I’ve barely been introduced to John, but already he’s blindfolding me and asking me to hold my nose, before placing a jelly bean sweetie in my hand. I chew it, try and fail to imagine its colour or flavour, and then unblock my nose. Suddenly the half-chewed jelly bean’s aromas flood up through my nasal cavity and, even with my blindfold on, I can distinguish a blueberry flavour coming from a purple sweetie. This is certainly a blind tasting with a difference.
Next, I’m nosing my way through 20 small bottles filled with nothing more than a piece of cotton wool, but each giving off a distinct aroma. Some hit me straight away – marzipan! – and I scribble down my answer. Others set the cogs in my brain whirring away, desperately trying to land on the right word to describe the smell. With some it eventually clicks. With others it’s just not there.
This is all part of Edinburgh Whisky Academy’s new one-day diploma in the Art of Tasting Whisky. A group of us has gathered in the splendid surroundings of Arniston House, a stately home near Glenkinchie distillery on the southern fringes of Edinburgh, to expand our knowledge of how to taste and appreciate whisky. But it’s not all sensory fun and games – the course requires some rigorous pre-reading and a full day’s learning. It ends with an exam that earns you (if you pass) a diploma certified by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), the national body in Scotland responsible for the development, accreditation, assessment, and certification of qualifications other than degrees.
Kirsty McKerrow, who founded the Edinburgh Whisky Academy, says that the course is geared towards not only professionals such as brand ambassadors or sommeliers but at anyone who’s keen to further their understanding and appreciation of whisky, specifically by improving their flavour recognition and description skills.
“There’s so much about flavour and aroma memory that applies to whisky and drinks in general, that whatever your level of experience or interest, you’ll gain something from finding out more about the processes behind it,” she says. “The course is designed to help you develop the tools to then go and train your own aroma memory, or find out what to look for in a whisky and understand why those flavours are there.”
I certainly leave with a greater understanding of both what’s going on physically when I smell something – and the aroma’s passage through the nostrils via the olfactory epithelium to end up making an impression in my frontal cortex. I also discover how differences in whisky production – from the length of fermentation, the size and shape of stills, through to the all-important selection of wood for the cask and maturation – will have an impact on a whisky’s character.
As with a complex, aged whisky, there’s a lot to take in and appreciate. The good news for all of us is that you don’t have to be born with a good nose – this is a skill that can be honed and developed. Looks like I have the perfect excuse to keep practising…
For more information visit www.edinburghwhiskyacademy.com
This feature is from the May 2019 issue of Unfiltered. The magazine is delivered four times a year to members of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society. To sign up and receive your own copy, visit www.smws.com/whisky-club-membership