Irish whiskey, touring the Hebrides and an American whiskey supplement on Kentucky Bourbon
A sure sign of over-zealous indulgence is (of course) drinking alone. Another is (of course) drinking in the morning.
This should concern me, I suppose. Solitary drinking is part of my job, and the best time to taste is late morning, when the palate is fresh. But though solitary, I am not alone: the professional tasters and blenders in the whisky trade do the same thing as me day in, day out. A few of them do not even like the taste of whisky. They keep their jobs, and their sanity, by evaluating whisky with their noses alone.
For 'tasting' read 'nosing'; whisky 'tasters' are referred to as 'noses' in the trade. (Likewise, a 'whisky tasting' is a 'nosing' and the 'tasting room' a 'nosing room'.) The tastebuds are of secondary importance when it comes to the sensory evaluation of any whisky. The implications of this are twofold.
First, you don’t actually have to like the taste of whisky to participate in a tasting. Second, whisky is best tasted in glasses that will bring out its aroma.
Forget, therefore, about using traditional cut-crystal whisky tumblers: they’re hopeless for nosing purposes. They were designed for swilling whisky and soda, and are perfectly adapted to this purpose, but they neither catch the delicate aromas of malt nor permit the spirit to be properly agitated (which helps release the aromas). A good nosing glass performs both these functions. It is tulip-shaped, with a decent bowl (for swirling the spirit) and a narrow lip (to catch the aromas). Ideally it is made from crystal (so the lambent colour of the spirit can be considered) but not cut crystal, which distorts the hue in its facets. A tulip-shaped wine glass is ideal, but not a Paris goblet. The Riedel malt whisky glasses are designed to show the whisky at its best; if for any reason you don’t want to flatter the whisky a tulip-shaped glass is more likely to lay bare any faults.
The next consideration is water. Whisky always benefits from a little water. It opens up the aromas – you can actually see the little oily chains of aroma-bearing compounds swirling in the glass, and your nose will give you ample proof.
The question is: how much water? This is a delicate matter. I once ruined a glass of whisky from a bottle which cost £500 (Whyte & Mackay's award-winning The 500 to be precise) by drowning it, and I only added a teaspoon. As a general guide you should dilute to around 30%Vol, but some whiskies take more water than others and some take less, so add a little at a time. The optimum point of dilution is when any prickle or burning sensation you might feel on the nose when you sniff it straight disappears.
The ideal water to use will be drawn from the same source as the production water for the individual malt you are sampling. This may be difficult to obtain. At any rate, it should be still and soft. Bottled Scottish water meets these criteria; ordinary tap water, so long as it is completely odourless, is perfectly adequate. It should be cool but not chilled (say 15ºC); if the water is chilled it closes down the aromatics. The same is true of ice, of course, which should never be added during a tasting. Indeed, warming the glass in the palm of your hand helps to bring out the aromas.
The next question is that of exactly what you can tell from the nose of a whisky. If you’re a professional blender you can probably tell all you need to know; the rest of us should note that while you can judge smokiness, fruitiness, peatiness, woodiness and age, you can’t judge alcohol from the nose, nor acidity, nor structure.
Should you taste alone, or with friends? The latter, obviously, can be more fun. Tasting with other people also allows you to realize when you are imagining scents. There is no surer way of determining whether or not an aroma is present in a whisky sample than receiving the enthusiastic agreement of other people when you come up with a descriptor. But bear in mind too that nosing or tasting is subjective, and your seaweed may be another person’s kipper boxes. People don’t have to agree; indeed, I’m looking forward to some spectactular disagreements between Jim Murray and Michael Jackson on our tastings pages over the next few issues.
To avoid sabotaging your senses, don’t taste in a room with a wood fire which is blowing back, or a kitchen in which you are cooking a curry, or a freshly painted bathroom. Encourage your panel not to wear scent or after-shave, and not to smoke while they are tasting, or for half an hour before the tasting. Speaking as an enthusiastic smoker, I am pleased to report that smoking does not impair your ability to nose and taste. Some of the best noses in Scotland (let alone France) are heavy smokers. However, your smoke can play havoc with the tasting ability of anyone who is not a smoker.
The huge majority of people (around 80 per cent of us) have first rate noses. Noses equipped with some five million olfactory cells, which can detect aromas diluted to one part in a million – in the case of especially pungent compounds, one part in a trillion. The main drawback to being able to smell is age: one's sense of smell deteriorates in time, like the rest of one. Also, be aware of a phenomenon called 'anosmia', 'odour blindness', occuring among your panel. This is identified when one member simply can't smell certain groups of aromas. It can also work the other way, where an individual is acutely sensitive to certain scents.
There are only three primary colours (yellow, blue and red) and four primary tastes (sweet, sour, salty and bitter), yet there are 32 primary aromas from which we build our sensory universe. Even when you think you are tasting with your palate it is in fact your olfactory cells that are doing most of the work: if you don’t believe me, hold your nose when you next take a sip of whisky, and see how much flavour the whisky has.
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