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Nosing and Tasting Ritual

Whether you are attending a tasting event, hosting you own party or capturing notes on a new found treasure, their is a wonderful ritual for nosing and tasting whisky.  The guidelines are simple but require some patience and concentration.  With a little practice it will become natural.  You may want to record your experience for future reference or just use these tips to get the most out of a specific encounter.  In either case, immerse yourself in this full sensory experience to discover and enjoy the subtler nuances of each fine scotch.


Situation and surroundings

Put yourself in a surrounding that is conducive to your goal.  Professionals often taste alone in a quiet place with few distractions.  However, the fellowship gained from sharing a new expression has as much value as a precise tasting session.  Make the surroundings match the situation.  In all cases do avoid an environment that interferes with your sense of smell.  If you are hosting an event, don't wear perfume or after-shave and be careful not to have your room laden with sweet smelling flowers or other odorous distractions. 


Feast Your Eyes

bottlespngFeast your  eyes - Pour a measure of whisky, swirl your glass and hold it against a white surface. Feast your eyes on those beautiful bright golds and amber hues.  Color comes from the type of wood cask and years of maturation.  American Oak produces a lighter spirit than Spanish Oak.  The bourbon, wine, port, sherry or rum cask finishing also influences the color and whether it was a first fill or a cask that was filled many times.  Admire the color, depth and clarity but don't judge a malt by its visual assets.  Light whiskies may be as powerful and complex as their darker copper cousins and some distilleries add a dash of caramel coloring in their vats to add that golden glow.

Swirl again and notice the legs of liquid running down the glass.  This will give the first clue of the light, medium or robust body.  Note whether this dram is thin and runny or thick and syrupy.  A high alcohol content will usually produce those longer "legs".  If you are capturing tasting notes, stop here to record the color and other visual characteristics.


What a difference a glass makes -  Nosing is one of the most pleasurable and critical components to decoding a scotch.  Whisky contains a complex combination of scents developed from the fermentation process (aldehydes, esters, phenols, feints) as well as from maturation in the cask (bourbon, sherry, port, rum).  With a little concentration and practice you will learn to recognize specific aromas such as toffee, fruits, vanilla, oak or pastry, just to name a few.  "Sense memory" also plays a role as you build you own scent catalog with each new nosing experience.

Always serve whisky at room temperature as chilling of any kind closes down the aromatics.  Professionals often aerate their samples for half an hour, as some of the more complex bouquets need time and air to fully develop.  

A dramatic way to improve one's nosing of scotch is to use the proper glassware.  The Glencairn glass was exclusively designed for this purpose, with an adequate bowl to agitate (swirl) the spirit and a tapered mouth to concentrate and funnel all those wonderful aromas.  Warm the glass in the palm of your hand while swirling.  Bring the glass carefully up to your nose until you begin to catch the aromas.  Note if the bouquet is complex and identify any specific scents.  Nose the rim of the glass through each nostril first, then go deeper.  Be careful not to nose a cask-strength malt too deeply as the alcohol you inhale will prohibit detection of more delicate aromas.  Record your first impressions of aromas in your own words.


Body and Mouth Feel

Take a small sip at full strength and focus on the sensation of the body and mouth feel.  Let the liquid coat your tongue and linger on the palate.  Is it spirity, creamy, velvety or oily?  Capture the body, mouth feel and any texural characteristics in your notes.

Professionals add water - Add a little water to further open the bouquet and palate.  Swirl again and repeat nosing.  Try taking short sniffs with a pause for fresh air in between.  Note if the aroma has changed with water and time.



Take an adequate sip to focus on the taste.  Let the whisky linger in your mouth for as long as possible before swallowing.  Notice the overall complexity and primary sweetness, dryness or bitterness of the dram.  Do the flavors repeat the aroma or have new elements emerged?  Are there distinct layers developing one after the other?  Do the flavors seem well balanced or are certain notes too dominant?  Work to identify each flavor, then describe them as specifically as you can.  It may take subsequent sips until you feel like you have captured all flavors sufficiently.



The length of time that flavors remain on the tongue after swallowing is called the finish.  Sometimes a distinct note will define the finish such as pepper or smoke.  With complex whiskies, flavor will continue to develop on the tongue for a long time.  Hopefully any aftertaste that is experienced is a pleasant one.  Record whether the finish is short, medium or long.  What were the unique flavor notes at the end?


Tasting Notes

Once your notes are complete, it is fun to read the distiller's own description or log on to one of the many wonderful tasting and rating sites on the web.  If you are tasting in a group, complete your notes before sharing as verbal suggestion is very powerful.  Don't be intimidated if your descriptions don't match those of Master Tasters or friends.  These spirits are complex having hundreds of aroma and flavor compounds across the range of whiskies, and they are being sampled by individuals with unique sensitivities and personal preferences to those many scents and tastes.  The key is to find the malt that pleasures your palate, then to take the time to really savor and enjoy it with all your senses. 


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Interview with Dr. Bill Lumsden

March 2, 2009

Glenmorangie has recently set the bar very high for themselves.  On the heels of public success with Nectar D'Or, Quinta Ruban and Lasanta, they released the wonderfully spicy Astar.  This was followed by the chocolated malt Signet which Dr. Bill Lumsden describes as his "Magnum Opus".  No doubt, this malt is one of the most intriguing spirits to hit the scene in a long time.  I was fortunate to catch up with Glenmorangie's Master of Whisky Creation by telephone on September 9th, to ask a few questions about whisky flavor development and learn more about the Signet expression.

dr. billWhen asked about the first single malt he had ever tasted, Dr. Lumsden chuckled and warned me that his response would sound as if his marketing department "wrote the script".  In his student days while studying Biochemistry, he drank mostly beer, wine and blended whiskies.  In 1984 at a party in Edinburgh, someone thrust a Glenmorangie 10 Year Old in his hand.  "It was so wonderful, so suprisingly soft and easy to drink, at that point I became hooked on malts".

As scotch became the drink of choice, his studies began to shift to non-medical applications of Biochemistry.  He completed his PhD thesis in Yeast Physiology and entered the industry as a research scientist.  Over the years, he became more keen to create something rather than examine it.  This ex-malter and cereal scientist attained his wish in 1995, when he joined Glenmorangie as Distillery Manager.  Today he is responsible for Distilling and Whisky Creation for the Glenmorangie and Ardbeg brands.  He is recognized as a leader in the industry, winning many awards and accolades for his "wood management" and exotic finishes.

I was curious to know what inspires the creation of a new whisky expression.  Dr. Lumsden replied that with frequent travel he has a chance to sample many different cuisines and tries to understand their flavors.  In particular the taste of the orient holds a certain inspiration for him.  While whisky is his passion, wine is his hobby.  As he tours the wine regions of the world, he's always thinking about the wine barrels and imagining how their flavors might work for a particular cask maturation.  Finally, in talking with many consumers he simply tries to find out what people enjoy.

The question was posed concerning how much of a new spirit is designed versus left to nature.  Dr. Lumsden explained that "On the front end, everything is carefully planned so the process can be tightly controlled.  But once the spirit is in the barrel, there is a degree of sitting back and waiting for the flavor to develop."  He also indicated certain limits.  "I probably would never develop an extremely smoky scotch for the Glenmorangie brand."  His philosophical point of view is that every expression remain compatible with the house style.  Ex-bourbon barrels are the foundation and so far every product has a degree of the house base spirit in it.  He went on to comment that "Signet was my biggest departure from the house style".

When asked which whisky was the most complex creation of his career, the subject of Signet surfaced again.  It seems the inspiration for this expression goes way back to those student days.  Confessing to a "fondness for Jamacian Blue Mountain Coffee even though I couldn't afford it", Dr. Lumsden explained how that wonderful toasty taste just stuck in his head.  It made him wonder if barley might be roasted and tumbled like coffee beans.  When he became distillery manager, he began to fashion this roasted barley into an expression, which in the beginning was too intense on its own.  It took years of working with Rachel Barrie to find the perfect formula that somewhat diluted the strong chocolated malt with Glenmorangie base, but ensured that its unique flavor characteristics were still at the heart of the expression.  Signet was released to rave reviews and Dr. Lumsden acknowledges that he continues to discover new flavor notes with each tasting.  He advised to add a bit of water to this dram, then take your time to savor it layer by flavor layer.


"Signet was my biggest departure from the house style."


Anxious to learn more about the components of whisky flavor development, I asked about the influence of the Tarlogie Springs on house style.  Which characteristics are influenced by the water or is it more marketing hype than flavor reality?  Dr. Lumsden explained that the calcium and magnesium rich water definitely imparts a certain fruitiness that distinguishes Glenmorangie.  The quality of water also has critical impact on the distilling process and ultimately the quality of the finished product.

He believes that yeast has been one of the most neglected components of flavor development and adds that there is definitely room for experimentation in this area.

Asked to comment on the rumors that Glenmorangie owns their own forest land in the Ozarks to control their supply of American Oak, Lumsden was amused.  "We do not own the land, but we do have full control".  He went on to explain the superiority of air matured wood over kiln dried.  "Not only does it remove much of the moisture content but it lets the wood actually mature, therefore it is less green, has less tannin and bitter flavors.  This is important in letting the oak impart its wonderful vanilla, coconut and almond flavors.  A low degree of tannin also allows for the development of that sweet, silky mouth feel that is so appropriate for the house brand."  He further elaborated that charring of the barrels was an extension of that critically controlled process.  Working closely with Blue Grass Cooperage, the barrels are heavily toasted but lightly charred using heat rather than naked flame to preserve the sweetness of the spirit as it matures.  Seasoning with Jack Daniels bourbon further removes any woodiness and adds another wonderful layer of flavor.

When asked if he was willing to talk about any cask experiments that failed, Dr. Lumsden gamely offered two examples.  "Experimenting with Royal Tokay wine casks,  I let the maturation progress far too long without tasting the developing malt.  The Tokay flavor so overwhelmed the delicate whisky that this cask never saw the light of day."  Another experiment with Brazilian cherry wood produced a liquor that tasted of marzipan and furniture polish.

An inquiry into international whisky trends produced this response.  "The United Kingdom and Asia are more relaxed in the way they approach scotch, using it in cocktails and over ice."  When asked which side he takes in the cocktail/ice debate, Lumsden offered that "scotch is not sacred but meant to be enjoyed.  It makes a great base for cocktails and unlike white liquors you can still taste the whisky in your cocktail."  As to other trends, he pondered American consumer's tendency to believe that older malts are better only because of age and hopes that people will be open minded and try more of the industry's fine younger 10 and 12 year old expressions.

v formationAt the close I asked what were his most exquisite experiences when it came to pairing food with whisky?  Without hesitation, Dr. Lumsden shared that at the launch of the Signet brand it was offered to guests with a fine chocolate molded Signet logo.  This was one of the great pairings for both taste and sentimental reasons.  As to other food combinations he enjoys, Glenmorangie Original and Foie Gras top his list, along with Oysters and Ardbeg, or Lasanta with sticky toffee pudding.  It is also clear that Dr. Lumsden relishes connecting with famed Chefs in developing pairing menues and recipes.  Some fine examples of a collaboration with Internationally acclaimed Chef Alejandro Sanchez may be found at their site:  www.glenmorangie.com.  Refer to each individual expression for food pairing ideas and recipes.  Quinta Ruban with Venison looks particularly scrumptious.  On that note, I thanked Dr. Lumsden for the courtesy of his time and insight and promptly headed to the kitchen to rustle up a pairing or two of my own.

All rights reserved by Sip Smoke Savor, Inc.  Please contact us if you wish to reproduce this article.


What is Single Malt Scotch You Ask?

A single-malt scotch is one of the most natural of alcoholic spirits, tempered by their environment more so than any other liquor. By definition, they are a type of single malt whisky, distilled by a single distillery in a pot still, using malted barley as the only grain ingredient, in Scotland. As with any Scotch whisky, a Single-Malt Scotch must be distilled in Scotland and matured in oak casks in Scotland for at least three years (most single malts are matured for longer).

single malt whisky

But this definition does not describe the diverse character of the drink, the startling purity of the ingredients and process, and speaks nothing of the history of the spirit. Those who know single-malts know of the distinctive smokiness, earthiness and medicinal malt of the Islay scotches; or the honeyed sweeter, flowery, fuller taste of the Speyside malts. Understand that these diverse qualities are all born out of the same three ingredients: water, barley, and yeast.

It is the environment and the distilling process that gives each malt it's character. The basic process is this: snow melt in the mountains filters through the rock and bubbles out of a spring; it is used to irrigate the barley, germinate the grain, and provide the base liquid of the whisky. The barley, grown on the warm plains, is grown, then harvested and only the grain is used. The grain is partiallly germinated, called malting.  It is then dried and added to the water in the mash tun. The third ingredient, yeast, is added and allowed to ferment. The liquid is then heated in a pot still and vaporized, the condensate is captured, placed in casks, and allowed to mature. This is whisky at it's most basic level.

The individuality of the whisky comes from the many variables in the process along the way. The malted barley flavor is always present to a degree. The source of the water may influence the character of the whisky, along with the vegetation it flows over or through. During the malting process, a smokiness may be imparted to the grain as it is dried over a peat fire. The yeasts used in fermentation can create spicy, fruity flavors. Characteristics such as richness and weight of the whisky can be influenced by the shape and size of the pot stills. And finally, aromas and flavors come from the cask itself, from the wood, the previous contents, and the air that it breathes. Controlling all of the variables in the process is a true combination of art and science, and the malt-masters of the distilleries are true craftsmen to be able to reproduce the flavor and aroma of the brand continuously.

With over 700 single-malt whiskies in the world, and new ones born every day, there is an incredible journey waiting for you to embark upon. Whether you are a casual explorer, a connoisseur, a collector, or an investor, we hope that you will find the information and resources in this website to be an asset, and a constant companion, in your quest for the single-malts of the world.


So where does one begin?


In the SIP menu, you will find a listing of single-malts by flavor and region, with individual tasting notes.  In WHISKY FEATURED ARTICLES we provide tips on nosing and tasting.  If you plan to travel, check our listing of whisky bars before you leave town.  Whether you follow our featured pairings or choose your own  "Welcome to our world and enjoy"!




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