You might have experienced this recently: you read about a great dram online, pick it up from your bottle shop, and pour it into your glass. You add a few drops of water and wait for five minutes as the alcohol releases its essential aromas. With some ceremony, you lift it to your nose. And it smells like booze.
This is what happens to me and other reviewers quite often, even though the final write-ups might imply that we're part bloodhound. Today, I wanted to share a few things that help me out when I'm writing the part of the review where I describe what aromas I'm able to detect. I can promise that you won't be left out in the cold: you're a human and you've got a nose, so this is definitely in your wheelhouse.
1. Keep smelling
This is probably the most important point. If what hits you is ethanol, keep smelling. Smell over and over. This is incidentally why I would never review something I only had once at a bar. I'll probably smell a whiskey maybe 30 times in different variations. I would be too self-conscious to do this in public, where people would quickly assume based on my obsessive behavior that I was some kind of maniac, or at the very least tremendously pretentious.
At home, no one can judge you. Just keep smelling and smelling to your heart's content.
2. Smell at different times
I'll usually pour the dram into the glass and smell it within a few seconds of giving it a very gentle, slow, and deliberate swirl. I write down what I get initially, then I'll taste it and begin going into my notes. At this point I can get a few clues: if I taste something on the palate, can I then smell it? That's a good way to get rolling.
Also, as the whiskey sits, it will oxidize and often releases new aromas. Come back to it. Some people also like to leave just a little bit of whiskey in the glass overnight, which causes some of the water and spirit to evaporate, leaving more of the concentrated aromas in the glass. A very good technique if you really want to get specific! Personally, I'm far too impatient. Put a good pour of whiskey in front of me and I want to drink it.
3. Smell in different ways
Vary the angles and distances where you smell something. If you get that major alcohol booze aroma thing going on, back off a little. If you can't smell anything, get your nose in the glass. You can also cover up half of the glass with your hand to concentrate the smells, which is a pretty decent way to extract a few new notes when you're using a straight-walled tumbler. Vary the angle of your nose.
Is all of this even necessary to enjoy what I pour?
My answer at this point in my drinking life? Not really. I think the nose of a whiskey is interesting, but I've never had a dram with a good smell and a poor taste that I'd purchase again. On the contrary, a tasty whiskey with what some might call a “bad” nose is interesting to me and doesn't impact my overall enjoyment too much.
As with all things, practice makes perfect. However, be warned: once you awaken this enhanced sense of smell as you practice, you won't be able to turn it off. Suddenly, you find yourself asking bizarre questions like, "Why does this part of town smell like old roast beef?" Suddenly, there are “off notes" in your car, home, clothing, or office that had never bothered you before. The world around you suddenly becomes an alarmingly fragrant place.
You take the good with the bad, I suppose. It's a small price to pay for being able to appreciate a good spirit—or a fine meal, a stroll through a garden, or a cup of morning coffee—on another level.