How to nose whisky in seven simple steps

Nose on certificate

It’s an unfortunate thing that nosing holds an air of pretence, because we can all learn to enjoy whisky. The journey there – to discovering what you enjoy – is all part of the fun. Here’s our guide to helping you (and your nose) along the way.

Don’t think that you need the nasal skill of a bloodhound to nose whisky. Sure, you might struggle to identify any aromas beyond ‘whisky’ just now, but everyone’s capable of training their nose. All it takes is an open mind, a bit of patience and some good whisky. A little guidance never hurt either – so here are our seven steps to get you going.

1. Know your geography

It’s good idea to first familiarise yourself with the general characteristics of the world’s whisky regions. Scotland alone is split up into six, each with their own aromatic traits. Speyside whiskies, for example, tend to be redolent with succulent, sherried notes, while those made on Islay pack big, smoky, maritime punches. Ireland, Kentucky, India – most whisky producing regions have trademark styles which are useful to consider when trying a whisky for the first time.

2. Choose the right glassware

Stay with us – a tulip-shaped glass really does work best for nosing whisky. The wide base gives the dram surface space to breath, while the tapered neck channels the aromas and alcohol upwards. Not convinced? Pour out two identical measures, one in a Glencairn, a ‘copita’ glass or even a wine glass, and one in a regular tumbler. Now give them a nose.

3. Give it a swirl

Hold your glass by the base or the stem and give it a swirl. Gently does it, or you’ll end up wearing your whisky. By agitating the whisky you’ll have opened up the aromas even more. You could also place your hand over the glass and give it a brief shake. Then, rub your hands together until dry and give them a smell – you’ll think you’re standing in a field of barley.

4. Take a sniff

Don’t be afraid to get your nose right into the glass, but don’t go overboard when inhaling. To avoid ‘nose prickle’, keep your lips parted when breathing in through your nose. Warm the glass in your hands to help release the aromas.

5. Let the scent stir memories

What does the smell remind you of? Burnt toast at breakfast time? The ‘jeelie pan’ full of strawberry jam? Home on Christmas eve? The tide going out? Then say so! Our scent memory is phenomenally good, and great for helping us decipher certain aromas. It’s much easier to recognise them when you’ve got a reference point, no matter how personal or abstract.

6. Pick apart what you can smell

Now you can try and get a bit more specific. When it comes to Scotch, there are generally eight umbrella aromas. These are: cereal, fruity, floral, peaty, feint, sulphur, woody and winey. Bourbon has its own set of umbrella aromas. It’s well worth seeking out ‘wheels’ like these and using them while sitting down with a dram. Even though they highlight possible flavours in whisky, they’re excellent for guiding your nose too. The most important thing to remember is that whisky is entirely subjective; there are never any wrong answers.

7. Relax

Whisky is for drinking and enjoying. Sure, there are some drams out there that might demand some attention, but the process of sitting down with a dram should never feel like an exam. Don’t stress about ‘learning’ individual aromas – what we’ve provided are merely guides for prompting your nose. With a little practice and patience you’ll start recognising aromas on impulse – all adding to the experience. So relax, pour yourself a dram and, most important of all, enjoy.

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