Win by a nose

Italiano: Una caricatura di Ettore Borzacchini...

Remember the old adolescent joke You can pick your friends and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose?

Having a teenage son and a few of his buddies gathered round the dinner table often invites a few riffs off wise cracks like these. My favorite: You can pick your friends and you can pick your nose, but you can’t wipe your friends underneath the car seat.

I think you get my point. Your rhinencephalon is super important.

This is the bit in your brain that I like to call scent control. It handles your sense of smell and includes the olfactory bulb and limbic system.

Some folks call it the smell brain.

I call it my favorite part of my body, and even though it shows no reflection in my mirror, it must have an ego the size of a planet as a result of my constant adulation.

I’m reminded by many whisky experts that, “Whisky noses are made, not born.” This belief is clearly stated in much of the whisky literature and becomes more obvious the longer you participate in the delightful training exercises that eventually allow you to discern the difference between a typical Islay and traditional Lowland at fifty paces.

How is this done, you ask?

English: "Smell" - Third of a set of...

English: “Smell” – Third of a set of 5 engravings depicting the Senses – Quamvis floriferus sit gratus naribus hortus, sepe tamen dulci fel sub odore latet “Although a flower-filled garden is pleasing to the nose, bitterness is often hidden beneath the sweet fragrance.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, you could compile a list of the most frequently noted flavors and scents profiled by some of the great nosing experts, and then proceed to hunt down toffee, honey, biscuits and heather to line up on your kitchen counter and pass by and sniff a dozen times a day. It’s not the most practical way to approach the vital step of memorizing each scent, but it could be done.

Except what can you do about the lesser noted, but still commonly found, scents in some of your drams? Where do you find a bucket of wet cement, slightly green-edged peat, or ripe forest fruits? I don’t think I could locate any burnt cough-linctus if my life depended upon it. In fact, I’m wondering if it’s just the symptomatic smell of a certain disease.

Instead of giving up before you begin, there are two simple solutions:

Fake it—and I’ve seen it done enough times to know it’s not worth it and you’re denying yourself both new knowledge and pleasure.

Or purchase yourself a Nosing Kit.

Solution number two is how many experts began their climb to such prestigious fame. If it’s celebrity status you’re after, I’m not sure there’s enough room for both you and Richard Paterson to share a stage. I would imagine his rhinencephalon is large enough to occupy most concert halls on its own. In fact, it’s valuable enough to have been insured by Lloyds of London for over $2 million.

Let’s get back to you, though, and your keen interest in developing your own Jimmy Durante shnozzola.

This week, focus on your nose and simply put it to the test. This is not a training session, but rather one week where you try to catch yourself at frequent intervals and take stock of what’s around you.

Does the inside of your car have a specific scent? What about your skin? Your hands? No, don’t smell your fingers. I don’t want to know.

Pause before you pick up your fork. Close your eyes and try to identify what your spouse, the chef or PepsiCo put into your food before you eat it. If it smells faintly of almonds, and you didn’t order almonds, don’t eat it. It means your mother-in-law is cooking and she’s likely found a vial of cyanide.

Pay attention to your whisky. Not just the usual, “Ahh, look at that color and,” sniff sniff  “What a fabulous aroma,” routine you normally go through. Don’t look at the back of the bottle for tasting notes. Do the wrist test. Dip your finger in your whisky and dab it on the back of your hand.

Blow on it to allow the alcohol to evaporate.

Lean down and inhale.

These are blotter strips used for designing pe...

Ponder, reach back and up to that great rhinencephalon and take a stab at what might be integrated and wedded within your glass. Now check the tasting notes.

Next week, we’ll learn just how the big boys do it. Bring your marbles to play along and maybe permission to spend a few pennies. It won’t break the bank, but it will bring a newfound appreciation for your nose that you can share with all your friends.

Especially the ones you can’t wipe underneath the car seat.


4 thoughts on “Win by a nose

  1. Your nose/brain memorize every scent. There are over 10,000 recognizable smells. Your tongue can only taste 5: sour, sweet, bitter, salty and umami. As an example: most people immediately recognize cinnamon as a smell, yet they did not when it’s placed on the tongue.

    The nose is a very powerful tool when it comes to Whisky!

    • I agree wholeheartedly, Allison. 10,000 scents equals a crazy cast of aroma molecules, and sadly, most of them muddled to my inadequate schnoz. Which is why I always rely on my dog when first nosing a new dram. He’s incredibly insightful (insmellful???) and most often doesn’t rub it in. A good guy.
      I’m assuming you’ve taken the route of more traditional training?

  2. some good points here, and of coarse, burrreeenggingring back the me(s)moreez — as we (all?) know, odors and memories. to this day when i smell toffee (like heath candy barz) i think back to when i was 5 or 6 or 7 — and think of bronzed baby-shoes. really. i’ll spare you the story.
    i hope to remember to try the back-of-the-wrist (w)ri(s)tual. ~
    and be leeery of almonds when none are around.
    and, unrelated here, but for MOST MY LIFE there were 4, and only 4, not 3, not 5, tastes! i pick up a ScienfiffickAmerikan and read about taste and food and there are now FIVE, with a couple more under consideration. unami, i think.
    when talking with younger people (there are more ‘n more of THEM ev’ry day) about what i studied in college, i have quips about how easy it was, for example, there were only FOUR ELEMENTS: earth, air, fire, water.
    i do tend to ramble sum-thymez …

    • Ah, yes, that “fifth taste.” Umami is a marvelous mouthfeel and certainly something worth consideration in your spirit. Food science is a deep rabbit hole I can get lost in for days, but discovering what it is that creates all the flavors within your dram can make that ounce and a bit so much more interesting and worthy of savoring.

      The back of the wrist ritual is something that’s become an embedded whisky habit. I find it unbelievably revealing.


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