Activate your senses, enhance your whisky experience

16 June 2014

By David Allardice, US Brand Ambassador

I‘d like to explore how we can enhance the whisky drinking experience by using our different senses. 

If you have ever been to one of our tastings you may have heard me talking about the importance of nosing a whisky. Nosing the whisky is very important to enhance your overall tasting experience.  Some scientists claim as much as 80-90% of the flavor you experience is attributed to your sense of smell (olfactory system). This phenomenon of flavor perception is known as “referral of retronasal odors to the mouth”.  Ph.D. Derek John Snyder describes flavor as being “a multisensory food signal incorporating taste, oral somatosensation, and retronasal olfaction, which coalesce into a unitary sensation localized to the mouth.” Dr. Snyder, you took the words out of my mouth!

Your palate is composed of a series of taste buds, tongue, the interior of your mouth and the most important sensor of all: your nose. Through our tongue and taste buds we are able to detect the well known tastes of bitter, sour, sweet and salty and though many scientists acknowledge there are many other tastes, these are the core tastes most people can easily identify.

Our sense of smell is more advanced. Our noses are extremely sensitive and can detect many different aromas including fruity, floral, smoky and earthy.  Being aware of this partnership between the nose and the tongue can help us assess the whisky better. By nosing and tasting we can gain a greater appreciation of the complex flavors in the glass.

I’ll begin experimenting by pouring some Glenfiddich 15 year old into a Glencairn nosing glass.  With a gentle roll of the glass to coat the inside with whisky, gently nose what’s inside. It’s useful to remember that whisky is, of course, a high strength spirit, bottled at a minimum strength of 40% abv or 80 proof, so you should always approach the nosing of a whisky with some care. I prefer not to swirl the glass as swirling will accelerate the evaporation of alcohol and you will experience a blast of heavy alcohol which can be quite a shock and can temporarily anesthetize your sense of smell.  I prefer instead to gently turn the glass to coat the inside with the whisky, and then I bring the glass to my nose keeping my lips parted.

If you nose with your mouth closed you will smell more alcohol than the other aromas. Keep your lips open slightly and inhale a few times.  If nosing from a wider glass such as a wine glass, try nosing from the top side of the glass to access more aroma.  If you nose from the bottom side as you tip the glass towards you, you will get a heavier hit of alcohol.

Let’s get back to my dram of 15 year old. On nosing this whisky I get a hint of ginger, citrus orange, fruit cake, some oak spice and all of this is before putting liquid to lips!   Next I take a sip and close my lips allowing me to chew on the whisky for a few seconds before letting it roll across the palate. By chewing on the whisky we allow more flavors to come alive on the palate. As the whisky rolls over the palate the flavors begin to burst into life with some spice, lots of rich fruit and honey notes. This particular whisky is packed full of flavor, definitely a favorite of mine. A desert island dram, some might say.

Our sense of taste can also be heavily influenced by what our eyes see.   You may have heard the expression, “we eat with our eyes first”! Studies have shown that two identical yoghurts eaten from different colored plates, one black and one white, scored quite differently in taste tests. The yoghurt eaten from the black plate scored 10% lower in sweetness and 15% lower in overall flavor than the exact same yoghurt eaten from a white plate.

Like the plates in the experiment, glassware is important in enhancing your enjoyment of the whisky. What you choose to pour your whisky into is much more than just a receptacle to hold the liquid. It’s about the functionality and how it looks and feels. The glass creates your initial impression before the liquid has even touched your lips. Is the glass appropriate for nosing and tasting? Is it inviting? A proper whisky nosing glass such as a Copita or traditional Glencairn glass is not only more suitably shaped and functional than a shot glass or rocks glass, but it’s also about the look and tactility of the glass. 

Think of drinking a glass of your favorite wine from a plastic cup. It’s certainly not practical in terms of assessing any bouquet, and it doesn’t exactly enhance the tasting experience, both of which can affect your enjoyment of the wine. Whisky certainly deserves the same attention to detail as any fine wine.

The temperature of the whisky will also greatly affect the flavor experience and ultimately your enjoyment. Adding ice to whisky has long been a topic of discussion amongst whisky drinkers, so let’s look at a few of the different ways people like to drink their whisky. 

Many people like to enjoy their whisky on the rocks or with an ice cube or two. Adding ice will cool your whisky, which will contract some of the aromas, which in turn will tone down the overall taste. With whisky being such a full-flavored spirit this can make the drink more palatable for some.  Serving whisky neat and at room temperature will allow access to a fuller flavor, while adding a drop or two of water helps “open up” the whisky, bringing out even more interesting flavors and aromas.

I suggest you experiment by trying your whisky neat, then add a few drops of water. If you prefer, you can add ice to your taste.  However the most important thing is to enjoy your whisky and drink it how you like it.

Any whisky tasting experience can also be affected by the environment around us. A “nip” of Glenfiddich 18 year old on the first tee of a brisk winter’s day is particularly enjoyable. The rich, bold spice of this dram always satisfies and helps to warm you from the inside on a cold day, and in Scotland this is known as “central heating”! However, one of my favorite whisky tasting experiences was in 2012 at the Glenfiddich distillery with my fellow Glenfiddich ambassadors from around the world.

Our global team of brand ambassadors had assembled together at the distillery, travelling from as far away as France, Brazil, South Korea and beyond. On our final night we were treated to a special meal hosted by Ian Millar at the distillery.  We enjoyed a whisky pairing dinner in the perfect setting. We were in a beautiful room steeped in tradition, a mere stone’s throw from our famous warehouse 8, the room was decorated with paintings of the distillery founder William Grant, and displayed artefacts from over the past 120 years at the distillery.  After dinner it was time for a mystery dram, selected by Ian, placed at each setting in a beautiful nosing glass.  Ian announced, “This whisky was filled into a European oak cask in 1957 and is well over 50 years old. Slainte! ”

Follow David on Twitter: @GlenfiddichDA