From the moment I first picked up a whiskey book and read that first review, I was amazed how the author/taster could pull out so many aromas from the nose. Before reading those early reviews, I often nosed my bourbon, but that’s just because I loved the smell of it, like a drug. I would happily smell bourbon all day long if I had nothing more pressing to do with my time.
Well, even though I was technically nosing by the sheer fact that I was sticking my nose in the glass and smelling, I wasn’t truly nosing and attempting to identify individual aromas. I was mostly drinking Jim Beam white label every day, so identifying aromas didn’t serve me much purpose at the time. I wasn’t drinking many other bourbons back then, so I didn’t require the tools to help me compare and contrast different expressions. But once I started reading reviews and began actively tasting and started discussing whiskey with other connoisseurs, I could definitely see the value in nosing my pours and trying to identify and name the various aromas layered within. Unfortunately, I sucked at it!!!
How can I not readily identify aromas such as leather or tobacco in my bourbons? What’s wrong with me? Hell, I smoked cigarettes for 12 years when I was younger. I used to love the smell of a freshly opened pack of cigarettes. I know that aroma quite well. That fresh tobacco smell is amazing, yet I can’t seem to identify it in my bourbons, and so many other tasters do. And leather? How could I not know what that smells like? I played baseball when I was a kid, and for a short stint I was a left fielder, just standing around for hours with nothing better to do but smell my glove. I didn’t see a lot of action in the outfield when I was a kid. Haha! And for most of my 20’s I was driving cattle in Wyoming. How the hell could I not know what leather smells like? My saddle was made of leather and the cows are made of leather. Well, for some reason when I nose bourbon, I just can’t seem to pull out aromas like leather, tobacco, cocoa, corn, etc. I thought for sure if I just practiced nosing and tasting in general that eventually I would master this skill. I’ve gotten better over the past year, but I’m still not nearly as skilled as I’d like to be. I’m at the point where I can recognize certain bourbon and rye expressions, but I’m still not comfortable calling out notes and trying to identify what makes each expression different, aside from really obvious descriptors, like spicy or oaky (particularly with superannuated expressions) or brown sugar, but that’s usually as deep as I get. I need help. I want to step up my game!!
Well, I recently discovered a tool that might just help me get to the next level of nosing and tasting. It’s the Bourbon Aroma Kit from the Aroma Academy. Over the past year I’ve searched many times for such a kit, but I’ve only been able to find a Whisky kit (for single malts) and a wine kit. I figured that the Whisky kit would have some aromas found in bourbon, but it wasn’t specific enough to bourbon for me and I just couldn’t get myself to pull the trigger on it. And then, one day last week I refreshed the Master of Malt home page (as I do quite often) to see if they had anything new, and boom! There it was. The Bourbon Aroma Kit. “24 aroma samples that cover the spectrum of aromas typically found in Bourbon Whiskies.” Yes!!! It’s exactly what I was looking for. I placed my order, and in true Master of Malt style, the order arrived in Virginia 3 days later.
When the kit arrived at my office the first thing I did was open each bottle and smelled deeply from the bottles. I think I might have burned some of the aromas into my nose for a bit. They were pretty damn strong. Then when I got home and started reading the instructions, the number 2 step reads, “Do not smell the aroma solution straight from the bottle!” And yes, the “!” is in the manual. That’s how I always do stuff: open the box and start putting stuff together, and then read the manual after, if at all. Haha! Well, in this case, no harm was done. My nose survived the straight-from-the-bottle smelling incident, and all is well. I read through the directions and set out on my first “lesson”. For each lesson the idea is go through all 24 of the aromas, one by one, spending time with each one. The kit includes a pack of paper “smelling strips”. You write down the number of the solution on the non-dipping end of the strip, fold a small portion of the dipping end into an L shape, and then dip the L into the solution just to wet the end. You set the strip down on a non-porous surface and give it a couple of minutes to chill out. Then you gradually bring it up to your nose until it’s within smelling distance, close your eyes and spend some time smelling and observing it while repeating the name of the solution over and over again in your head, attempting to commit the aroma and name to memory. To complete a full lesson you need to repeat this for all 24 aromas. I’ll admit that this can be a bit time consuming and tedious, but for a whiskey nerd like me, I think it’s fun as hell.
As of a few minutes ago I just completed my first lesson. I’m really stoked to have this tool at my disposal now, and I’m hoping it’s going to help me with my nosing and tasting game. I plan on doing subsequent lessons once a week for the next several weeks. The booklet that’s included with the kit not only details the nature of the aromas and where they are sometimes found in nature and the different forms that they can manifest themselves in, but also includes a Bourbon Brands Aroma Chart, with many common brands and their aroma profiles, such as Maker’s Mark, Old Forester, Blanton’s, etc. The next step is to have my wife blind test me with the aromas themselves, and then after I’ve had a few lessons and have mastered the blind solution tests, try to start blindly identifying the aromas in the bourbons listed in the booklet, and then compare against the aroma profiles listed.
Did my first lesson help, you might be asking? Well, I do think there are some aromas that I never directly smelled before and wouldn’t have identified. The two that stood out to me the most are “Rye” and “Wheat”. Man, for all the times I’ve nosed rye white dog and aged 100% rye whiskey, my brain still didn’t associate rye itself. I’m sure I’ll catch hell for that statement, but it’s true. I’ve never handled rye grain, and I’ve certainly never been involved with the mash process. It’s funny, the second I smelled the rye aroma in the kit, the first thing that came to mind are all of the Woodford Reserve expressions that I’ve tasted this year, including the standard Distiller’s Select, but also the Sweet Mash Redux (one of my least favorite bourbons of all time) and the 1838 Style White Corn. When WR came to mind, I thought to myself, does WR use a lot of rye in their bourbon mash bill? I Googled the mash bill for Distiller’s Select, and from what I can tell it’s only 18% rye. I figured I was just way off on this one, but then I looked in the Bourbon Brands Aroma Chart in the booklet, and “rye” is listed as one of the aromas in the WR Distiller’s Select profile, and not many other brands in the booklet list rye. So, maybe I’m on to something. You would think it was corn that I was smelling in WR, and even in the kit the corn and rye aromas do have similarities, but the booklet lists rye and not corn for the Distiller’s Select. Perhaps the kit is already helping my nose??? 🙂
The only thing I don’t like about the kit is that the smelling strips have a distinct aroma of their own, and I find that it can interfere with the solution aroma at times. But, all in all, I really like this kit and I’m so excited that I found it. If you’re like me and aspire to gain the skills of a Bourbon Sommelier one day, then this aroma kit could prove to be a valuable tool in your training arsenal. Some folks are more gifted with their olfactory senses and don’t need a tool like this, but for folks like me that have trouble separating and identifying aromas in such a complex and layered spirit as whiskey, I need a tool like this.
P.S. I made up that part about driving cattle in Wyoming. I was working tech support and learning to write code in Northern Virginia during my twenties. 🙂