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Methodical Scotch Nosing

(We do guided comparative sniffings for our in-person training to help people identify and memorize individual aromas in complex whiskey. Since we're not doing in-person training right now, people have asked if we could publish a sample sniffing so they can build their own training using our standard Whisky kit, which you can find here. Here's one with three of our favorite whiskys.)

Pick three Scotches you want to better understand. For the sake of this example, we’ve chosen three that span the range of Scotch whiskies: Macallan 12 from the Highlands, Laphroaig from Islay, and the best-selling blend, Johnnie Walker red.

Find three or four reviews of each whisky and see what the consensus aromas are. Everyone smells things differently and particular aromas can be described using different vocabulary, so a larger sample of reviews gives a truer set of keywords.

Here’s what 10 minutes of web surfing got us:



Johnnie Walker Red

Fruit, Florals, Sherry, Plum, Sherry, Dried Fruits, Sherry,

Woodsmoke, Fruit, Orange Zest, Baking Spices, Sherry, Sweet Red Fruit, Fruit, Oak, Flowers

Smokey, Seaweed, Peat, Decay, Iodine, Leather, Seawater, Burning Hay, Burning Grass, Campfire, Scorched Wood, Seaweed, Black Pepper, Rosewater, Saltwater Taffy, Buttery Croissants, Malty Beer, Oatmeal, Peat, Seaweed, Ashy Smoke, Iodine, Tar

Fruit, Cinnamon, Fruit, Winter Spice, Smoke, Potpourri, Fruitcake, Apricots, Dried Plum, Cinnamon, Sherry, Green Apples, Honey, Burnt Toffee, Raisins

Choose the aromas you’re going to focus on. The object is to choose a set that differentiates the three whiskies. In this case, it’s clear that the three chosen brands are described using a variety of vocabulary, settle-in on three distinct profiles. The Macallan is sherry/floral; the Laphroaig is smoky/medicinal; and the Walker Red is dried fruit/spicy. Most Scotches contain all these elements. Their balance is what makes whiskies distinct.

Choose one of the Whiskies to focus on first. In general, you should go from low proof to high, but it really doesn’t matter that much because you’re sniffing more than tasting.

We’re starting with the Macallan. Pour a sample and cover it so it’s not exposed to air. Floral aromas are volatile and evaporate quickly. Our Whisky aroma set has two florals, Rose Water and Carnation. Dip a strip in each. Also dip a strip in the Sherry essence. Keep the strips separate so they don’t contaminate each other. After a couple of minutes rest, what’s left on the strips is pure aroma molecules

Gently sniff the strips, familiarizing yourself with the aromas. Go back and forth between the florals to note the difference. For us, the Rose Water is sharp and kind of spikey; the Carnation is round and sweet.   

Go to the MacAllan and give it a whiff. Short, gentle sniffs like a dog on a scent. Finding the florals is going to be tricky, but they’re there. The Sherry will be easier. It’s responsible for most of Macallan’s fruitiness. Go back to the strips, then back to the whisky. Don’t hurry; take breaks to think about what you’re smelling. Your nose is easily overwhelmed, and you need to listen carefully to the associations your mind makes.

Do the same thing for the other Whiskies. Try the Walker with the Citrus, Fruity, and Spicy aromas. With the Laphroaig study the smoky, peaty, and phenolic essences. (Phenols are a large group of aroma molecules associated with medicinal smells like iodine, which is in turn associate with the smell of seaweed and the sea.) Familiarize yourself with what makes each whisky distinct.

Compare the Whiskies to each other. Try to isolate some of the differences. The easiest is going to be the Laphroaig, which is smoky in a way the others aren’t. The Macallan is going to have light florals; the Walker Red fruitier. Concentrate on broad differences before you drill-down into specifics.

Sip the Whiskys to note how what you’ve learned about their nose carries over to how they taste. What we perceive as flavor is about 90% aroma.

Your nose can handle about 20 minutes of disciplined sniffing before you need to take a break. To refresh your olfactory epithelium (the postage stamp-size nasal membrane containing nerves sensitive to smells) sniff your arm above the wrist. That re-orients your sense of smell to your own aromas, which you aren’t aware of because they’re in the background all the time. Give it a few minutes and then back to the whisky.

By the end of this little workout, you’ll have made yourself familiar with three distinct Scotch Whisky aroma profiles. This is a big deal. Congratulations. Design some other sniffing featuring different aromas and different whiskies.

As you can see, what you get out of this process depends on the whiskies you choose and the aromas you highlight. You can design your own session to be as serious or social as you like.

Have fun.

We have two versions of the Scotch aroma kit: standard and deluxe, in a decorative wooden box.