Having recently waded through a lengthy, sober academic paper, with 42 supporting references, that was "Assessing the the influence of the multisensory environment on the whisky drinking experience", and discovering that part of the research was conducted with a sample of 18 adults who were given a rather good whisky in "styrofoam cups of 177ml capacity" and this whisky was "tasted neat (that is, without being diluted as would be typical in the UK)" !! - this writer's exclamation marks - it was with some relief that I found myself, shortly afterwards invited to a rather seductive sounding establishment in Mayfair, London, called Hedonism. At Hedonism I anticipated that drinks might be dispensed in less avant-garde vessels than were used for part of the research I refer to.
We need to get down with some cross modal psychology to fully appreciate the scientific work. So it was a joy and a relief to find the rather less demanding Monsieur Jean Lenoir had quite unobtrusively wafted into town from Burgundy with his delightful box of tricks, Le Nez du Whisky. This being the follow up to his highly successful Le Nez du Vin which has sold 150,000 editions and been translated into 10 languages since he started, 32 years ago, what he describes as an aromatic cultural journey. This journey has also seen the creation of Le Nez du Café, Le Nez de l'Armagnac and Le Nez des Epices.
Being invited to meet Jean Lenoir at Hedonism in Mayfair was a tantalising prospect and I had to wonder if I was about to experience for the first time the adjective "erotic" as the ultimate whisky descriptor.
Refreshingly, Jean Lenoir is a man with "la terre aux souliers" and is connected across generations with what he emphasises in an authoritative yet reticent Burgundian tone, "agriculture"; placing a strong emphasis on the word "culture". His career once lay in the arts and cultural administration in Dijon. The arts remain fundamental to his work even when tête-à-tête with aromatician Karine Lassalle or his scientific brain Hubert Richard. And his conversation is peppered with art, cinema and theatre and occasionally molecules. He gets the science, but exists in the realm of his senses.
Le Nez du Whisky was a twinkle in the jovial eye of Lenoir at the outset of the noughties but it was only after a fortuitous and coincidental collision with single malt doyen Charles MacLean just over two years ago, and a later trip to Islay where he met compatriot Martine Nouet, that the project took real shape.
Lenoir's team worked with over four thousand tasting notes derived from the work of the late and legendary Michael Jackson plus more recent work from authors and journalists, Dave Broom, Charles MacLean and Martine Nouet.
One of the challenges for Lenoir's wholly French production team was to identify some unfamiliar descriptors used by the experts and a Scottish Coop supermarket became an unknowing contributor to the flavour file, supplying, among other things, Jaffa Cakes, marmalade and digestive biscuits. They also got into the dirt to cut peat and smell it for the very first time while on Islay. The new "Nez" product comprises 54 tiny bottles of aromas which are either natural essences or have been laboratory created, such as peat and hay.
Individually the bottles are described by Lenoir as letters in his aromatic alphabet which form words describing the aromatic experience each individual encounters through their personal journeys. Here exists a potential lingua franca. Very interestingly from the point of view of the great aromatic debate, less than 25 per cent of the new whisky kit is present in the wine version.
Le Nez du Whisky is not dictatorial; not even didactic. It drops hints and in blind nosings of the bottles you will start to identify certain personal regularities which can in time inform one's understanding of the aromatic complexity of whiskies. "I don't want users of Le Nez to become world authorities. I am more concerned with facilitating the exploration", says Lenoir.
The bottles are accompanied by a very smartly designed book which opens with insightful quotes from Marcel Proust and Louise Bourgeois and contains some wonderfully edifying photographs. How Proust's Madeleine biscuit moments may have been enhanced with a fine single malt. Lenoir has included his own "Aroma Wheel"; an adaptation of and inspired by, The Scotch Whisky Research Institute's Flavour Wheel.
This is not the definitive work on aroma and tasting; more a portal to further knowledge, an educated, visceral and creative response. The next stage of better understanding may well come from a lab in Oxford because I have seen and written about their project and it is fascinating. But with his feet on the ground and hopefully with his head in the clouds Monsieur Lenoir seems to have created yet another aromatic thoroughfare.
"Memory is worthless if we beckon it, we must wait for it to overwhelm us," Louise Bourgeois.
Below is the list of the five whiskies that were used in the programme at Hedonism alongside the selected aromas. The latter being tasting guides not definitions.
Glenmorangie Ealanta (oak/vanilla)
Dalmore 15 (orange)
Highland Park 18 (honey)
Glenfarclas 15 (sherry)
UK distributors: www.birchgrove.co.uk or visit www.lenez.com
"…..a comprehensive selection of aromas that really help increase your aroma memory bank so that you can understand and discover the wonderful layers of complexity in the finest single malt Scotch whiskies."
Karen Fullerton, global brand ambassador for the Glenmorangie Company