Pranayama is a Sanskrit conjunction: prana meaning "life force", and ayama meaning basically "expansion of that life force". Stick with me now, this is fun! :-) It is basically what amounts to the cultivation of awareness and willpower through a controlled sequence of Yogic breathing. The idea already works on a metaphorical level with the purpose of nosing and tasting, and what could be better than striving to become a distilled spirits Zen Master?
As far as our tongues go, our sense of taste is pretty limited.
But of course you knew this. Take some food into your mouth, pinch your nose, and then chew and swallow. What do you get? Pretty much, nothing. I tried tasting some new whiskies like this last night, just to see how far I could get, and the results were horrendous. The truth is, whisky writers and enthusiasts owe so damn much to those awkward protuberances on the front of our faces. Have we given ye olde nostril the credit it is due? Some quick internet sleuthing reveals some amazing things.
- Women may be the best whisky nosers among us. Research has revealed that women possess - on average - better olfactory senses than men, especially during ovulation! It's science. So ladies, next time you want to host a whisky tasting and kick our asses, make sure you monitor those lunar cycles and time it for maximum effect.
- The nose is capable of discerning hundreds of substances, some in absolutely miniscule quantities (sometimes parts per trillion). A concentration of a smell approximately 10 to 50 times above the detection threshold is usually the maximum "intensity" that we can percieve a smell. For this reason, our noses are suited to detecting presence or absence of odors more than quantifying concentration of the odor.
- Your nose is the only sensory organ in your body that bypasses the thalamus and sends signals directly to the forebrain. I have almost no idea what this means, but hey, we all remember those commercials that told us that smell is the strongest sense tied to memory. It's true. This also explains why we're so dependent on similes and metaphors when describing smells or flavors. It's always "this whisky tastes like... Christmas pudding, or cinnamon, or rain-soaked lemons being sun-dried beside Moroccan grapefruits that were hand-picked by Indian expatriots who sell coffee for a living." It's a giant game of comparison and recall.
When it comes to whisky tastings, many people think it helps to place the spirit into a vessel that will help concentrate those oderiforous esters and whorls into quantities that raise them to our detection threshold. That's the point of the Glencairn glass, after all, which situates the spirit in a wide bowl and then uses an elongated, tuliped flair to concentrate its vapors at your nose.
Now that you're ready to taste, let's clear the senses and your palate once again. Take a sip of some cool still water if it helps. Then, start your Breath of Fire (breathing in and out through the nose quickly - concentrate on the exhales, as the inhales will come automatically). Try to inhale and forcefully exhale about twice a second. If you're in a crowded room, or at a whisky tasting, or in a library (good for you! flask?), or your wife is already concerned enough about your drinking habits, maybe don't do Breath of Fire.
Now, at the end of your Breath of Fire, or before taking the spirit into your mouth, take a deep inhale over 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Hold it in for 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Now exhale slowly for 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. This deliberate, greatly-reduced breath count will help focus your mind on the present, on the now (it's not just Yogi wisdom, it's actually supported by psychology - it is frequently used for treating anxiety). Now that you're centered and refreshed, it's time to take a sip.
Bring that fire-water into your mouth. Now breath in again over 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, moving the spirit over your palate the entire time. Hold the inhale for a bit at the top. Are there any initial impressions, any immediate flavors jumping out at you? Take note of the mouthfeel while you're there. Don't be surprised if flavors and impressions are different on the inhale stage; I have found it to be so. Now let it out - exhale for 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Whisky pranayama! I'm loving it!
My experience during this exhale phase (which is supported by the study of human olfaction) is that the flavors change dramatically. If you have a spirit that was ACE'd in a red wine cask, especially the sumptuous, unctuous finishes like Pedro Ximinez (sometimes called PX), port, or even pinot noir, I have found that those winey, grapeskin notes come blaring out of the spirit on the exhale. They coat your mouth and sinuses like a tar, or a rich, tanniny leather. Heavy fruits tend to strike a dominant presence against the sweetness, spice and fire. Subtle malty notes become cereal signatures. Smokes just curl and bellow. It's a beautiful, sensory universe.