The man who sees with his nose

Martine Nouet meets a man at the cross
By Martine Nouet
Didier Michel sampling the Bowmore 12 Years Old
Didier Michel sampling the Bowmore 12 Years Old
Our senses ‘speak’ to each other. If you think lemon for instance, you will ‘see’ yellow and ‘taste’ sour. Honey will appear sweet and light brown… Salad? Your brain will immediately send the colour green and maybe the sound of something crisp.

The interaction of all our senses gives us a sensory experience which brings emotion and pleasure. This relatively new approach in whisky tasting – ie defining whiskies more by their aromatic profile than their belonging to a region of production – paired with the right amount of technical information helps us to understand (and appreciate more) the dram we are enjoying.

In France, an artist has a revolutionary method to describe wines and spirits. Didier Michel calls himself a ‘chromaticien’ (from the Greek chroma, colour). He stands at the crossroad between art and science.

With a degree from the school of Arts appliqués and Métiers d’Art, he could have remained an engineer but thanks to his bringing up – his grandfather was the manager of a perfume company and his mother initiated him to gourmet food – he soon found himself more comfortable in an artistic environment.

A decisive encounter was that with Jacques Puisais, the founder of the French Institut du goût (Institute of Taste). Didier Michel started researching a new way to express wine tasting-notes and developed the first ‘chromatic ID’ in 1985. His training as an engineer and a chemist helped, complementing the sensory intuition.

Didier Michel produced in 2007 a superb book called Empreintes de vins which portraits famous French Wine Châteaux on cork. An English version is available.

"A nose that sees is worth more than two that sniff" – Ionesco

His work is based on the synesthesic relation between fragrance and colour. Didier Michel has created a chromatic palette of 360 items where each colour corresponds to an aroma. What he calls l’escargot des senteurs couleurs (the fragrances/colours snail).

The sensory analysis he conducts not only displays the aromatic profile of the wine or the spirit, showing a display of colours but the artist also takes into account the texture and the rhythm of the aromas and flavours delivery in his abstract painting.

Peaks and crests will translate a spicy outburst. Whereas sensuous curves will convey the feeling of a satin-like mouthfeel and smooth aromatic waves.

“I have progressed in my work method,” Didier Michel explains. “I used to dedicate two hours in a row to a thorough tasting.

“Now I taste the same wine or spirit four times in the day. At different moments, in a different environment, all that results in different atmospheres and also different emotions. I can extract the essential notes, the ones which come back in all situations and which give the emotional consistency of the wine or spirit I am tasting. I reach its backbone in some way.

“It is also interesting to note than in a warm atmosphere – rich colours, heated room, etc, the fruit flavours will come through more easily. On the other hand, a cold atmosphere will bring out the mineral notes.”

Didier Michel then draws up the chromatic sensory and emotional ID which he conveys into an ‘emotional holochrom’.

A representation that we are able to immediately perceive with our senses and which will give us a precise idea of the drink that has been analysed.

Colours are a universal language code (well, nearly universal). The best way to understand the artist’s reasoning is to have a look at his work.

As we were talking, I asked Didier if he could give us an example with a whisky. He immediately took the challenge up. He worked on Bowmore 12 Years Old, as portrayed here.

If we look at the holochrom and the painting, we immediately notice grey shades unwinding into waves.

This stands for the smokiness (not dark, so quite light in intensity) hovering in regular waves and intertwined with yellow patches which infer some sweetness. The malty/honeyed notes on the palate. There are also some brown stripes which can be read as the oaky tones on the nose and palate. And a sort of misty white and grey scumble which evokes sea spray.

“With this holochrom,” Didier Michel continues, “I want to make an artistic portrait of the whisky which is meant to take the drinker into an imaginative universe.

“A world he will instinctively recognise. For his pleasure and enjoyment. We are closer to the poetical world of perfume than to the sensory analysis of the laboratory”.

This is how chemistry meets emotion.

I must say that, for having worked with Didier Michel on different concepts (food, spirits, seasons), I completely concur with that method.

As for myself, I try to convey in words (not as richly as the artist does, unfortunately) that sensory experience in my tastings.

How does the ‘nose that sees’ protect his work tool?

“ My nose is healthier than it has ever been,” Didier confesses.

“I take essential oils when I feel a problem coming. And I have completely got rid of allergies.”For, when the nose is out of order, the tasting is totally…blind!


Didier Michel has a website both in French and English:
“Honeyed waves flowing together with iodized memories, impregnated with smoky sea spray, stretched out endlessly onto loose stones and kelp, sturdy and frisky like a fiery horse stamping in a golden-beads salty lapping.” – Bowmore 12 Years Old
“Honeyed waves flowing together with iodized memories, impregnated with smoky sea spray, stretched out endlessly onto loose stones and kelp, sturdy and frisky like a fiery horse stamping in a golden-beads salty lapping.” – Bowmore 12 Years Old
A more intricate reference wheel
A more intricate reference wheel