Production

How to be nosey

Nosing is a complex and skillful business. Ian Wisniewski looks at what it takes to get to the top
By Ian Wisniewski
While each element of the production process is vital, the final stage of cask selection, vatting and blending really is paramount.After all, the expertise and investment of preceeding years can be squandered if master distillers and blenders don’t maintain exacting standards. And as distilleries continually extend their portfolios, there are ever more decisions and responsibilities for this elite group, who combine vast experience and technical knowledge with pure creativity.As quality control is based almost entirely on nosing aromas, another name given to master blenders and distillers is The Nose. A typical routine sees the nose in action during late morning, when the olfactory senses peak. This can mean nosing up to a few hundred samples, in batches, with breaks inbetween to prevent the nose from becoming saturated by alcohol.High-tech accessories increasingly play a supporting role, but can’t match olfactory ability. ”Gas and liquid chromatography is used as a back-up to analyse esters, wood extractives, particularly vanillin, and phenols. It’s an additional tool to the nose, to be able to easily discriminate between thousands of whisky samples, but it’s not as precise as you can only routinely analyse 20 to 30 marker compounds. And it’s not at all reflective of the individuality of each distillery or cask,” says Rachel Barrie, Glenmorangie’s spirit quality manager/ master blender.Beginning her apprenticeship with the brewer Scottish & Newcastle, Rachel joined the Pentlands Scotch Whisky Research Institute as a research scientist in 1991, researching the chemistry of flavour, particularly maturation. This lead her to Glenmorangie in 1995, in order to establish a research laboratory.Rachel also trains employees with the most sensitive noses, who undertake descriptive tests during a weekly panel, as well as two day courses once a year. “People are surprised and amazed by their abilities, being trained to find certain aromas and then finding them themselves, they really get a lot out of it and are very motivated by sensory work,” adds Rachel.Reaching the top can require at least 10 years experience, and while future noses always used to be recruited from among distillery employees, candidates now tend to apply with a chemistry degree.“There’s a fair bit of chemistry involved so it could be harder if you’re not a chemist, but the bottom line is the sensory, if you’ve got that you don’t need to be a chemist,” says The Edrington Group’s master blender John Ramsay. His career began with Long John at the Strathclyde distillery. After working as a blender for William Lawson he joined Edrington in 1990, and a year later replaced Paul Rickards who had originally trained him at William Lawson.“Working with a mentor is the only way you can learn this job, though you’ve got to have some sensory ability. Everything else is about working alongside someone who can explain different wood influences and all that side of the business,” says John Ramsay.”But you also need a good memory, it’s about getting the sensory thing and then making the connection.” Aprime example of the next generation of noses is Brian Kinsman. Starting at William Grant’s Girvan distillery in 1997 as a 25 year old chemist, Brian was analysing new make and mature spirit, as well as being part of the nosing panel. Three years later he was running the panel, and began working on specific projects with David Stewart, Wm Grant’s master blender.“It was agreed I had a good nose and I got on with David, which is important as we spend a lot of time together,” says Brian, who is now officially David’s support blender. “I was really interested in getting involved.There’s no formal training programme as such, I’m acquiring experience on the job.David and I nose the same samples and discuss them. You categorise things in your mind, and they fit into a bigger picture.” There’s also another type of bigger picture for Brian. ”I’m dealing with whiskies distilled before I was born, and working with whiskies which may be bottled after I retire.” Meanwhile, the traditional role of The Nose has also become far more creative. As support teams now routinely check day to day cask and vat samples, master distillers and blenders can concentrate on innovation.“Five years ago 30 per cent of the job was creativity and new product development, now it’s about 90 per cent,” says John Ramsay. Whyte & Mackay’s master blender, Richard Paterson concurs. ”I’m constantly thinking what am I going to do to enhance the whisky. You’ve got to be innovative and that’s what makes it exicting, and hopefully the customers will like it too. You’ve got to know the character of your whiskies, what they’re like when they’re born, what they’re like when middle-aged, and how they perform in a blend. You’ve got to have a degree of anticipation and intuition. The wood is critical to everything. Wood management is now a much more important part of a blender’s job. Years ago these things weren’t talked about to the same extent.” Working for Whyte & Mackay for the past 35 years, Richard had an early introduction to the industry, visiting his father’s bonded warehouse in Glasgow at the age of eight.”My father and grandfather were whisky blenders, and they really encouraged me,” says Richard Paterson.New product development (NPD) typically begins with a brief, stating where a new product might sit in the portfolio and within the market. Initial stylistic definitions are whether the character will be light and fragrant, rich and sweet, or peated.“Sometimes the marketing department will lead and tell you the volume, price point and type of consumer they have in mind, then I’ll come up with some prototypes,” says Glenmorangie’s Dr Bill Lumsden.With a PhD in biochemistry, Bill held various posts at United Distillers (now Diageo) before he was appointed distillery manager at Glenmorangie in 1995. In 1998, Bill was promoted to head of distilleries and maturation, with overall control of production at Glenmorangie, Glen Moray and Ardbeg. Responsible for the cask selection and recipes of all Glenmorangie’s whiskies, Bill has introduced various new expressions.“Wood finishes have been the most important innovation in the last 10-15 years.I know how Glenmorangie can be enhanced, but if you can’t source the casks, which requires a good network of contacts, you have no product. It’s also crucial to know when you’ve reached an ideal balance between the house style and all the extras that the wood finish brings,” says Dr Bill Lumsden.The process of creating new blends combines various skills, as Colin Scott of Chivas Bros explains. ”You must put the formula in your head down on paper before you actually blend the whiskies together and assess the sample. There are various ways of looking at it, you might want to make a blend in a Highland or Chivas style, then you do the theory and create on paper three or four different styles of blends.Using representative samples you blend the different styles to their own formula and set up the samples to assess, compare, adjust, and finally select.” Colin has been with Chivas Bros for 32 years. From bottling and packaging he moved to spirit quality, which linked him to the blending department0. Learning the Chivas Bros traditions of blending from Jimmy Lang, the previous master blender, Colin succeeded Jimmy when he retired.Another important aspect of being a nose is an ability to perform outside the lab, on an international circuit of tastings, dinners and whisky fairs. ”You can’t be shy in terms of standing up in front of 200 people to give a presentation,” says John Ramsay.”Previously salesmen tended to do that job, now we’re expected to provide more detailed information about the production process, train sales teams or meet customers, and 25 years ago the attitude was we don’t talk to journalists.” Colin Scott continues the theme. ”Ten years ago it was more blending and very small amounts of travel, now the focus is pretty much equal travel and blending and I’m probably away an average of 12 weeks a year. I think it is important that we tell and educate the world about our fantastic Scotch whiskies, whether at a whisky festival or VIP seminars and tastings.” There is of course no short cut to acquiring experience, and although knowledge deepens over the years, age can also take its toll. ”I’m tested every year to ensure that my nose is still working at the level that it should for Chivas,” adds Colin Scott. ”It’s a set procedure to ensure that the person and nose are up to the business. It’s an important but slightly scary day when it takes place.” I can imagine.