Last month a group of 12 prominent whisky bloggers (12 blogs actually… some blogs have multiple bloggers) banded together to answer a monthly question. I am thankful to Jason of Guid Scotch Drink to consider me prominent enough to be a knight and join schwartzes with this great group.
The valiant knights (and links to their blogs) of this round table are:
Chris – Nonjatta
Keith – Whisky Emporium
Karen & Matt – Whisky For Everyone
Ruben – Whisky Notes
Mark – Glasgow’s Whisky (And Ale)
Neil & Joel – Caskstrength.net
Lucas & Chris – Edinburgh Whisky Blog
Jason – Guid Scotch Drink
Gal – Whisky Israel
Mike – Whisky Party
Peter – The Casks
Joshua – The Jewish Single Malt Whisky Society
Back on June 1, 2010, the first question was posed: “What rules have you set for yourself in your whisky lives and how have you rationalized breaking them?” – you can view all of the answers to this great question here.
This month, I decided to pose a question (a three-part question actually) to the group. The question in question been posed to me by many readers of my blog: “How did you develop you “nose” and “palate”? What was your turning point for actually trusting what you were smelling and tasting? What do you do, if anything, to strengthen your senses and/or help your smell and taste to grow?”
Chris from Nonjatta — This is a great question because in my opinion it comes to the heart of the fundamental dilemma of whisky and any other sort of tasting. I developed my nose and palate in the womb or at least in early childhood as does everybody else who tastes whisky. The sensitivity of my palate and nose has probably only deteriorated since then.
My mind’s ability to put words to those sense impressions has, of course, developed but the ability to put words to something is not the same as genuinely developing a sense. In fact, in my opinion, there is something about any description of reality, even when one is only describing it to oneself, that simplifies and removes the describer. It is like trying to hold a small bird in your hand. The act of grasping kills it. I trust what I am smelling and tasting when I just smell and taste it, just as I trust what I am smelling and tasting when I smell field when I am walking through it, or smell a urinal when I am standing at it. I do not trust what I am smelling and tasting when I am trying to describe it, either to myself or to others. And there is the dilemma at the heart of whisky tasting, but also at the heart of so many more important parts of our societies, because the need and desire to communicate an experience to others, or even just to grasp the experience in language for your own self, is, in my opinion, inevitably about removing yourself from a sense impression, compromising it with similes and metaphors, simplifying it and cutting it off from itself. A whisky is never really “caramel like” or “smoky”. It is whisky. And yet we have to resort to this morse code to communicate with others and ourselves.
So the answer to the second part of the question is that I only trust my nose and palate when I just drink whisky without any idea of trying to catch it on the wing. What I do in order to strengthen my senses and help my smell and taste to grow, is to just relax and try to be an alcohol drinking child… in a responsible, not actually suggesting under-age drinking sort of way, of course.
But even so, let me try to briefly address each of your points in turn;
Did I actually ‘develop’ my nose and palate? I’m not aware of doing anything drastic in this area other than waking up one fine day, sticking my nose in a glass of whisky and suddenly finding myself extolling the myriad of virtues of the dram.
The turning point for trusting what I was doing? This is an excellent question in so far as you have isolated one very important concept here; Trust. It really is a case of trusting or having faith not in what one is tasting or nosing, but in how one interprets those experiences and then conveys the information to others.
How to strengthen one’s senses? I’m really not convinced that one can ‘strengthen’ the senses in this respect, but if you had asked about ‘broadening one’s experience’ then I may have agreed that this whole idea of conveying whisky attributes to others is based mainly upon personal experience(s).
Please allow me to broaden this concept a little after my somewhat glib answers above;
One should try to sample as many different expressions and styles of whisky as possible in order to build a base knowledge or perhaps even some kind of personal ‘database of experience’ for later comparison. I believe our senses work more on aspects of comparison than immediate recognition, so the more base information you have to compare against, the better positioned you are.
I must also stress that a serious nosing & tasting should take some time. This isn’t a case of stick yer nose in the glass, have a quick sniff then knock it back and hold out your glass for another. Be gentle, careful and patient with a good whisky, giving it time will often reward accordingly. I have even experienced some drams whose noses improved beyond belief over the space of an hour. Also, allow the whisky to come to you, don’t try and force it!
Finally, one point I stress to anyone (and everyone) attending my tastings, masterclasses or just sitting enjoying a dram with me is not to get hung up on specific descriptors. You don’t need to find liquorice, vanilla, currants, nuts or any other of the ‘standard’ elements that are often spoken of. If you find the interior of a dodgy old Ford Escort, a pair of green wellies or a lump of chewy treacle toffee from your childhood, then that’s fine. It’s all about your ‘experieces’ (there’s that word again) and not those of others.
Finally, finally, when you do sit down to enjoy a wee dram and you allow it some time, allow also your mind to open and take a wander through your life’s experiences. You don’t need to look for anything in particular, but you may be surprised how the complex aromas from a single malt may suddenly open a little gateway in your memory and suddenly take you back to another time and place that you thought was lost forever.
If I’m allowed to paraphrase an old saying, I guess what I really mean is take your time, relax, close your eyes, open your mind, lay back and think of Scotland!
Gal from Whisky Israel — When i first was introduced into single malts and started my ‘malt mania’ i did not really nose my whiskies as i do today, i first was overwhelmed how good whiskies can be taste and smell wise, but at that stage i was learning to like it more and more. Anyways, i first started drinking my whiskies in the regular tumbler which is not very helpful to nosing, only after reading some blogs and watching online nosing session, i realised I’ve been missing on it, and started really to nose and to taste seriously.
My turning point to trusting my nose was actually in a discussion with Serge of Whisky fun. We had very different notes regarding a dram (i think it was Octomore) and he said that: No wonder we have different notes, as we have different Noses… The important issues are to follow your instincts, and call what you get in the nose / palate. different people will sense different things and that’s ok.
I do think that by sampling a lot of different types of malts and not limiting yourself to only peated / sherry / young / old etc malts your sense of smell and your perception of smells and tastes will improve. I do try to sample new malts as much as i can, be it with new purchases, or when visiting friends, and mostly by trading samples with other whisky folk. This way, your senses will learn to detect many new odors and flavors.
Another great way to improve your nosing abilities is to read as much as tasting notes as you can, and of course Guid scotch drink’s ‘say, what?!’. I’ve learned quite a few things from there, mostly about odors that I couldn’t put my finger on (Parma violets for example), and reading about it, understanding how people describe those notes are very helpful for your future nosing/tasting abilities.
Often I do find myself nosing a dram and then reading what others said about it, and wondering to myself : is my nose that dull? How can’t I pick up all those lovely scents of dust, nail varnish, car seats etc (as bizarre as nosing notes do get). I’ve come to accept we do differ in the scents that we pick up, some of us have great noses, and some are more average.
So my advice to whisky newbies : Do not despair. Try to nose as many malts as you can, you may not pick up every single note that Jim Murray / Serge / Dave Broom picked up. So what?! Enjoy the nose, take your time. Experiment, and trust your instincts!
And more important, enjoy it, Dramming is great!
Mark from Glasgow’s Whisky (And Ale) — Tastings, tastings, tastings. That’s pretty much how I developed and am still developing my nose and palate. I joined a whisky club and attend whatever masterclasses and festivals I can where I discuss with others what they can sense and see if I can perceive the same notes. I have also sat at home with whisky in front of me with the intention of writing tastings notes which also focusses your thinking towards what you can smell and taste. I think the more whiskies you try the more you begin to find common notes throughout and then you can pick up on those right away. As the old saying goes, “Practise makes perfect”!
Go to distilleries and do the tour. They will suggest what the characteristics of their whisky are. See if you agree. Read the tasting notes on bottles and in books and see if you agree with those too. But don’t take them as the notes that you must find. It’s all subjective so find your own notes and use your own memories of smells and tastes to create something a bit more personal. After all, nobody is wrong. If it smells like your dog after a swim in the local canal then who can say otherwise?
Ruben from Whisky Notes — I’ve found two things really important to develop my (whisky) senses: curiosity and people. Curiosity because I’ve always wanted to know how unknown things smell or taste. I like cooking and eating, I know a few things about herbs and other ingredients… When on vacation, I want to discover local fruits or special dishes. Sooner or later this will all pop up as an assocation. Secondly people, because sharing your thoughts makes you see different things. Especially women, I would add, because I have been amazed a number of times about how good women are at pinning down smells and flavours, even when they’re not whisky drinkers. Experienced whisky conoisseurs (in person or through their reviews) are even more interesting of course, as they’ve built up a library of possible flavour profiles. They can make you discover new things or find the right wording.
Peter from The Casks — One of the best things one can do to develop one’s nose and palate is to date a sommelier. In fact, I’ve enjoyed it so much, I’ve decided to marry one. My fiancé (let’s call her Sherry Butts) really made sense of tasting, creating and using a palate “library”, and integrating as much knowledge as possible of ingredients, production and terroir to help describe a drink. Probably the closest thing to an “ah ha!” moment for me was the realization that tasting something like whisky in this way is an analytical and intellectual process as much as it is a sensory one. We all know what a raspberry looks and tastes like. When we pick one up and pop one in our mouth, there are familiar colors and flavors that confirm to our sense memory that yep, that’s a raspberry. However, we don’t always stop to consciously and deliberately commit it to a taste memory of “raspberry” with the idea of calling to mind its characteristics later. That idea has really helped me to expand my palate and make it more accessible. The best way to improve and grow one’s palate should come as a great relief to all of us: practice, practice, practice (not getting a nostril enlargement which, it turns out, is an illegal procedure in the US). The more I taste and the wider variety of whiskies I’m exposed to can only help expand my ability to describe things accurately. Also, I think it’s important to taste with other people on occasion. Every time I’ve tasted with a group, I’m always impressed by the different approaches people take in tasting and describing. Someone else will always find a characteristic that I didn’t notice and vice versa. I think that kind of simultaneous discussion and tasting is a great way to improve on and trust in your own way of thinking about whiskies.
Not sure about you folks but after all this reading, I could use a breather! Please enjoy this intermission:
Back to the answers:
Karen & Matt from Whisky For Everyone — We feel that our collective ‘nose’ and ‘palate’ are still developing and will always continue to, as you add new experiences, aromas, flavours in to the mix. Initially two years ago, when we knew much less about whisky than now, the idea of the nose and palate and what you should be getting out of them was a daunting thing. This is especially true if you are in the company of people with more experience or people who think they have more experience than you! The turning point came when we realised that there are no wrong answers when smelling or tasting whisky and not to be intimidated by what is in the glass.
Do you ever really trust your senses? We think that you should never fully trust them, as then there is a danger that you can become dictatorial and ‘always right’. We actively seek other opinions and reviews of whiskies that we are sampling and writing about, as someone will have picked up something that we haven’t or vice versa. Everyone has different taste buds and will get different things out of the same whisky. That is what makes the amount of whisky blogs sustainable, as everyone’s experiences, tastes, opinions on certain brands and styles of writing are all different.
The most important thing to grow your senses and whisky knowledge is to keep experimenting and trying new things. For example, we have recently sampled combinations between chocolate and whisky. It was amazing how the different combinations brought out different characteristics in both the chocolate and the whisky. This was especially true when doing something as simple as tasting the whisky first and then the chocolate and vice versa – the same chocolate and whisky would exhibit new flavours when tasted in a different order.
Jason from Guid Scotch Drink — While at Aberdeen University I was fortunate to take a nosing/tasting course with Jim McEwan (then of Bowmore, now of Bruichladdich). He taught the group how to bring the glass in from the right in order to not overwhelm the senses, how to hold the spirit in our mouths, and how to judge the finish. He also taught us a great trick, that I still pass on to this day, that helps gauge whether the whisky in your glass is cask strength or not. All in all, he laid a great foundation for my whisky tasting education.
Whenever I see Michael Jackson, Dave Broom, Jim Murray, John Hansell, Serge Valentin, or now a host of whisky bloggers make the same observation as me it reinforces that I know what I’m doing when tasting a new expression. However, I also enjoy those moments when a completely different note appears out of nowhere, especially notes that connect me to a distant personal memory. The recent Master of Malt 26 Year Old Bowmore took me back to being a wee lad buying penny sweets at my local corner shop in Ayr, Scotland. How can one question a moment like that?
I try and strengthen my senses everyday. If I’m in a baker’s shop I pay close attention to the smell of the bread, the sweet pastries, the yeast in the background, the sun coming through the window. I’m forever in my pantry opening different spice jars, smelling and tasting the contents. Local farmer’s markets and farms also provide a great opportunity to gather up new smells and tastes. Really, I just try to pay attention to everything around me and store away key notes for later use. I also like trying to find notes from others in my everyday life. Ruben’s “farmy” notes have stuck with me and I pay close attention to that when I’m in the country or visiting different farms.
Neil and Joel from Caskstrength.net — Noses and palates come in all shapes and sizes- the beauty of a great whisky is that one man’s lint bandages can be another man’s coal dust. You have to place implicit trust in your nose holes- what you smell is what you get. Don’t take anyone else’s findings as read.
To keep my nose in check, I decided that every day I should try to discover a new aroma, be it an exotic flower, food or pet. I’ve yet to detect the faint whiff of chinchilla cages in a vintage Ledaig, but it might crop up… you never know.
One thing on which all three of us agree, contrary to your doctor’s recommendation to drink more red wine, is to ‘keep drinking [whisky]’, as well as varying and contrasting the styles, and, most importantly, adding a mental element to each tasting. The latter has meant, for us, to ‘think’ through each inhale, being conscious of the aromas and flavours (“to describe exactlywhat you are smelling and tasting”), and then, ideally, to retain that information over time whereby one can quickly access an organized storehouse of physiological data. For Mike F., reading the opinions and tasting notes of others has helped make verbal sense of the various reactions the brain has to different aromas and flavours, thereby enhancing this mental database of sensory reactions.
What was your turning point for actually trusting what you were smelling and tasting?
Dan hit his stride when his notes started to consistently overlap with those of other writers, whereas Mike C. has never been concerned with agreement or a personal sense of accuracy (“the conversation is about our differences, not the backslapping that comes when we’re all on the same page”). Mike F. got comfortable with his nose/palate once he found a good system for discerning flavours and aromas and writing about them, which took six or seven months of “serious” tasting and blog writing. Building a knowledge base about how all types of whiskies are made, what physical flavour compounds might be extant (eg, limonene, which is present in both lemon rind and Glenmorangie), etc., has helped his system.
What do you do, if anything, to strengthen your senses and/or help your smell and taste to grow?
As for improvement, I think all of us can be considered slackers to some degree. Other than continuing the basic processes of tasting, thinking, writing, and reading, we don’t do much olfactory exercise. But Mike F. has tried to expand his palate by applying it to as much food and drink as possible—in a casual sort of way. Not sure if that has helped with whisky, but writing about whisky has certainly helped understand everything else a bit better.
Well, I didn’t develop my nose. I am developing it and I don’t think that that development will ever end (I sure as shit hope it doesn’t). I can say that my obsession with developing my senses started with my reading comic books as a kid and actually thinking that real-life superheroes wear deaf and blind people. Seriously.
My thought was: once one of their (they being the deaf, dumb or blind) senses were gone they had to hone the other sensory skills to make up for it (imagine Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor from the movie See No Evil, Hear No Evil as super heroes… I can). So, as I child (say 8 or 9 years of age) I would alway try to figure things out with my nose while my eyes were closed. I was able to determine what kind of cat food my kitties would be eating for their next meal. Grab a cat food can blindly, open it, sniff it… Is it salmon? Is it whitefish? I got good. I still do it but now I do it with whisky.
With regards to trusting what my nose and tongue was telling me… I knew what I was smelling I just could not think of how the heck to describe it or, more importantly, because I am a very visual person, put a mental picture in my head of it. I knew there were complex flavors in these whiskies I was tasting.
To kick start my schnoz, I used other writters and bloggers’ notes to help me visualize of what I was tasting. I would pour a dram then go to Serge’s Whisky Fun website, Dr. Whisky’s blog, read Jim Murray Whisky Bible to see if my brain would see what they could smell and taste. It took a while but I started getting some “ah-ha!” moments. From that point on, I was able to trust that I could put words to what I was smelling. This exercise also gave me a good list of writers to follow. Writers I knew who had similar palates to mine. So, if I was ever stumped or just not getting something, I could go to their notes for help. I still read 15+ blogs but there are a select few who I know I can go to to help me should I need it.
How do I strengthen my senses? Non-stop tasting and non-stop reading. When reviewing or discovering new whiskies, I always smell and taste with my eyes closed (after I gauge the color of the whisky) and ALWAYS in my comfy spot next to my wife down in the family room after the kids go to bed. The day is done. I’m with my special lady friend. I am at ease with the world and can truly taste some fancy-ass whiskies!