Whiskey Tasting – Quick Thought #5 “How to Nose whiskey?”

In Whiskey Talk  – Quick Thought #2 ” Your amazing nose” I finished that blog by listing 5 suggestions as to how to develop your whiskey appreciation with regards smelling whiskey. These were:-

  1. Learn how to nose whiskey
  2. Visit your spice cupboard and the garden… Smell more… seek answers to that question “what is that smell?”
  3. Get yourself a whiskey flavour wheel.
  4. identify MAIN characteristic smells in different styles , finishes and brands of whiskey.
  5. DOCUMENT your answer to that question “what am I smelling?” each time.

In this Quick Thoughts #5 I am dealing with the first of these points:-

Learn how to nose whiskey

Is there a right way or wrong way to nose whiskey.. of course not. Everyone is different and each persons’ nose is unique.

There are however a few ideas that I personally use that might be helpful to improve the experience and allow you to appreciate the whiskey more, or at least more easily.

Step 1 – The Preparation.

  • Pour a measure or less. You want to be able to move the whiskey around the glass easily and overfilling does not help, also the surface level of the whiskey should not be above the broadest part of the bowl of your glass.
  • Speaking of glasses, use a good nosing glass that works for you. Don’t use a straight up drinking glass.
  • Let the whiskey sit in the glass for at least 10 minutes before even taking a little sniff. One of the traditional maxims was to allow a minute per year. Hence a 15 year old whiskey should sit for 15 minutes.  This waiting period allows the whiskey to come to life and allows the pure alcohol vapors to dissipate avoiding alcohol burn. The ABV level will also dictate the length of time as much as the number of years. I tend to use 15 minutes for all whiskeys but whatever your nose will tolerate or your patience will allow
  • More importantly, if you are lucky enough to be drinking a 30 year old whiskey, it really deserves the reverence of waiting 30 minutes to heighten that sense of occasion and to wake the whiskey up slowly and with respect after its long slumber!
  • (I personally also like to “work” through the process of experiencing the alcohol dissipation to understand more about the whiskey, but at a separate sitting).
  • Swirl the whiskey in the glass gently a number of times during the waiting period. This, along with the waiting time itself, helps you avoid a nose full of prickly alcohol heat. Spend the time at each swirl to hold the glass up to examine the whiskey, its viscosity, its legs, its color, its luminosity etc.
  • Warm the whiskey. This can be controversial but I like to have the whiskey at quite a warm level. At least at body temperature is my preference.

Step 2 – The Approach

  • Approach the whiskey slowly.
  • Bring the glass into the side of the nose with your head at an angle so that only one nostril is close to the glass and then swap over to the other side. I will always start with the nostril at an angle to the rim of the glass never straight over the glass. I will, later, be more direct with the whiskey but that’s really just to enjoy the full effect. It’s not necessary or indeed particularly helpful for identifying the aromas.
  • Don’t stick both your nostrils at a time into the glass!
  • Bring the edge of the glass to the nose rather than the nose to the edge of glass. Your hand is much more precise in its degree of movement than your head is.
  • While you should hold your head back when sipping (the right glass will encourage this anyway. See Whiskey Tasting – Quick Thought #4 “It’s only a glass”) when nosing I tend to bow my head slightly as I bring the glass up to each nostril slowly, alternating from one to the other. The glass tends to be close to your chest/chin as you bring the glass up to your dipped head.
  • Close your eyes as you concentrate on the range of  experiences you are noting from the whiskey.
  • Swivel your head around so that the angle of your nostril changes to the aspect of the glass but again keeping it at about 30 degree angle to the glass. It can be very interesting to note the differences you get from alternating nostril and from changing angles. You are effectively letting the smells waft to your nose which is far more preferable than aggressively hoovering in the aromas.
  • Depending on the whiskey, I do cup the glass to my nose with my hands at times creating a seal but that’s when the whiskey has been in the whiskey quite a while and I’m trying to detect an elusive subtle aroma that I cant quite catch.

Step 3  – The Smelling

  • Breathe in the aromas gently with eyes closed using flared nostril and pause to document each individual aroma and identify the different layers and characteristics.
  • Smell the texture as well as the flavours and the aromas.
  • You will sense the power and strength of certain parts of the whiskey as well as the delicacy of other parts.
  • You can then also, as a comparison, open your mouth while drawing the aromas in to your nose. Push your tongue up against your teeth at both sides will allow you to breathe in the aromas through your nose while having your mouth partially open.
  • When you’ve documented all the experiences you can with the neat whiskey take your first sip but dont worry about tasting the first sip, its just a locator. In fact I completely ignore the first sip and swallow straight just to prep the palate,
  • Then nose again and note any differences.
  • I then take a generous mouthful of whiskey and chew and begin the tasting process which I am not covering here. The important point re the smelling process is to hold that mouthful and smell the whiskey again. Again document changes etc.
  • On the subject of water I tend to progress to the water adding stage only well into the process. I tend to add the water to the mouth rather than the glass as this really allows you to experience the change to the whiskey with water being added in real time so to speak. The water will invariably be cooler than the whiskey at that stage and this makes for a really great evolving tasting experience.
  • Of course adding water to the glass for nosing purposes can show new aromas Adding water is more important for me for the tasting part. I will document any aroma changes after adding water just to be complete about it. The change to the main aromas due to the adding of the water is very predictable in most cases.

Final Quick Thoughts

  • Most important!!!  Don’t wash out the empty glass, simply cover it and let it sit overnight and revisit it next day and nose it again. This can be a wow as you smell the empty glass 24 hours later. The baser elements of the ingredients and maturation come to the fore and I’ve had many great experiences finding amazing aromas from whiskeys this way. Its especially great for heavily peated whiskey, ancient, musty heavy oily pot still whiskey and heavy fortified wine finished or fully matured whiskey.
  • Another good thing to do, especially with new make or raw spirit. is to tip a small amount into your palm and rub the liquid vigorously between your palms. Then cup your hands fully over your nose and breathe deeply though your nose.. Its a great way to get past the pure alcohol notes and learn about the constituent parts of the liquid. This is especially important with new make as it is high ABV. The barnyard smells you can get from new make whiskey is a personal favorite of mine!

Here in this post I have only focused on the process of nosing whiskey as I mentioned at the start. This a huge topic and in other posts I will focus on the other 4 points I listed above and on the subject of smell recognition and identification … but that’s for another day!














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