Some self-described experts will tell you that there's only one correct way to nose or taste a spirit. I'm not going to argue that there are some "best practices", but I am going to argue that you need to know more than just "stick your nose in the glass and breathe side to side". Today we're going beyond the basics of nosing and tasting, uniting the disciplines into something that's actually inspired from a bit of Yoga: pranayama.
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.
Your taste buds have four dominant sensory zones, as you see in the photo above. Four; we might as well call them taste duds. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that if left only to the tongue's devices, whisky tasting and notation would be a pretty truncated business. "I'd say the spirit has hints of bitter, but ... more sour than the last one. There's this fascinating interplay between sweet and salty, with the bitter becoming more dominant after that preliminary hit of sour." You might still be able to get a few of those "mouthfeel" comments, but really, a global measuring tool for whiskies that involves a set of only 4 metrics is pretty useless.
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.
Did you know...
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.
It is during inhalation that nose's contribution to smell happens - that's no mystery to anyone. But it's during exhalation that the contribution to flavor occurs (the part where you suddenly taste so much more than salty, sweet, sour, bitter). So while smelling a whisky is a fairly straightforward process, tasting it can be an entirely different discipline. That's where pranayama comes in.
After you've poured the whisky, feel free to do your smelling. Rocking the glass side to side in order to see which nostril is dominant is a popular technique. Use this time to set the stage for what comes next. Many whiskies taste and behave differently in the mouth than the nose lets on.
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.
Final note: Don't forget to keep breathing! While the spirit graces your palate it's in and out, sloooowly. Be mindful of the living Force. Your diaphragm is a billow, and it wafts you to and fro between subtlety and hemorrage. Intense? Yes. Poetic? Absolutely. And here's a pro-tip for the close: keep the breathing up for a while after you've swallowed. Sometimes the most interesting flavors raise their head only after the spirit has already "left the room", which really should encourage you to go on back for more.