One of the major, easily identifiable differences between new whisky lovers and true aficionados is the appreciation of scent. Newcomers tend to be more interested in the taste and appearance of a fine single malt, while old-timers put a lot of emphasis on the nose. If you find yourself in the company of connoisseurs, you will hear a lot about the following seven scent groups.
- Esters. An ester is a type of organic molecule that bears a distinctive smell, either fruity or flowery. Esters are responsible not just for these smells in whiskies, but in actual foods and blossoms. An ester-y smell can be fruity, flowery, citrus, raisin-y, or even wine-y. It is always a sweet smell, but it can be either smooth or harsh, pleasant or cloying.
- Aldehydes. Aldehydes tend to be present in crops, and have a leafy quality about them. The most recognizable aldehyde smells are those of leaves or freshly mown grass. However, they can also smell herby, minty, or dry (like hay). These smells are very pleasant but usually present only in small quantities in whisky.
- Phenols. Phenolic smells tend to be harsh and overwhelming. You may identify them with tar, petroleum, smoke, and other chemicals. However, peat is considered a phenolic smell as well, one that many lovers of fine Scotch consider quite pleasant in the right quantity. A little phenolic scent can add depth; too much is unpleasant and acrid.
- Sweets. You may think that most sweet smells fall under the ester category, but in whisky there are several distinctive scents that are sweet but not fruity or floral. Consider the rich sweetness of vanilla, honey or caramel. Sweet smells are very desirable, but only when combined with other elements.
- Woods. Because of the way whisky is produced, woody smells and tastes are very common. An experienced drinker of single malt will often be able to distinguish between different types of woody smells, such as cedar and pine. However, oak is the most common woody smell in whisky (for obvious reasons) and can be very satisfying. A sawdust smell is not usually as pleasant.
- Oils. Oily smells are often unpleasant, like cod oil. However, there are many oily scents that are very delicious. Butter and cream smells can add a pleasant richness to a whisky’s nose, while nutty smells such as walnut are deep and interesting. An oily smell in moderation can be the mark of a fine whisky.
- Cereals. We place this category last although it is one of the most common whisky smells. Whisky is made from grain, so almost all whiskies include at least one cereal-y smell. This can be yeasty (like good ale), malty, or even comparable to bread and biscuits. Although this is a common scent group, it is most pleasant when other smells are present as well.
This short list should allow you to begin appreciating and describing the different smells that are present in single malt whisky. Scent is not the most important part of a whisky (not to many people, at least), but it is an important way of evaluating the unique qualities of your favorite drink.