Stephen Penman is our expert on scotch whisky
I have had a nose now, and not a particularly inconspicuous one, for as long as I can remember. Wherever I go the old proboscis tends to lead the way. Itâ€™s a handy thing to have really: great for supporting my cool shades in summer, an excellent draining mechanism for unwanted fluid when suffering from a cold and an absolute must for rubbing purposes when greeting Eskimos.
However, it has another use, and one which I now realise is my own dear conkâ€™s true reason dâ€™etre. The thing can smell. Now I had long suspected this, having had hints of its abilities on various occasions, such as when wandering through Tunisian souks with their spice laden air, or driving past Seafield sewage works on a hot day .
But it is the noseâ€™s ability to channel these smells towards stimulating the memory banks that is truly amazing. For example, last summer as I drove past a newly mown park my snout suddenly sprang into life and, Whoosh, there I was transported back to my toddler-hood in my granddadâ€™s Clackmannanshire garden. A kaleidoscope of memories came tumbling out, unfolding layer upon layer; scenes, sounds, smells, reconstructed in a strangely vivid haze.
But to the point of all this, which is that surely one of the best and most pleasurable ways to indulge oneâ€™s nebâ€™s desire is to expose it to malt whiskies. Whisky distillers have long appreciated the stimulation that malts provide and have worked tirelessly to produce whiskies of high quality that maximise the sensory pleasures, and they have created an incredible range of aromas.
There are whiskies that are redolent of smoke, soap, medicines, apples, pears, bananas, chocolate, nuts, sherry, Christmas cake, leather, aniseed, vanilla, cream soda, butter, geraniums, heather, honey suckle and on and on and on the list could go. They can be sweet, salty, sour, and bitter to varying degrees and can linger pleasantly for hours as surely as a vapour trail in a summer sky or the gentle, rolling wake of a passing fishing boat on a Hebridean sea. And, as with my freshly mown lawn, they can seduce your memory into revealing long forgotten moments from more than half a lifetime ago.
So how do the whisky makers go about creating such a vast array of smells and flavours? Well there are elements involved that are still mysterious but nevertheless the distiller has never had more understanding and control of the product as he or she has today. They create different styles and characters of whisky by applying variation to raw materials, equipment and methodology.
Different barley and yeast varieties yield different results for a start, and distillers can determine the peatiness of their whisky by the amount and type of peat they use in drying the malt. The shape and height of the still, the angle of the lyne arm and the rate and temperature at which the still is heated all make significant contributions.
In the spirit itself are impurities which are desirable in small but not in large proportions and so will mainly be discarded. The proportion of impurities left will also have a major bearing on the end product.
Then there is the maturing process and here the big consideration is on wood type, which will generally mean a choice between bourbon casks made from American oak or sherry casks made from European oak. Other casks, such as port casks, can be used but are far less common. Sometimes distilleries will start off putting the whisky in one cask type and then transferring it to another type to alter the whiskyâ€™s character. How many times the cask has been used for maturing whisky before, how long you mature your whisky and even where it is matured can have an effect on the end product.
Whisky making is a science and a craft. By understanding organic chemistry and what chemicals produce what aromas and how and when to tweak the materials, equipment and procedures to emphasise particular chemicals, distillers can influence the smell and taste of whisky.
Distilling is a science that pays homage to the nose, providing us not only with whisky but with perfumes too. However at the end of the day, no matter how wonderful the perfume, whisky will more than match it for complexity and subtlety. And it always has the advantage that not only does the nose get some special treatment but the tongue, tastebuds, gullet and soul all relish the experience too.