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The pleasure of sniffing things
A slightly new perspective on drinking whiskey
Human beings have five senses through which we experience the world, all of which can afford us both enjoyment and discomfort. And, in our high-standard of living society in which the division of labour has become global and ideas unprecedentedly plentiful, we now have so many ways to lean into the enjoyable aspect of our senses, and sample a vast array of pleasurable experiences.
Despite the pretentious language, I’m not talking about incredibly expensive things, here; I mean things that you and I do almost every day. You can go out and spend money on your sense of taste in all different sorts of restaurants, or you can cook for yourself and find fulfilment as well as pleasure. To stimulate your sight, you can watch incredibly visually impressive or exciting films in cinemas or visit art galleries to see paintings and sculptures, and you can bring those same things home with streaming, DVDs, and paintings to hang on your walls. When it comes to touch, there is sex (obviously) but also an inordinate number of soft and comfortable home furnishings, clothes that feel nice on your skin, and so on. And with hearing, music has been a core part of every human culture since we have been humans.
Yet, in the case of one sense, you really cannot get anything like this. I am talking about smell. There are many nice-smelling things in this world, to be sure; but there are very few things designed primarily for us to smell and enjoy. And this is because in common perception, sniffing at things that smell nice is a pretty weird thing to do. Personally, the idea conjures up perceptions of creepy men slightly too obsessed with things (often in an uncomfortably sexual way). You can enjoy the smell of your food, for example, but it would be off-putting and very bad manners to get your head down close to the plate and take a long sniff through your nose—in spite of how good this would be for all sorts of foods. Even the word ‘sniff’ is kind of off-putting: it makes you sound slightly like a dog. And the phrase ‘sniff for pleasure’ makes me think only of cocaine, a very different type of enjoyment.
To be sure, there are very many consumer products oriented towards making things smell less bad to us, air fresheners and the like. There are also products intended to make ourselves smell good (perfume and aftershave being the obvious, but also things like chewing gum and deodorant), which appeal less to our personal sense of pleasure and more to our desire to be well-presented. But how many things can you get which are designed to smell good for the sole purpose of being sniffed for pleasure? The closest we have is flowers, which you likely don’t buy or receive very often at all—maybe never if you’re a man. Certainly, people do lean in to sniff flowers, but that is one of a very small number of contexts in which that is not considered really weird.
Yet, smell is perhaps the most powerful sense of all! All of us know how even an imperceptibly bad odour can make you feel queasy and ruin your mood, as well as your appetite to enjoy all your other senses; and the same is true on the flip-side with nice smells, which can afford enormous amounts of enjoyment. People can become obsessed with things like new car smell, or the aroma of onions cooking, or the smell of petrol, or a newly mowed lawn, or fresh cut ginger.
Smell also seems to link up much closer to memories and emotions than touch, taste, or even sight. Did any of the examples I listed in the last paragraph trigger a feeling? I get more vivid memories of past family holidays when I’m reminded of how the pool smelled than when I look at photos; and very many of us privately love the way our partner’s clothes smell, even if it’s a slightly embarrassing thing to admit (to them, never mind to others), because it’s so linked to emotion. The odour of a childhood home, the fragrance worn by someone you love, ‘the smell of the warm summer air’ that Radiohead reminded us all of—these are powerful evocative experiences that can transport you in a rather literal sense.
I have heard people cite potentially suspect science to back all of this up, but I am going to remain firmly on the level of anecdote because I think the anecdotes are strong enough: smell is as powerful as any other sense, possibly more powerful, and has an immense potential for pleasure. But seeking out pleasurable smells is a substantially less generally-accepted use of your time and money when compared to seeking out pleasurable sights or sounds or tastes, and there is a much narrower range of opportunities available to you.
I don’t want to make any cross-cultural claims here: I don’t think this is a human universal or anything. But for whatever reason (the stink of the cities in which bourgeois manners developed?), in my culture it is generally inappropriate to just sniff things for pleasure. Yet it is immensely enjoyable to sniff nice-smelling things: I want to do it, and I think you would too if you thought about it. The solution: whiskey.
Hear me out on this! I’m not recommending you get so depressed at society’s hatred of smelling that you head out to drink the pain away. I’m recommending that you go and buy a nice bottle of whiskey (somewhere in the £30–£50 range—I’ll leave some of my personal recommendations at the bottom) and, crucially, a nosing glass.
‘Nosing’ is the pretentious alcohol-nerd word for ‘sniffing’, and it is a crucial part of whiskey drinking. Every time you drink whiskey, it is not just acceptable—it is expected—that you will smell it several times before you even taste it, and then just keep sniffing it as you slowly drink down the glass. If you’ve ever heard someone say that there are ‘notes of plum on the nose’ or something equally pretentious, this is what they’re referring to: the way the drink smells.
In other words, it is socially acceptable to just sniff at whiskey. This is one of the only products designed for sniffing. They even make glasses made for this purpose, the nosing glasses I mentioned above: these have a rounded shape (the ones I have at home look kind of like tulip bulbs), designed to concentrate the smells of the drink towards your nose. When you sniff at whiskey, you will not look like a weirdo; simple as. Admittedly, depending on the company you keep, there is a risk that people might think you look like a pretentious snob—but even this is an orders-of-magnitude improvement.
And whiskey smells nice! In fact, it smells nice in lots of different ways, with different whiskies having many different flavours: you can have whiskies that smell sweet and honied, like malt or vanilla, or you can have very fruity whiskies, or you can have whiskies that smell like smoke and meat and chemicals. All of these are analogies, and (if you want) you can play the analogy game yourself by coming up with ‘tasting notes’, where you describe what you smell and taste in a glass of whiskey. It’s all bullshit, of course—despite my notes telling me that it smells like underripe apples, my bottle of 5 year old Ardbeg never came into contact with any apples whatsoever; it’s just something I imagined. But it’s fun bullshit. If you don’t take yourself too seriously while doing it, while nonetheless taking yourself seriously enough that you can actually get into the spirit of it, it is an immense joy—especially with friends.
You can get the same experience with other spirits, mind you: cognac and armagnac, rum, mezcal—whiskey is just the one I happen to be most familiar with. Each of these has their own tradition of nosing, with the traditional brandy glass literally being called a ‘snifter’. For any of these, you just bring the glass as close to your nose as you feel comfortable with (if you’re not used to neat spirits, the alcohol fumes might be uncomfortable if you smell from too close up), and sniff. (A bonus tip is to smell with your mouth slightly open to stop the fumes from building up, which—again!—doesn’t look weird with spirits.) It’s an unalloyed, basic human pleasure, one that is so rare yet so incredibly enjoyable.
I happen to be one or two degrees of social separation away from a decent number of people who (all for very different reasons) tend to avoid alcohol or even want to see it more heavily regulated and taxed. I disagree with these people’s arguments for various reasons, all of which might just be the motivated reasoning of a Catholic. But I think one of my most convincing responses is this: denying yourself alcohol by-and-large means denying yourself one of the greatest pleasures of life—sniffing. For whatever reason, we live in a culture where few things are actually designed to be smelled; and even when you come across those that are, it is frowned upon to actually smell them, deliberately and intensely, for pleasure. It’s weird. Alcoholic drinks, and in particular spirits like whiskey, are the exception; we are allowed to sniff them. To deprive yourself of alcohol, or (worse) to deprive others through arbitrary regulation and artificially inflated prices, is almost to deny human beings the intentional enjoyment of one of their senses. Tonight, I will instead be celebrating that sense; I hope that you join me. Sláinte mhaith!
I think the best way to learn about whiskey is through just drinking it and being curious. There’s a lot of terminology and mythology around alcohol, which in some ways is part of the fun but which can also be off-putting and intimidating (in the sense of, ‘do I know enough to actually enjoy this, or am I being a poseur?’). The best way to learn this terminology is not to worry too much about it at first, and just enjoy and be curious about what you’re drinking. You will slowly accumulate knowledge of why some whiskies are ‘single malt’, the importance of age, whether chill-filtration is bad (probably yes), what ‘sherried’ and ‘peated’ whiskies are, why I spell ‘whiskey’ with an ‘e’ and others don’t, and—crucially—what bottles are good value-for-money. If you learn these things while exploring nice smells and tastes, you’ll actually enjoy the experience and want to learn more, rather than it feeling like a checklist you have to get through first before you enjoy yourself.
But, for the purposes of an introduction, I thought I would give some concrete recommendations: four relatively cheap and widely-available whiskeys that I think smell very nice indeed and are worth your money. Pick one that sounds nice, buy it with a nosing glass, and sniff. This is just based on my personal taste—if someone else’s recommendations can be more personal, or strike your fancy better, go for it. For glasses, any spirits glass with a bulbous shape is perfect (you can probably find some in a charity shop), but I’ll mention that the Glencairn brand is very popular for a reason: they’re very unique-looking and actually quite pretty, but also very sturdy and well-made.
Arran 10 Year Old (£35–£40)
A Scotch whiskey (which, for the avoidance of all doubt, literally just means it was made in Scotland) from a distillery that is probably my current favourite, and many other people’s too. This whiskey is quite malt-y, meaning the smell and flavour of the basic cereal ingredients is quite prominent (think Horlicks or digestive biscuits); but there are also fresh, organic, fruity smells that remind me of lemon and cantaloupe.
Ardbeg 10 Year Old (£45–£50)
Ardbeg is heavily smoked, and so often people are discouraged from trying it and to start with something more ‘beginner-friendly’; I think this is generally silly, and people should just try it if they’re interested and ignore it if they’re not. Especially if you know and enjoy the smell of a peat fire, or as I’d call it a turf fire, there’s a lot to like in this one. Meaty and salty.
Wild Turkey 101 (£30–£35)
This one is slightly stronger than the others on this list, at just over 50% alcohol, and if you’re new to whiskey you might want to water it down a little. (There’s no shame in adding a teaspoon or two of tap water to whiskey—it’s a very traditional thing to ‘bring out the flavours’, you’ll see it all over Scotland. Just start with small amounts, so you don’t accidentally dilute it more than you want.) This is also an American whiskey: specifically, a bourbon, which among other things means that it’s mostly made out of corn, as opposed to barley which is standard in Scotland, Ireland, and Japan. It’s a bit ‘spicier’ than a lot of Scottish whiskey, with black pepper-like and clove-like flavours, and it also reminds me a bit of German cuisine—rye is a prominent ingredient in Wild Turkey 101, so I’m probably thinking about a meal eaten with pumpernickel.
Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old (£35–£40)
Bunnahabhain is from Islay, the same island as the Ardbeg distillery, but it is unsmoked: it thus has a nice mixture of savoury and sweet flavours. I always taste a distinctive salty, cherry-like flavour when I drink it, and I think the the sweeter notes are reminiscent of dairy sugars and cream—but take that with a pinch of salt, I don’t eat dairy and am going off very imperfect memories of what it is like.
Again, there are very many other whiskies that I can’t recommend because I haven’t tried, and a whole world of other spirits with their own interesting flavours and odours. I would welcome recommendations in the comments!
Prices obviously vary from place to place, but this is what I would expect to pay for these bottles at time of writing; N.B. whiskey prices are going up, so don’t expect these recommendations to stand up in a few months.