Welcome to the first in our series ‘Cask Tales: In Conversation’. We hope to bring you conversations – both within the Cask Tales team and with other whisky sites – to illuminate and enliven the debates surrounding whisky a little more. Enjoy!
Raph: Well it’s been quite an interesting month, Josh! One thing that’s been really pleasing is the level of interest from people our age – seems like we’re not the only ones who appreciate whisky. And we’ve learnt a lot too. One thing I’m keen to talk about, however, is the importance of nosing and tasting.
Josh: You’re right there: we’ve had a much greater readership than I imagined we’d achieve in a year, never mind a month! Interesting you should bring that up, because I’ve noticed that – while our scores average out to about the same – I tend to score noses higher, you tastes. Intriguing puzzle. I suppose you’d suggest that since whisky is, after all, a drink, the taste is most important.
R: Exactly. It can be heaven on earth to the nose, but if it doesn’t taste right then I’d argue it’s failed in its task. I’d be tempted to place more importance on the palate, and although we score the whiskies evenly over four categories (25 points for nose, taste, finish and balance), surely you’d agree that a whisky’s taste is more important than its nose?
J: I think that’s a slightly loaded question. Taste is slightly more important, but I think the danger is that people underestimate the importance of the nose. You know from experience that there are some whiskies where the complexity and elegance of the nose make it a more enjoyable experience than the taste. Certainly, the sensations you get from nosing a whisky can be almost as powerful as those you get from the tastebuds, and without the alcoholic tang. There’s a greater complexity, too: your nose can detect tens of base smells, but only four (or five, if you like) base tastes.
R: Yes, you’re right. As you know, there are several whiskies that I could quite honestly nose for hours. The nose, I suppose, provides a crucial context to the whisky. You can’t just expect to gulp it down and learn everything about it; you need to give it a damn good sniff. Like any good host at a dinner party, the nose should introduce you to everyone, make you feel comfortable and keep you entertained. And, of course, it’s a crucial precursor to the main event – the taste!
J: I think we’re both in agreement, too, that it’s really important to take your time with whisky: appreciating the nose and the finish is all part of that. After all, even your youngest Bell’s or Teacher’s Highland Cream has spent at least three, probably five years patiently maturing since distillation. In the case of a single malt it’s usually at least ten years (and sometimes a good deal more) spent sitting in a carefully chosen barrel, often on its second or third batch of spirit, gently rounding into character – all so that you can pop the cork out, thrill at the splash as it drops into the glass, then enjoy it. Nosing and tasting should all be done with care and attention, to really bring out everything that’s gone into the production of this lovely liquid.
R: Agreed. And the nose can often tell you a lot about what to expect with the taste. It’s a shame to see people gulp whisky down with that pained expression on their face. It’s a complete waste of time and, frankly, it may as well have been thrown on the floor. Actually, more good will have come from that sometimes. Taking time over your whisky is absolutely essential to enjoying it. After all, you’re spending £30 for a ‘decent’ bottle, and sometimes up to £100,000!
J: Exactly. Adding a little bit of water (room temperature, of course) can really open up the whisky and tell you a lot more about it. Here’s a good way to see the importance of your sense of smell is: line up three identical drams of a relatively innocuous Lowland whisky. Put one drop of a peaty Islay whisky in the second glass, then three in the third. You’ll really be able to tell the difference before you come close to tasting it. That’s the beauty of whisky: to get the most out of it, you need to devote time and effort (not to mention money) – but if you do, you’ll be richly rewarded.
R: Perhaps ‘richly’ is the wrong word, especially given the state of my bank account! But you’re right, each whisky has its own unique character. No whisky is ever the same, and that’s the joy of it – every time you open a bottle you’re giving yourself a completely new (and exciting) experience. The more you try, the more you learn, and the more you want to keep adding to your collection. You’ll start to get an idea for your own personal tastes, and about which whiskies you simply couldn’t do without. It’s a superb journey (one that requires patience) but it starts the moment you lift the glass to your nose and breathe in…
P.S. If you run a whisky blog or site and are interested in getting involved with an ‘In Conversation’ piece, get in touch!