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On the joy of nosing

'The DNA of any drink is rooted in its bouquet,' says Joel Harrison. Here he shares his musings on the importance of aroma when it comes to spirits

Words by Joel Harrison

nosing wine
The Collection

If you’re looking for a party trick, I’ve got just the thing. Best of all, you can bust it out whenever you and your guests have a glass in hand. Have your guests simply hold their nose, and whatever it is that they’re drinking will, all of a sudden, taste of nothing. Zip. Zero. Zilch. Much like Lewis Hamilton’s dress sense, they’ll be left with no taste at all.

It’s an exercise that demonstrates the link between all our senses, but also how intrinsic aroma is to enjoyment. And not just enjoyment. From a professional perspective, aroma is the single most important element of assessing spirits. I’ve been privileged enough to spend time with some of the most talented distillers and blenders across the industry, and from gin to whisky, rum to Tequila, it is their sense of smell – and often only their sense of smell – that drives their decisions. Very rarely does a whisky blender, for example, taste any of the samples drawn from casks; their assessments are almost always made only via their nose.


beefeater distillery
Beefeater's master distiller calls on colleagues across the business to sniff out the best juniper

Take Beefeater gin. Every single drop of this globally renowned spirit is made at its distillery in south London. The key ingredient, as with all gins, is juniper. Yet not all juniper is created equal. Each year, Beefeater’s master distiller Desmond Payne MBE brings in samples of juniper from all over Europe. Once these are individually distilled, Payne calls on his colleagues from across the business – including whisky blenders from Scotland – to lend him their noses for what Payne calls The Big Juniper Sniff. This olfactory event is absolutely integral to the next year of production: get it wrong, and the world’s Beefeater drinkers – who run into the millions – will know. The subtle art is one of consistency, and this is entirely done by aroma, relying on the skilled snouts of a highly trained few.

The DNA of any drink is rooted in its bouquet. Across the whole of the drinks sector – from wine and spirits, to beer and beyond – a billion-dollar business depends on producers getting their formula right time and again. And in nearly all cases, they do so using only their nose.

But what of the humble drinker? For as vital as aroma is to distillers, it is a thousand times more important for you and me. The most divisive of all spirits is Scotch whisky. Some people love a waft of smoke in their tumbler; others can’t stand the iodine-soaked peatiness that emanates from the glass. Immediately, on smell alone, an assessment is made, even before any liquid hits the lips.

I’ve had Scotch whiskies that smell of newly unpackaged Star Wars figures; and gins that evoke freshly harvested fields in the Home Counties

However, it is where that aroma takes you that is perhaps the most important, if not the most powerful, element in any drink. Those employed in other professions that rely on scent – perfumers and the like – will speak about the way smell more than any of the other senses will trigger memories. Dogs follow the same path. And then there’s the some-time actor Johnny Depp, who once said, ‘I don’t drink hard liquor anymore, but I sometimes order Lagavulin just for the smell.’ He may be persona non grata in Hollywood these days, but with this smoky, rich, deep Islay Scotch, Depp hit on something. When it comes to whisky, drinking is not really about drinking at all; it is about smelling, sniffing, inhaling, and letting the aroma of a drink – more so even than its flavour – take you on a journey.

Getting lost in the aroma is a wonder. I’ve enjoyed the nose of old Cognacs that conjure up memories of rummaging though brocantes (think old books and vintage leather furniture) as a teenager on holiday in France. I’ve had Scotch whiskies that smell of newly unpackaged Star Wars figures; and gins that evoke freshly harvested fields in the Home Counties. Most good spirits spark many layers of memories, telling you a story as they develop over time in the glass. All through smell.

These aromas are postcards from the past and the very reason we fall in love with a drink. So when you next pour yourself a wee dram or a measure of Cognac, take the time to enjoy the moment of not drinking – the reflective, memory-evoking nose of the drink – and let that tell you a story. You might just find that you discover a whole new side to the bottles you love.

Joel Harrison
By Joel Harrison

Joel Harrison is an award-winning spirits writer, and a contributing editor at Club Oenologique.