The alchemy of whisky tasting is about exploring the varied expressions and intricate notes that whisky offer. Tasting itself is not only a sensory pleasure but analytical, as the perception of smell can evoke memory and emotion. The harmonics of smell is the intersection of what is discovered through the nuances of sight, smell, taste, and texture.
Whisky, however, is more than the sum of what we see, smell and taste. And, tasting is not confined to the characteristics of the whisky itself but encompasses the unique perceptions that individual tasters have – influenced by culture and experience, as well as current circumstances and expectations.
Circumstances may include weather, the company we are with, the mood we are in, or what we are eating or drinking at the time. To better understand and appreciate the experience, we begin with the aromatics and the origins of taste that make up the flavour character of the whisky.
Whisky contains hundreds of compounds that are influenced by the grain type, the malting and distilling process, the cask, and the length of time the whisky is aged. Tasting whisky involves a combination of sight, smell, taste and texture. Although separate senses, they are intimately entwined. The character of the whisky is determined by how these aromatic and taste compounds have been married together. These flavour compounds include phenols, aldehydes, lactones and esters.
Phenolic compounds, such as phenol, cresols, and guaiacols, contribute to the smokiness of some whiskies when barley is kiln dried using peat. Phenols and cresols provide the medicinal flavours while guaiacols are noted for smoky and woody flavours.
Aldehydes, produced during distillation, are influenced by the oak when the whisky is being matured. The oak generates syringaldehydes that gives off a spicy, almond and vanilla taste, more commonly found in ex Bourbon barrels. Whisky is also influenced by the oak lactones in the wood that impart a coconut flavour.
Esters are emitted during the fermentation process from a combination of alcohol and fatty acids. Light esters emit a fruity or banana aroma. However, esters and fatty acids can be removed through chill filtration, which some believe does not affect the taste, even though logic may suggest otherwise.
So how does this work?
Nose: Connecting Smell to Memory
The process of nosing the whisky starts with the odor molecules drawn in through the nostrils and embedded in the mucus lining the roof of the nose. This is where the olfactory epithelium is located with its specialized olfactory receptor neurons that detect the aromas in whisky.
These receptor neurons connect to the olfactory bulb located at the back of the nose that processes sensory input, linking the brain and limbic system where emotions and memories are activated. As it perceives certain odors, the limbic system accesses experiences that remind us about people, places and events stored in our memory. Most of what is recognized through this process is instinctive rather than produced through conscious thought.
The scent bearing molecules found in whisky not only help us distinguish one whisky from another, but create the possibility of triggering a previous experience, such as a childhood memory that may lead to a certain emotion that plays on the senses in the moment.
Palate: Intersection of Smell, Taste and Texture
When whisky is tasted, these aromatic compounds, detected through the nostrils, now cross the threshold of our taste buds lining the tongue, releasing more aromas. Taste buds (or cells) detect sweet, sour, salt, bitter, fatty, and umami.
Texture, on the other hand, provides a sensuousness in the mouth that can range from soft and velvety to creamy and oily, waxy or even prickly with some cask strength whiskies. Astringent mouthfeel, such as dryness, furriness or a powdery texture are most noticeable when we swallow.
What we smell and taste is subjective. The language is descriptive and the process for discovering this amazing sensory experience is imaginative and recollective. An example was when Wendy and I were visiting the Isle of Skye.
One afternoon on Skye we had an opportunity to experience the warm and inviting smell of a peat fire burning in the fireplace of an old crofter cottage. The wind from the Atlantic Ocean was howling that day and the impact of the peat fire – both the warmth and the scent of the burning peat – conjured up the intensity of a past way of life and how this became refuge and comfort for survival.
That evening we had our first dram of Talisker Storm at a local pub in Portree and were immediately transported back to the warmth and inviting smell of the peat fire experienced earlier in the day.
Since then, each time we pour a dram of and only Talisker Storm the smell and taste activate the warm memories of being back on the Isle. The brine, the smoke with hints of caramel and Christmas pudding are part of the allure. But interestingly, we do not get the same response from any other peated whiskies – a recollective moment for the curious-minded.
For those who have discovered the harmonics of smell with the concord of taste and mouthfeel – we raise a dram.