Sense and sensibility

Sense and sensibility

Marcin Miller receives an education in whisky detection

Production | 16 Feb 2000 | Issue 8 | By Marcin Miller

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How much do you know about whisky? I mean really know. Indeed, how much do you know about yourself? I don’t mean that Freudian couch business -– rather how good is your ability to evaluate what your senses are telling you? Every person’s nose has idiosyncrasies, by being aware of what they are you learn to understand what your nose is telling you. And once you can interpret the signals, you can spend many happy hours talking about whisky with other experts in language you all understand. Essentially the one-day Whisky School course of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) teaches you whisky expertise by first awakening your ability to understand what your nose is already telling you, then providing the whisky production knowledge which creates the end result.Your guide in this exploration of the senses is Dr Jim Swan assisted towards the end of the day by our own editor-at-large, Charles MacLean.Dr Swan is profoundly patient as well as being exceptionally knowledgeable. The size of the group, which was ten on the day of my education, does allow for questions to be asked and observations to be made. However, there is an awful lot to take in.
It all kicks off with coffee and introductions, followed by an exercise in odour recognition. Do you know your lavender from your honey? Of course you do. They look different for a start. But just using your olfactory senses is harder than you might think. Only one of our group, bearing in mind they all enjoyed malt whisky, scored full marks. However, as she was an employee of the SMWS, I feel totally justified in disqualifying her.You then move on to testing your ability to taste rather than smell. Of course, this is simpler as you can only taste four things; sweet, salty, sour and bitter. The human nose can recognise something in the region of 35,000 different smells. It can detect aromas even when they are diluted to one part in a million. Once you have the confidence to pass those two tests, you can then attempt the dreaded triangle test. Here I was completely flummoxed. Faced with three identical looking samples, two were the same, all I had to do was pick the odd one out. Not half as easy as it may sound.Two well-known brands of carbonated tooth rot threw half our class totally. We then repeated this test with two very well-known brands of blended whisky. Again half the class was wrong (and not the same half). You’ll be delighted to learn that your correspondent was wrong on both occasions.We then began the second part of the day, devoted to considering those aspects of whisky production which affect flavour; malting, mashing, fermentation, distillation and maturation.An excellent lunch, provided by the society’s chef Angela Jaques, made a welcome break from the ardours of the morning. The wine flowed, ensuring peak concentration levels during the afternoon.Charlie MacLean took the lectern, proudly displaying his wheel of whisky tasting terms. The Pentlands Institute made the first attempt to analyse the language of whisky in the 1970s. The wheel has been adapted to benefit amateur consumers rather than professionals (see Whisky Magazine Issue 3) and divides tasting terms into eight groups ranging from ‘sulphury’ to ‘cereal’. Our efforts to get to grips with the terminology were only broken by a delicious tea of freshly-baked scones.The day culminated with a practical blind tasting of two Society whiskies with the group split into two teams, captained by Jim and Charlie. The knowledge we had gained from the day was much in evidence. Similar results, as well as a readiness to use whisky nosing terms, marked our performances – although a few more exotic descriptions crept in such as ‘manure’ and ‘Swarfega’. And so the day ended with ten more graduates, confident of holding their own as well as any glass of malt.
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