It is a well-known fact that when it comes to tasting, your nose is more important than your palate. Your sense of smell accounts for a significant part of sense of taste, so little wonder that at the highest levels of whisky drinking, master blenders do most of their sampling by nose alone.
So what’s the best way to go about it?
I figured I’d share some of my favorite nosing techniques that might help you appreciate your whisky. This is certainly not an exhaustive list. You probably have your own way of enjoying it. If anything, this is the tip of the iceberg covering the many, varied and wonderful methods that people use for nosing, but hopefully it’ll give some food for thought. In all seriousness, I guarantee some of these nosing techniques will work for you to detect more aromas from your glass.
You may (will) look ridiculous using some of these, but sometimes sacrifices must to be made for the sake of pretentious organoleptic analysis.
Let’s get started. In no particular order:
Start with a little bit of distance between your nose and glass (an inch or two should be fine) and start with lots of little gentle sniffs, warming up your nose. Then open your mouth slightly do an 80% nose breath/20% mouth breath as you continue with the sniffing. This allows the aromas to circulate throughout your nose and mouth, and you should be able to taste the smell, so to speak. Finally, open and close your mouth in short rapid bursts as you continue sniffing, a little bit like a chipmunk. This gives greater control of the circulation of the whisky aromas.
Pour just a couple of drops of the whisky onto your hands, rub your hands together and spread the whisky around, and then smell your hands. The aromas that result will be different from what you’ll pick up in the glass, as the alcohol will vaporize when it makes contact with the skin and is rubbed off. What’s left is lovely residual aromas revealing the true character of the whisky.
The French Technique
I learned this one at a Cognac tasting in France. The goal of the French Technique is to find the ideal distance between nose and glass for detection of subtle aromas. To do this, start by placing your glass of whisky at stomach level, and then start doing lots of little sniffs with your nose. As you sniff, slowly raise the glass up towards your face. The moment you smell anything that comes from that glass, bring it in another 1-2 inches and then stop. You’re aiming for a somewhat-awkward-but-not-too-far distance between nose and glass. If you smell any kind of alcohol smell, or if your nose stings, it’s too close. You should feel nothing but gentle aromas wafting through.
The Duck Face
All those Instagram influencer models are actually on to something here. The duck face actually works for nosing whisky. However, when actually puckering your lips make sure you flare your nostrils by trying to extend your upper lip as horizontally as you can, as opposed to a straight-up pucker like a kiss. Because of your flared nostrils, the aromas will become more intense, and I recommend putting a little more distance between nose and glass than usual here. Be aware that if you will most certainly not look like a model doing this.
The Parting Glass
In general, I don’t really recommend sticking your nose in the glass when nosing. The alcohol is the most volatile compound in there and it will end up stinging your nose, which is unpleasant.
However, once you’ve finished drinking the whisky the harsh alcoholic aromas are all gone. You can stick your nose in the empty glass and take as many big deep breaths as you want. The remnants of your dram will provide a different completely different set of aromas, giving you a special chance to keep enjoying your whisky even after its gone down into your belly.
Felipe is a whisky writer, musician, author, spirits competition judge, and tastings host. As a whisky writer, Felipe has been widely published across industry magazines and websites. His book, London Cocktails, is published by Cider Mill Press and is distributed worldwide by Simon and Schuster. As a musician, he is...