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As far as whisky is of concern, sipping it leads to an arousal of words. Professionals whose job is related, whether far or close, to whisky tasting have a shared set of words allowing the description of their favorite beverage. Those words make specialized flavor wheels fed year by year by products released on the market.
Non-professional, I mean conventional, consumers may have the same passion for this drink while not always able to fully express what they are smelling and what they are feeling when they have a drink. Today, affordable tools are available to educate a beginner wishing to share with their peers words describing what they like.
Either straight out of the still or from a cask, whisky aroma accounts for about 0.3 % of the total of a beverage consisting of alcohol and water. Yet, this tiny fraction is able to make a difference between a three year old and a twenty-one year old or between a corn whiskey and a pure rye. A corn whiskey full of butterscotch and vanilla notes contains aromatic molecules specific of these aromas being representative of that whiskey type, while the presence of woodsy notes add complexity.
With tasting apprenticeship
Taste variations can now be more easily identified using the aroma references found in the kit Le Nez du Whisky (‘Nose of Whisky’ edited by Jean Lenoir ). 54 aroma references are gathered into distinct vials of aroma families. 7 floral notes, 12 fruity notes, 20 woodsy notes and 7 various ones beside 8 phenolics notes that are sometimes encountered as flaws when in excess.
To get started and to make quick progress, you just have to pick a vial at random, smell it and play the game without reading the answer. Then evocative memories arise to your mind. It makes you ask yourself, what family does this aroma belong to? While searching, you explore your memory, particularly your childhood memory. Immediately, you may not be able to put a name to an aroma, though you are sure you know it but you can’t catch it. Is it fruity? floral? vegetal? You then ave a look at the number on the vial and you’ve got it on the list of aromas.
You have the name of the aromatic note and you remember. Now it is obvious, yes you knew it! Repeat the exercise again with another vial. Practice this every day with up to ten vials and you will develop your olfactory memory. In a few weeks, you will be able to identify the key aromas allowing the identification of what you taste.
And what next ?
At first, aroma references of the kit allow a beginner to train and enrich your olfactory memory of what you smell. Because the sense of smell constitutes the most important sense in the perception of whisky, these references will help the identification of aromas in your glass. This is especially useful when you smell something without being able to recognize it. Each reference will help you learn to distinctively identify particular aromatic notes in a complex bouquet – sometimes powerful, sometimes light – but always suggesting several impressions. With time, you will tend to become a connoisseur able to recognize whisky according to the process (pure malt, rye, corn, aging particularities…). You will be able to share what you like or dislike.
This kit has a second utility: to better analyze the whisky tasted, allowing the tasting vocabulary to increase and get more complex with time. Then you will increase the tasting pleasure while sharing with others. Additionally, thanks to the aromas of Le Nez du Whisky, you will know the geographic origin and the different steps of whisky making: malting, fermentation, distillation, and cask aging. With this you’ll have a better understanding of the processes that produce differences between aromas found in your drink.
Like what drives a consumer to buy a whisky, curiosity and confidence grow owed to the growing knowledge of scent recognition. It is worthy to note that this kit is not only dedicated to the non-professionals but to the work of professionals as well and to connoisseurs eager to train their knowledge and to keep their reflexes sharpened with a memory as efficient as possible.
Patrick Girard is a wines & spirits freelance consultant. Previously he was a R&D project leader at Pernod Ricard for almost 10 years, focused on developing innovative distilled spirit prototypes (cereal-based and grape-based as well). He has a Microbiology PhD, and is skilled in distilling yeast genetics and physiology &...