Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Nose Always Knows!

Sometimes I receive email from readers asking how do they develop their ability to recognize the multitude of aromas that can rise up from a glass of whisky?  My usual response is that it takes time.  At first, the aromas may be impossible for the novice to categorize.  But, let a year or so pass, and on their fifth purchase or so of say that Macallan 12 or GlenDronach 12 years it gradually dawns on he or she what sherry smells like. 

Others are able to discern whisky aromas more quickly.  They may be like me.  A foodie.  Spend some time in the kitchen cooking and working with cardamon, thyme, rosemary, Kosher salt, Tahini and other exotic ingredients and before you know it, you'll be reeling off all manner of pretentious sounding terms.  I try to avoid sounding like a wannabe chef of a Michelin star ranked restaurant, but it does happen when I raise a glass and tell a friend that the whisky exhibits the aroma of fresh-from-the-oven apple honey swirl challah bread.

But, what if you are not a pretentious foodie fop?  What if you are, nevertheless, an inquisitive soul or whisky fool who finds the scents emitted by your whisky cause memories of summers long past spent at the beach looking for starfish, and pleasant childhood memories of camping in the little trailer your parents hauled behind their banana yellow Ford station wagon flooding your present thoughts?  

You think your glass of Islay's finest smells of damp leaves, that you last recall when you were five and rolling around in a big pile of leaves that your dad had just finished raking up in the backyard.  There's a part of you that wants some sort of validation that those scents you detect are as real as your memories, and not imaginary.  Help is available.  Help in the form of a whisky nosing kit. 

A nosing kit comes with miniature bottles of liquid whisky scents like caramel, smoke, floral, phenolic, sherry, etc.  You dip an aroma strip into one of the bottles, let it dry for thirty seconds and then sniff.  Practice every night.  Go through the twenty four sample scents every night for two weeks, and you will develop your whisky nosing skills beyond most people.

Obviously, the premise underlying a whisky nosing kit is that you can train your nose to recognize classic whisky aromas.  This approach to training your nose first started in the perfume industry.  Perfumers learn to recognize the important aromas of a perfume by using similar kits developed for their industry.

Don't know what a whisky critic means when s/he states that a whisky smells of rosewater?  No problem.  We got a vial of that.  Always wondered if you really knew what was meant by "malty?"  No problemo pardner, we got some of that too.  Or how about peaty, phenolic, woody, buttery and decay.  Got it covered.

These whisky kits are not cheap.  You are looking at between $250 and $300.  Are they worth it?  For me it is because I am obsessed with all things whisky.  For you, I am unsure.  So, I think you and a couple of pals need to pool your resources and order a kit.  Highly recommended if you really want to understand the nosing aspect of whisky appreciation.  Would also make a unique and much appreciated gift for your whisky loving spouse, friend, relative or friendly neighborhood blogger!


Jason Debly

P.S.  Where to buy?  I am in Canada and so ordered from a Canadian online vendor:   (This firm may ship internationally, but you should confirm same with them directly).  I have ordered Glencairn glasses several times from this vendor and found prices reasonable and shipping prompt.  By the way, I have no affiliation with this retailer and will receive no compensation, but thought I would mention where I sourced the nosing kit.

For those of you outside Canada, visit Whisky Aroma Academy for more info.


  1. Thanks for the info on the scent kit but it would be more fun to train my nose with the real thing. Might tale a lot of practise.

    BTW, that apple honey swirl challah bread looked delicious! Any chance you will post the recipe?

    Jeff The Bear

    1. Hi Jeff!

      The recipe is not mine, but can be found at

      Photo is courtesy of that most excellent foodie blog.

    2. Jason,
      Thanks so much for the link. That looks like a great recipe for autumn. The entire site is excellent. I grew up with middle eastern cuisine courtesy of maternal grandparents. (Some recipes and a few phrases are all they knew of Lebanon as they were born here.) It will be fun exploring the recipes. And maybe sip some ouzo while I do so.

      Jeff The Bear

  2. Thanks for the tip Jason, although I didn’t realize those kits were so expensive. I think instead I’ll indulge in the more rigorous, but pleasurable, nose-training regime.

    Btw, our family Ford was identical, except lime green (stop laughing).

  3. Thanks, great article (like every one of them). I recently went through the fragrance, soap, and candle stores in the mall to find anything scented "heather", since so many reviews refer to heather in the nose, like Highland Park. No luck so far. My local nursery has heather, but it smells like - nothing. Maybe not the right kind.
    Any tips how to experience how Scottish heather smells/tastes?

  4. Jason,

    I came across this NY Times article about American single malts. Thought you would find it of interest.

    Jeff The Bear

  5. I shudder at the thought ! I'm feeling curmudgeonly. I'm not gonna spend time with this hobby subjecting my senses to some too-limited version of the scientific method. Maybe old age has seasoned me enough through the decades already; exposure to the whiskey aromatic spectrum seems easy enough. Open your pantry. Walk in the woods. Stroll the shoreline. Cook some foods. Are there really folks out there without the life experiences behind them (or without a kitchen pantry and a pair of walking shoes) who don't already know what "vanilla", "woody", "pine", "smoky", "caramel", "pear", "ashy", "moldy" or "rosewater" can smell like ? Hmmmm.

  6. Jason,

    Again, fantastic article as always. This part of the scotch world has always sadly eluded me. The station wagon though.. That brought back the memories.. My first serious girlfriend drove one of those handed down by her parents... I almost blushed when I saw it!!!