As a passionate whisky aficionado I do tasting notes on a more or less regular base. My tasting notes tend to be rather long. Well that may be a result of my anxious attempts to be as powerfull eloquent as those great Whisky writers such as Charlie MacLean, Jim Murray and last but no least Michael Jackson (R.I.P). Some of you might agree with me and eventually relate to my thoughts. And I’m sure some could not follow me at all. Guess what, same here with tasting notes by others.
When I recently read a comment by someone big in the whisky (blogging) world claiming that the tasting notes of someone else are extremely accurate, I have to admit I was a little bit irritated and decided to look somewhat deeper into the mysteries of olfaction and taste.
Olfaction and Taste of Whisky
Why it’s so hard to describe flavors, aromas and taste of Whisky accurately? Why can tasting notes be so different from each other? And what do we exactly mean when we use terms like ‘smell’, ‘nose’, ‘taste’, ‘mouthfeel’ or ‘aftertaste’? I’m not a specialist in that at all but I’ll try to summarize what I’ve read about these topics mostly on wikipedia.
Firstly let’s look at how we taste and smell Whsiky…
When we are talking about taste and smell of food, wine and even spirits we’re actually describing impressions of four sensory systems, the haptic system, the trigeminal sensory system, the gustatory system and last but not least the olfactory system.
At this point you might think, ‘What the heck…, why are you bothering me with such scientific terms? I just wanna enjoy my dram!’ But wait, all this isn’t rocket science at all and helps us to understand how and why we taste and scent the way we do …
Firstly the haptic system
Well that’s quite simple. The term haptic system describes the sense of touch of our mouth and mainly our tongue.
Is a product hot or cold, soft or hard? Is it oily, sirupy or more fluid?
The haptic system covers the ability to estimate physical attributes such as temperature, consistency or viscosity of a product.
Secondly the trigeminal sensory system
Well, I think that’s a little unknown sense but you will see, it’s pretty obvious. The facial nerve (lat. Nervus trigeminus) plays a major role in this. Ok, that’s not as obvious as expected but via this nerve we notice attributes like burning, biting, hot, tingly – you name it. Actually we sense pain with this nerve and receptors for this can be found in our mouth or on our tongue and in our nose as well. In a pleasurable context it’s hard to find an adequate or simpler description for that. Maybe something like the sense of intensity matches it well.
Together with the haptic system this sense describes what we call the ‘mouthfeel’ of a whisky.
Thirdly the gustatory system
Again a rather complicated term for something very simple. It simply means our taste. But stop, actually what is taste? Often when we say taste we rather mean a combination of taste and smell. The human tongue is able to sense four different senses of taste. That are sweatiness, sourness, bitterness and saltiness. Receptors for each of this tastes are located on certain zones on our tongue. I think everybody knows these essential taste senses.
And now some of you’ll think there’s something missing. Yes you are right, there are two more senses I did not mention yet. The first one is called umami. This term is japanese and means something like beefy, meaty or savory. Food treated with monosedium glutamate is perceived as umami. We do not find glutamate in Whisky at all, but meaty or beefy flavors are not that much uncommon in tasting notes, aren’t they?
The second sense I didn’t mention so far is the sense for calcium. Some studies indicate that mammals have a sense for calcium. I think at this point of time it isn’t relevant but I mention it for the sake of completeness.
In summary there are four maybe five gustative senses which can be used to describe the base taste of a product. These are sweatiness, sourness, bitterness and saltiness and maybe umami.
Fourthly and finally the olfactory system
The olfactory system describes our sense of smell. The sense of smell is fully developed by birth and olfactory cells located in our nose are renewed every 60 days. Generally the human assessment of smells is learned at the ages from 5 up to 10 years. A human being has the ability to distinguish between 10.000 kind of smells and an unexperienced can name only 50% of them. By training this rate can be raised up to 98%.
We have senses for physical attributes and for the intensity of something. Furthermore we are able to taste the four base tastes sweatiness, sourness, bitterness, saltiness and we have the ability to distinguish between 10.000 kinds of smells or flavors with our nose but the untrained can only name 50% of them.
Well that leads us to the question how we learn and remember flavors, aromas and smells.
How do we learn flavors and aromas or more generally spoken how do we remember smells?
Well, imagine! You’re out somewhere in the streets of a city and suddenly a smell hits your nose and you nearly immediately bear a certain experience, place or feeling in mind that has totally nothing to do with the situation you are actually in right now. I’m pretty sure everybody has made such an experience. But what has this to do with tasting and nosing of whisky, you might think. Well more than you expect, I guess…
Often smells are strongly associated with places, feelings or events (e.g. ‘Christmas’, or ‘Sea’) and that actually describes what scientists call pre-semantical or implicit memory. Some smells are stored by linking them with visual impressions, personal feelings or certain places. Those smells can’t be named they only can be described by their linked events, places or feelings. That’s why those memories are called implicit memories.
Ok that’s the one part but there are smells you certainly can name. E.g. ‘That smells like peat smoke’. This is the case if you associate a smell not only with a place or a situation but a certain object. This kind of memory is called semantical memory.
Well that are some scientific facts but now some examples…
Imagine ever since your childhood you drank orange juice strictly only for christmas. And now you’re in a situation where somewhere behind you eats an orange and you smell the orange flavors and aromas. What do you think you’ll remember? Right, christmas and not the orange fruit… That’s because your brain has stored this smell linked to christmas (an event) and not with the fruit (an object). That’s an example for your implicit memory.
An other example may be the smell of a cold fireplace. Ever since your childhood you lived in a house with an open fireplace. And you now you’re on your holiday and you step your foot right into a holiday home with a fireplace. You nose hits the smell of cold ashes of a burnt out bonfire and even without seeing it you will think that this house has an open fireplace. And probably you’ll be right and that’s an example for your semantic memory.
Both types are not strictly separated but can go together as well. And what do we learn from this? The description of smells is a very subjective matter. The fact that majority of people knows what you mean by saying ‘That smells like an ripe apple’ is due to the fact that all this people know apples and have certainly smelled an ripe apple before.
That leads us to something that’s called ‘common vocabulary’. Everybody who is familiar with this common vocabulary of smells will understand statements of others if they’re using the same vocabulary.
Whisky-wise that means we need to learn a common smell vocabulary and write our tasting notes with them. But it’s not as simple as that. If you grew up in germany your vocabulary of smells could be in parts totally different from somebody’s who grew up in Scotland. As a german I do not really know who christmas cake smells and on the other hand a scotsman will normally not know what I mean by saying ‘that smells like Aachener Printen’. To put it in a nutshell, it’s very important how, where and even when you were socialized.
With this in mind we can now understand wherefrom descriptions of whisky like ‘burned rubber’ or ‘on a christmas morning’ or ‘wet morning pier’ originate, but we necessarily do not better understand them. But if we look from a totally different angle at others tasting notes, this will be fun and will give us insights into something very special, namely into the authors personality.