Our April Fools’ prank about Gordon’s nose may have raised a smile, but our Master Whisky Maker’s aromatic talents are no laughing matter (unlike the huge gold statue of his nose that sits proudly in his office).
Gordon, what part does ‘nosing’ play in both the creation and appreciation of whisky?
“Before you put anything in your mouth, it passes under your nose so scent is the first sensation you’ll get. When we’re nosing samples from casks, we take the alcohol down to about 20% ABV (cask strength can be anything between 40% and 60%) – at a high ABV, the alcohol drowns out other aromas, like one instrument in a band being played too loudly and drowning the others out. By adding de-chlorinated water to reduce the alcohol’s ability to evaporate, you smell the true aromas and that allows me to properly assess key flavours. There’s a practical aspect too - the impact of smell doesn’t last nearly as long as the impact of taste, so I can sample more casks in one day by nosing them, and drive home safely too!”
So do the aromas translate directly into flavours?
“Yes, pretty much. The aromas you detect with your nose follow through into the flavours you detect with your tongue – think about what happens if you have a cold and your nose is blocked, your sense of taste will be affected too. When you taste whisky, you might pick up other flavours and of course the aftertaste may reveal even more but they’re all very closely related. There’s an old trick you can play on people who don’t think they like the taste of whisky. If you rub orange peel around the rim of their whisky glass to change the aroma, you’ll often find it’s actually the smell of the alcohol they don’t like and not the taste of the whisky.”
What type of glass is best for nosing whisky?
“Whisky professionals use a glass that’s wider at the bottom, to create a larger surface area for the alcohol to evaporate, and narrower at the top, to trap and direct aromas straight to the nose. The widely-available ‘Glencairn’ glass is similar, however, the professional glass has a stem which makes it easier to swirl the whisky around to release aromas and also means you’re not warming the whisky in your hand.”
How close should your nose be to the glass?
“Right inside. When you can’t get it in any further, that’s about right!”
Is having a ‘good’ nose something you’re born with or a skill you develop?
“Some people are ‘anosmic’ – the scent equivalent of colour blindness – but most of us are born with a sense of smell, it’s how we use it that makes the difference. If you think about a sound engineer, they’ll be acutely aware of the smallest noise that might affect their recording – a noise the rest of us wouldn’t even hear. A developed sense of smell is similar, it’s about being completely tuned in to scent and that comes with practice and experience. I trained in brewing and distilling so learned to sniff and taste beer and, when I moved to maltings, I also had to feel the grain for grit and bite – it’s about developing all your senses.
Is the nose from our April Fools’ prank actually yours?
“Yes! It was made by a colleague who’s a silversmith and an incredible mask maker. He photographed my nose from every angle and created three plaster cast statues. One is in the Visitor Centre at the distillery in Orkney, the gold plated one is in my office and the third one is my spare… in case I have a cold!”