring to the attentions of others the whole spectrum of possibilities.
When considering the relative dimensions and complexities of taste and aroma it must be remembered that your tongue can distinguish five flavour types, while the capacity of our olfactory system to identify distinct aromas is far greater. An analogy of this comparison might be matching an abacus’s counting limits to that of a supercomputer.
Throughout our life we will store many memories based around the sensation of smell experienced at the time of an event. This explains why a distant happening can mysteriously be brought back to us for no apparent reason. A number in our brain’s telephone book like memory bank is dialled when an aroma we associate with a past observation is revisited. Putting this ability into play when analysing, or purely enjoying, a whisky can lead to some nostalgic moments and some very colourful descriptions.
If verbalising tastes and smells is something you’ve never made much of an effort attempting, I recommend you try it. For must of us it is, at first, quite challenging. There are some with the gift of a good nose and/or a great vocabulary and ability to express themselves. For the rest of us, practice should greatly improve how well we can describe just what it is our senses are picking up. Evoking personal memories in describing a whisky’s character will mean nobody can get it wrong. While many aspects of a dram’s identity are facts: the particular distillery, age, unique style of production, it is often intimidating for somebody to enter in a discussion about a whisky’s nature when better informed individuals are in the company. However when it comes to detailing the less tangible world of our drink it can be quite liberating to express our own feelings on the matter. You don’t even have to like whisky to competently or poetically convey its meaning.
Glasses to drink from
A word now about glassware. When asking for a whisky in the average pub, hotel or restaurant, your drink will be served in a cut off highball. This is a robust thick glass with straight sides and a heavy base. Exactly the same glass you would get a vodka and cola in. These glasses survive a bit of rough and tumble, are relatively cheap and quite appropriate for the majority of uses they are put to, so it is the natural choice for licensees.
However, if you ask for a good wine in a good hostelry you will probably be given a style of glass depending on your choice of wine – red or white. Would it not be better if your whisky came in a glass designed to enable the full appreciation of the drink’s qualities? For this, a thinner glass is required so the heat of your hand agitates the glass’s contents into opening up. A bowl shape rather than straight sides and a flat base allows the nose to be captured and directed towards a point – the nose. Also a stem will allow the cupping of the glass for comfort and makes the swirling action of the contents easier. Whereas there is nothing quite like a good whisky in a cut crystal glass I suggest you try noting the nose of the same whisky in a selection of glasses to see if there is any value in investing in a ‘proper’ receptacle.
Finally, it might seem like taking the point too far but it may also be worth considering how to nose a whisky. I have found people have their own methods, some more elaborate than others. When appraising a dram personally, I like to have a bit of peace and quiet. I also close my eyes. By cutting out sight and sound I feel my remaining senses are more receptive. Before inhaling the bouquet I hold my breath. My theory is that, as my nose is shut down, the next time it is put to use it will be fresh for its next assignment.
With some alcoholic strengths a prickling effect can be experienced, which indicates how sensitive our systems are, and suggests the whisky will need a spot of dilution. It is always recommended to first try the whisky at full strength, a sip is enough, then add as little water as you can manage and reassess its character. The water will chemically rearrange the contents of the glass, new flavours are created and others will recede.
Your senses are now able to see through the alcohol barrier giving a whole new experience. Swirl the contents to mix the two liquids. The whisky may have been in the bottle for years never mind a cask for probably at least a decade. Imagine having water thrown all over you after a nice long sleep of fifteen years!
If you like the change then there might be more improvement to come, so add the same water again. On the other hand, if you preferred it neat, then now you know the limit of the whisky’s dilution. The only way to discover how much water the whisky can take is by slowly drowning it- you’ll easily know when that point has been reached.
Well if this piece has made you think a little bit more about our national drink and at least one person finds greater enjoyment then it has been worth while. If however, you think whisky is whisky and all this detail is meaningless waffle then that’s fine too, but some of us have to take it seriously…it’s not just our passion it’s our job.