Whisky Advocate

Nosing vs. Tasting: the disparity & the concequences

September 30th, 2009

I’ve been wanting to write about this for some time now.

As most of you know, blenders and “whiskymakers” (whether they are creating a blended scotch, marrying casks together for a single malt bottling, or even sorting through casks for a single cask bottling) often go through hundreds of cask samples in a day, selecting their casks by NOSING the casks. They nose their samples because you can smell more than you can taste. But, I wonder: how many of then actually TASTE every one of the hundred (or hundreds) of casks samples they go through? That would be a lot more difficult, wouldn’t it?

Why do I ask this question? Well, if you nose and taste whisky long enough, you will discover that many (most?) times, a whisky will taste differently than it smells. More importantly, the aroma of a whisky is often better (or worse) than it tastes. I can think of dozens of whiskies (and whiskeys) that I reviewed this year alone that fall in this category.

Let’s take this one step further. While it’s true that you can smell more of your whisky than you can taste, the reality is that most of us buy a whisky to taste it, not to smell it. In fact, I don’t think I ever saw someone buy a whisky at a bar and just smell it. However, I regularly watch people buy a whisky and just drink it, without smelling it at all.

So, why does all this matter? Well, I wonder how many really great tasting  whiskies are passed over by blenders and “whiskymakers” simply because they chose other cask samples that smelled better (but didn’t taste nearly as good, had they actually tasted the whisky)?

I am reminded of one master blender who asked me to help pick a single cask bottling for his distillery. Before I showed up, he told me that his assistant narrowed down the possible casks to 20 by nosing his way through the casks. Then, he narrowed the whiskies down to six (by nosing) which he put in front of me. He then asked me to pick the best one of the six, which I did. But, I wasn’t overly impressed with any of them. I had tasted better whiskies from this distillery on numerous occasions prior to this.

In fact, before we did this, he and I went through his warehouse where I nosed and TASTED a bunch of cask samples. One tasted stunning! I looked him straight in the eyes and said, “Let’s pick this one! It TASTES great!”

But no, we later went back to his lab where I picked one of the six presented to me, all of which were inferior to that cask sample which I, to this day, cherish.

So, I wonder: how many great tasting whiskies get dumped into a blend, lost in the mix, because it didn’t smell as good as some other whisky? A sad thought indeed.

31 Responses to “Nosing vs. Tasting: the disparity & the concequences”

  1. forrest says:

    John, i could not agree with you more. The disparity between taste and smell is a complicated thing and an understandable conundrum for a blender/bottler, but it is something that i think needs to be addressed. Frankly i am glad it is you that brought it up and not me ;)

    Also to further amplify (and perhaps go where you did not intend to) your point spitting instead of swallowing– definitely not as big a deal as the nosing/tasting disparity but, i believe, you have to take some down your throat– to get ‘the whole’ effect..
    There i went too far! Great post.

  2. gal says:

    john,

    as i understand 90% of taste is smell, so smell has enormous impact on the taste.
    also, when sipping a whisky, you smell it. you can not not smell it, and smell does it for me.
    i just love the smell of peat. pure peat. taste of peat is nice, but the smell , man oh man. it’s heaven.

    nothing like nosing an ISLAY scotch, and smelling the sea, the iodine, the smoke, the waves.

    smell is the most important of all aspects in a whisky.

  3. Rick Duff says:

    I’m sure Diageo must be working on a computer device to do the nosing and tasting. Perhaps a device that sits on the bung hole and tests daily sending updates via wireless to a central database.

  4. John Hansell says:

    gal, I agree with you, but…my point is that most people when sipping their whisky DON’T make an effort to smell it. For most whisky drinkers, what matters most is that the whisky tastes good. And are the people who bottle the stuff bottling good TASTING whisky or good SMELLING whisky? Or both?

  5. This is a brilliant point you make here. I would even say that all whiskies taste different than they smell.

    One thing that should be figured out is how consistently a certain “nose” correlates to a certain “palate”, or – to put it the other way round – if it is possible for two whiskies to smell the same and have a distinctly different taste.

    Obviously a whisky is ultimatively meant to be drunk and not to be nosed. So this also touches the issue of rating whiskies by adding scores for nose and palate like quite a few people do. Personally, I don’t give too much concern to the nose in scoring, as long it is not too far off the taste.

    This dosn’t mean though that nosing is not helpful to assess the character of a whisky. To help people making up their minds, decriptions of the smell are vital for tasting notes.

  6. John Hansell says:

    Oliver, good comment. I don’t provide seperate ratings for nose and palate, but if there is a disparity between the two, I will mention it in my write-up. The Old Forester Birthday Bourbon I recently reviewed is a good example where I really liked the nose buy there was too much oak on the palate–especially on the finish. And the nose didn’t predict this.

  7. David Stirk says:

    Aaah, one of the perennial problems for the independent bottler. SO often, and especially with old casks, the samples come through the post, the colour is what is expected, the nose is a heady mix of tropical fruits, sweet oak, syrup, chocolate… and then the first sip,… and nothing. Mild oak at best with just a nod towards what the nose had offered.

    I’m completely with you on this issue John and have had some pretty daft replies when the question was raised (for instance one person claimed they did not need to swallow a whisky to have an informed opinion on what the finish and aftertaste would be like – yeah, right!). One blender told me they tasted a cross section of the casks being used but I sincerely doubt this as a big blend will have thousands of casks in it and a representative cross section could be hundreds of casks.

    For me, the nose is crucial as it is the entrance to the whisky, but the taste, mouthfeel, finish and aftertaste are crucial to a whisky being good, great or indifferent. Like you said, most people drink the stuff – surprising, but true. This is not a perfume, it is a consumed product.

    Often, one big difference can be alcohol strength (and I am including chil-filtering here too) – an example would bt the new unchilfiltered Glencadam 10yo is considerably better now that it is 46% rather than 40%.

    Again, as a bottler, the most troublesome comment is – ‘lacks a bit on the palate’, or ‘doesn’t deliver what the nose promises’. I would suggest that the palate and finish are so key to the whisky, that those whiskies with unspectacular noses (take Springbank 10yo) are such a delight to drink because the palate is so unexpected and delivers more than the nose promises (what a coincedence that Springbank also does not chil-filter…)

    David

  8. smsmmns says:

    Once again John you have touched upon a universal truth: humans are simple.

    Tasting is a simple science. Sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Nosing is infinitely more complex. I understand my large crooked and kosher nose can smell up to 35,000 different scents, can detect aromas reduced to one part per million, and apparently has its own gravitational pull attracting, baseballs, pucks, and elbows.

    “Dumped into a blend, lost in the mix”?!?!
    Impossible. The beautiful casks MAKE the beautiful blends and blending is the great art of the gifted noser.

    Rick, you are 100% correct that blenders would LOVE to use spectographs and chromatographs to create all of their products and the only reason they cannot is because the nose is a more advanced piece of machinery.

    So go easy on the nose, John. Without it we all might as well be drinking bubble gum vodka and Bud light. Which, it seems, we do.

  9. Lew Bryson says:

    Not being a physiologist, I can’t speak with authority, I can only guess, but…it would seem to me that taking the whisky into your mouth will warm the whisky and ‘spread’ its components to a degree that hand-warming and swirling in a glass cannot match. That’s one factor. Another would be that, as Brillat-Savarin said, “smell and taste are in fact but a single composite sense, whose laboratory is the mouth and its chimney the nose.” Smelling without tasting brings the aroma down the chimney, like Santa Claus! Whereas taking the whisky into your mouth warms it, and sends the vaporous whisky, with all the volatile aroma compounds, up the chimney, directly to the olfactory nerves…not unlike the path of new spirit in a still, though that’s merely fancy, not a value…I don’t think, anyway.
    The thing is, by taking scent in through the nose as opposed to sending it up the nose through the back door, as it were, you would seem to be justified in expecting a different result. After all, I think we’ve all experienced what you have, John: sometimes whiskies are a pleasant surprise in the mouth after a disappointing, ‘closed’ nose, and the inverse as well. Let’s tie up some ‘noses’ and torture them with garlic and cheap perfume until they agree to talk about this deep dark secret.

  10. Tony says:

    No, we certainly aren’t all drinking bubble gum vodka and light beer. If I want a diet drink, I drink water. If I want bubble gum vodka, just shoot me, dementia has set in.

    Taste, for me, is king – but thanks to your scotch tastings, John, the nose has a place in my glass – and my whiskey buying.

    I’ve noticed a huge discrepancy (probably the wrong word) when I read whiskey bibles and other reviewer’s ratings – I am convinced some don’t actually taste the whiskey at all, or if they do, it is only in passing.

    With every glass, I sniff, I taste and then add a bit of water and repeat the process. Now, with old favorites, I may skip and go right to drinking it how I like it (usually with a little water, but sometimes not – I’ve had a few cask strength whiskeys that I found I didn’t like after water was added, and that even at higher proofs, I preferred them unadulterated.)

    I meet with a friend once a week, we saber fence or some other such nonsense and then spend the rest of the evening with drams of scotch. It is a game. One of us pours a scotch and the other has to figure out what it is – we’ve gotten quite good. We might admonish “it’s a cask strength” but it is fun to be forced to try and figure out what you are having, and you really need both nose and tongue to do it.

    I am horrified that some whiskeys might be offered untasted. It seems to go against the very grain of it all.

    On the other hand, a friend and I have been working for years on making our own vatted malt. The process is very slow BECAUSE we taste constantly. Even watered down, it adds up quickly, or your senses get deadened. We began as a lark, because we both have several whiskies in our collections that we just don’t care for. However, a little of this, a little of that and suddenly that so-so whiskey comes alive.

    I don’t know how the masters do it with just their noses.

  11. John Hansell says:

    smsmmns said: “Dumped into a blend, lost in the mix”?!?! Impossible. The beautiful casks MAKE the beautiful blends and blending is the great art of the gifted noser.”

    Sam,(aka smsmmns), you work in the industry promoting and selling some well-known whisky brands. Because of this, I understand your unwaivering position (in this posting and several previous postings) that the whiskies the blenders and whiskymakers produce are always perfect, but you’re wrong. Take off your rose-colored glasses and see the world as it really is.

    A great TASTING single cask of whisky CAN get lost in a blend of 400 casks just as easily as a great soloist can get lost in a choir of 400 singers.

    This would be a shame, really. Especially if it were because the blender only nosed the whisky and never tasted it. And to think that you only need to nose a whisky to know if it tastes good or not is pretty silly.

  12. gal says:

    i do sure hope they do taste it. (blenders). anyways, this is why most of us prefer unblended single malts. where the malt is king, and does not have to give or take anything from others.

    long live the single malt.
    ;)
    Slainte!

  13. David Stirk says:

    Hi Gal,

    I’m sure you already know but they also ‘blend’ single malts – well not so much blend as vat but the skills/concept is essentially the same. Some companies are experts at keeping the flavours consistent (Diageo and Edrington are incredible at it) whilst other companies rejoice in the fact that everything is batch vatted (Springbank and Bruichladdich to name a couple).

    David

  14. David Stirk says:

    Apologies for going off-topic…

  15. John, you are the master at airing topics that generate a variety of views. Your timely post validates a conversation I had with a guest at a private tasting several days ago. Oban’s nose led him to believe he was about to encounter the best whisky he’d ever tried. The taste poked a hole in his balloon.

    Lucky for me, I always taste after I nose, even if the expression is an old friend. If I stopped at nosing, I would have missed out on several terrific malts (Bruichladdich 12 yo 2nd Ed, Bunnahabhain 12 yo, and Longmorn 15 yo among them). On the other hand there are several–the sherried Macallans primarily–I wish I’d stopped at the nose. But, as I tell folks, it’s as important to know what you don’t care for as it is to know what you like. The only way to achieve that is to sniff and sip.

  16. Thomas Chen says:

    I agree. I also wonder how much great tasting whisky, those do not smell great, are wasted. A well-aged bottle may have more depth in the taste than the smell – something you need a few sips to discover. Perhaps a new category of “great tasting” whisky need to be introduced. Of course everyone can appreciate great smell and great tasting whisky.

  17. Paul M says:

    I can’t believe that anyone started out learning to nose their whisky before they started to drink it. For me, it wasn’t until I had been drinking for a few years until I learned to really appreciate the nose. There are definitely whiskies that I prefer the taste to the nose and others that have a nice nose, but are less than desirable to drink.

  18. Dutch says:

    Enjoying Whiskey for me is 40% nose and 60% taste, but I agree you can’t always tell by nosing, I had a bottle of Midleton VR go bad on me, but you couldn’t tell by the nose, not until you tasted it did the sour/spoiled taste appear, so I can see that the distilleries are probably missing some very good whiskey.

  19. WhiskyNotes says:

    Let’s not forget that it’s also a practical issue. No one can taste 100 samples in the same day. If you would do it over several days, then a lot of the comparison is lost. If you do it with several people, it’s less significant as well.

    I’m sure that ocasionally a good cask gets lost because of these practical downsides, but I guess the industry has enough experience to know if it works or not.

  20. Thomas W says:

    Ad David S.: “keeping the flavours consistent (Diageo and Edrington are incredible at it)”

    Having tasted the Talisker 10yo of the year 2006 against the bottlings of ’07 I can’t agree with you there… the first one is lean and almost flat, the one(s) from ’07 are much richer and carry more caramel (not a bad thing, if you ask me and not Jim M.). I think the Laphroaig 10yo is way more consistent.

    Also (in case anyone around here apart from myself still drinks blends), compare Johnnie Walker 2008 with the ’09 version. Now, there’s a difference in taste (way more than on the nose, even though those differences are appearent, too)!

  21. David Stirk says:

    Hi Thomas W,

    yeah – sorry, bad example. When I wrote that I was thinking more about the old Flora & Fauna and completely missed out how saddened I’ve been at some lacklustre Talisker’s and some completely flat Caol Ila’s. I agree with you that the standard 10yo Laphroaig is a better example. (and when I mentioned Edrington, better to qualify that I was referring to Highland Park, rather than Macallan – I don’t think anyone will agree that a 10yo Macallan now tastes anything like a 10yo from a decade ago).

    Again, apologies for being off-topic.

  22. Great post. I’ve always found it curious the way blends are created using solely nosing. People in the wine industry laugh at this, and wouldn’t dream of not tasting a wine before releasing it. You need to combination of both taste and smell (and feel in my opinion) to truly judge a wine. How can you know if a whisky has a nice oily mouth feel by smelling it?

  23. David S. says:

    Well while you took it a bit off-topic David, I would add there has been a drastic reduction in the quantity of quality sherry casks over the last few decades. This has no doubt made life difficult for many brands, but especially Macallan

    David S. (not Stirk)

  24. JC Skinner says:

    The retro-olfactory response is crucial here.
    When I was on the Guinness taste panel, we were obliged to swallow rather than spit, on the basis that part of the experience of drinking is the taste experienced AFTER swallowing.
    In whiskey this is even more crucial than beer. We call it the ‘finish’.
    I appreciate that blenders, distillers and those working in the industry aren’t often in a position to nose, taste and swallow umpteen whiskeys as part of their job.
    For this reason, I’d recommend that they take a leaf out of Guinness’ book and employ part-time tasting panels to assist them in cask selection.

  25. John Hansell says:

    JC, Yes and I think they would get a lot of volunteers for that job!

  26. Red_Arremer says:

    The traditional whisky drinker was not a connoiseur. Early whisky connoiseurship was a part time interest of someone who was general alcholic drinks connoisseur. And whisky appreciation was defintely not the most interesting drink to this general connoisseur. The appreciation of a drink with less alchohol such as congac, port, or wine generated the values through which the general connoisseurs appreciated and assesed their drams. Whisky was harsh to these afficianados– really not drinkable until it was cut down to at least 30% apv. With mouth feel and sparkle subdued by water whisky always made a poor showing in the enjoyability-of-tasting-drinking-and-swallowing department when compared to congac, port, wine, and even good liqeur. What seemed special about it, if anything was its aroma, which could be very distinctive and was carried vigorously into the nostrils by rising alchohol esters.

    Also, as you mention John, nosing has been the norm in vatting and blending and there is often an overlap between the people and methods that make products and the people and methods that make certified public judgements of products.

    The whole phenomenon of tons of people appreciating the most distinctive qualities of different single casks from different distilleries and just doing that alone apart from any more general drinks connoissership is new.

    It requires a new type of reviewer and new values in whisky production.

  27. Tony says:

    FYI – I am available to taste whiskeys night or day.

  28. B.J. Reed says:

    When we were at Gordon & MacPhail in 2004 we did a tasting where Ronnie Rutledge who was there at the time had us plug our nose completely and then blind taste a whisky tell us what we tasted and then take the nose plug off and then taste it again. What an experience – It simply shows how critical the nose is at both the stage of nosing and tasting.

    Also, Monique at the Dell is always having us identify our “dominant nostril” – the one that noses the alcohol versus the one that noses the rest of the whisky (yes we all have one) and that to changes the experience.

    So, simply nosing does not bring the entire value of the whisky to the forefront but the nose plays a part in every aspect of reveling in the experience whisky provides.

  29. JC Skinner says:

    I can’t speak for elsewhere, but if any Irish distillers require volunteers for a tasting panel, I suspect the Irish Whiskey Society could provide them with sufficient expert tasters.
    It would be a win-win scenario for all concerned.

  30. Another technique you might consider:

    Open your mouth a little when you nose. Seems to help defer the alcohol, but it also dulls the potency of the whisky’s attributes.

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