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How to Improve Your Whisky Nose

November 21, 2018

Improving your whisky nose takes time and practice, but it’s worth it. Knowing how to nose a whisky better will help take the experience to another level, allowing you to shine a spotlight on the many layers that form its complex character. Once identified with the nose, it becomes easier to pick out the individual flavours of the whisky with your mouth; be it a rich caramel, delicate floral notes or the smooth vanilla holding it all together. Follow these six simple rules and your whisky nose will have considerably improved.

Rule 1: Forget all you know

The key to nosing (and subsequently tasting) a dram of kilchoman lies in the ability to forget, to become a blank slate. This is because humans are, on the whole, rather easily influenced. For example, tell someone not to think about a phrase like ‘glorious Scottish ginger hair’ and the chances are they’ll think of nothing else. Likewise, reading a label or studying some tasting notes that describe a whisky as “sweet with notes of lemon” may inadvertently make it difficult to find anything but these flavours.

Discovering the aromas of a whisky without any direction is not only more fulfilling, but it also helps hone your whisky nose far better. Since everyone’s palate is different, different flavours may initially stand out more – it’s all part of the rewarding learning process. If you identify an aroma or flavour, take time to elaborate on it. Is that lemon ripe, fresh, canned, candied or caramelised? The more specific you can be the better your taste buds will become at defining the flavours in the future. Before you know it, you’ll be penning elaborate tasting notes of your own, ruminating on new and exciting discoveries in the nose of your favourite expressions.

Rule 2: Forget time

There’s no rush when it comes to nosing a scotch whisky. Anyone who says different is either a liar or very late for a wedding anniversary. It’s unlikely that the first attempt will yield more than a few notes, often just an overriding indication of what’s to come. Waiting a few moments then trying again will help begin to unravel the enigma of a good scotch whisky. On the third pass try comparing the aromas to that of the previous try and notice how new secrets come to the fore. A dram of Kilchoman can be more complex than others, holding on to their intricate flavours for longer. Think of it as a reward for the most dedicated and appreciative drinkers.

Rule 3: Forget anatomy

A misconception many people have is that things smell the same regardless of the nostril being used. But in actual fact, due to the way your brain is wired, closing one nostril while breathing in through the other results in a completely different experience. Try this approach when nosing a scotch whisky to truly appreciate the breadth of the notes within. You can think of it like wearing those old-school 3D glasses: only by closing each eye separately can you see the individual red and blue layers that form the full picture.


On a similar theme, the mouth is more than just a yawning chasm for food and drink. While tasting, a true connoisseur will take time to notice how the whisky interacts with every component. From the tingle on the gums to the way it differentiates itself on the back of the tongue. It’s not simply an exercise in pouring and swallowing; it’s about taking the whisky into yourself, from nose, to lips, to tongue, to chest, and eventually to heart and mind.

Rule 4: Forget friendship

If you’re lucky enough to have a friend that drinks scotch whisky, why not steal some of theirs and take a break from the whisky you’re trying to nose? Think of it as a relaxing change of scene. Compare the two whiskies – taking time to consider the differences and similarities. Using two polar opposite whiskies, such as a light delicate 100% Islay and a dark and strong Loch Gorm can be a good starting point. It helps you pin down the qualities that unite and separate the nose of each whisky.

Over time, bring the two styles of whisky closer together. With a little practice you’ll soon sit agape at the thought that two whiskies you once considered so similar could in fact be so different. Another good approach is to use a whisky you’re already familiar as a benchmark of sorts: “is the other style more or less honeyed?” is a question you might ask yourself, out loud or internally – it doesn’t make a difference. Challenge yourself to discern what exactly makes the aroma of a whisky unique, what makes the nosing experience so enjoyable.

Rule 5: Forget old feuds

Life is too short for enemies. Go find your whisky friend and use your buddy as a sounding board – share a few drams and compare the notes and aromas you each notice in the glass. Perhaps they will be in total agreement with you, perhaps they will take the opposite stance. More likely though, they’ll be able to identify characteristics that you’ve overlooked or have been unable to identify with your own nose. You’ll also be able to do likewise for them – let’s not forget that friendship’s a two-way street!

Rule 6: Remember to enjoy yourself

Amongst everything, it can be easy to forget that a good scotch whisky is all about enjoying the moment. Don’t worry if you can’t pick out the notes of ‘crispy biscuit’ or ‘enamel paint’. Every set of tastes is subjective and there is no right or wrong to this process. Practicing every day – whether it be picking apart the scents of a warm summer breeze or treating your nostrils to a glistening dram of Sanaig– is sure to improve your whisky nose over time. It could take a while to become a master but, as they say, life is about the journey – a journey best lived in the slow lane.



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