A Luminous Halo

"Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end." --Virginia Woolf

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Location: Springfield, Massachusetts, United States

Smith ’69, Purdue ’75. Anarchist; agnostic. Writer. Steward of the Pascal Emory house, an 1871 Second-Empire Victorian; of Sylvie, a 1974 Mercedes-Benz 450SL; and of Taz, a purebred Cockador who sets the standard for her breed. Happy enough for the present in Massachusetts, but always looking East.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Whiskey Nosing

Sampling wines is referred to as tasting. Sampling whiskey, however, is nosing. That's because whiskey afficionados recognize that most of our appreciation of spirits (actually, of all food and drink) is through the olfactory sense.

Whereas we can taste only four things (sweet, sour, salty, bitter), the nose can recognize in the region of 35,000 smells. Olfactory cells, not the palate, do most of the work of tasting. The proof is as simple as holding your nose while eating.

The proper glass for nosing is not the familiar cut crystal tumbler. That's okay for a scotch and soda on the rocks. A clear unfaceted tulip-shaped glass--what looks to most people like a petite wine glass--is ideal. The bowl allows the whiskey to be swirled, while the narrower lip concentrates the aromas.

The first step in nosing is pouring the whiskey into the proper glass and holding it up against a white surface to appreciate the color. Professional nosers recognize a couple of dozen hues, from "gin-clear" to "treacle" or "black coffee," with appealing shades like "old gold" "amber" and "burnished" in between.

Second step is swirling the liquid around the glass. A whiskey high in alcohol and possessing a good texture will form long "tears" or "legs" on the sides. A few drops of water added ("awaking the serpent") will cause swirling eddies as the two liquids with their different viscosities blend.

Third step is nosing: sniffing first above the rim, then deeper into the glass. First the straight whiskey is nosed, then the whiskey with a bit of water added, which releases new and complex aromas.

Final step is actually tasting the whiskey. A mouthful is held for a moment, then swallowed. Both the taste (sweet, salty, sour, and bitter, plus many which are actually determined by olfactory cells, such as peat, tobacco, honey, malted barley, etc., etc.) and the texture (creamy, acerbic, smooth, mouth-filling) are noted. The finish--both the aftertaste and the long-lastingness on the palate--are savored.

Something like 400 flavor-bearing compounds have been identified by scientists in malt whiskey. Whiskey nosers tend to be very fanciful in their attempts to describe these compounds and their myriad combinations. So if that glass of Bushmills you're enjoying tastes like potato scones just coming out of the oven or the Gloucester dock at dawn on the third week in June, chances are you're in good company.



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