So much whisky, so little time | Singapore | Tasting Notes

Perfumery vs Whisky

I wonder if some lesson can be gleaned from the method of olfactory analysis used by the perfume industry.


After all perfume is 70-80% methanol, whisky is 40-60ish% ethanol. Ahem, don’t drink your perfume though, methanol is toxic to humans, but shouldn’t the scents conveyed by such alcohols be similar enough to apply similar techniques to them?

When I write these notes for whisky, I find that the words pour out in a stream of consciousness. I put my nose into the glass, take a few quick whiffs, pause, and repeat slower. What occurs to my mind enters the page in due order. There is no real method to my madness. I figure it may be attributed to lack of experience and perhaps an expert noser, or a master blender might have more of an art to it. But perusing the giant resource that is the internet, I find that even notes by experts in the field, professional publications, and even tasting notes by the distillers themselves tend to follow a simple format as I utilize.

Might it be that such professionals are writing for the mass audience and therefore cater their language as such? Or are perfumery and whisky blending so different that a master blender or distiller has greater concerns at hand than plain olfactory methodology – for instance, mouthfeel, presence, weightiness, power.

Nonetheless this blogger suggests that his own simple approach might be enhanced by the art of the perfumers.

Perfumers break down scents into 3 different levels based on its arrival.

Top notes

Top notes or head notes consist of the lightest molecules that evaporate the quickest and hence arrive at the nose first. It is the ‘first whiff’ and are generally light and fresh and often sharp. Examples of top notes are:

Anise, Basil, Bergamot, fresh and warm Citrus, light fruit like Berries and Pear, Eucalyptus, Mint, Lavender (straddles top and middle) and light herbs like Sage and Basil

Middle notes

Middle notes or heart notes arrive when the top note leaves. The middle notes are the body of the fragrance and last longer than the top notes. These are often warm, rounded and mellow scents that mask and prepare for the base notes. Examples are:

Woods – like rosewood, and oak

Warm spices – like cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, ginger (middle to base)

Warm floral scents – like rose, lemongrass, ylang ylang (middle to base), neroli, jasmine, chamomile

Warm leafy scents – like bay, fir, pine, oregano, rosemary, sage, tea

Warm fruity scents – like pepper, cooked fruit, honey

Base notes

Base notes consist of the heaviest molecules and are last to arrive.  There is always a blending of scents in the order they arrive, but the middle-base ‘symphony’ is the main theme of the fragrance. Base notes anchor the fragrance and are generally the big, rich and deep scents that leaves the lasting impression. Examples are: Cedar, Sandalwood, Moss, Patchouli, Musk, Tobacco and Vanilla.

Might a whisky’s nose be studied according to a similar principle? Is a good whisky one whose nose is immediately arresting, and having drawn you in to be enamored of its complexity, presents its particular take on its style; and finally in leaving, doesn’t so much as says farewell but bids you raise your glass for the lips to savour what the nose has promised?

Is that really true of all good whiskies? Some are austere and reluctant, and what it releases are nary welcoming but frugally light, and yet such styles have its fair share of enthusiasts. Others are overly rich to a fault, lolling about in monolithic fruit laden indolence without any tannic crutchto hold it up, and yet its unbalanced extravagance is worshiped by others.

Having said that much, I’m not sure I’ll even understand it at all – don’t people in the industry train for years upon years, but it does well to serve as a fresh perspective on appreciating a good whisky, and a good whisky is its own reward.


PS – I apologize for the shameless juxtaposition of Signet with perfume. I fear there’s something of an agenda here, ever since I cracked open a Signet (entry-mid level bottling mind you)  once – to be amazed at the thick high-quality, high-definition picture flip book, fancy laminate cardboard box so strong you stand on it, and the glass T-cork top that weighed 100g. I’ve now come to associate the new Glenmorangie with mindless OTT luxury, for a whisky that is. It is apparent that a gross amount of the purchase price had gone into the packaging, when it could have gone into better whisky, like an independent bottler maybe. Just saying.

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This entry was posted on January 14, 2014 by in Perfume vs Whisky and tagged , , , , .
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