I love scotch, because I love its complexity, its fragrance, and the way it looks in the glass. At a scotch tasting last night, I was struck by how much the protocols of Scotch tasting parallel those of fragrance. When we taste Scotch, we give greater emphasis to how it smells than to how it tastes; the more complex the scotch, the more difficult to understand and describe the scent, the more we value it. And unlike other beverages, professional scotch noses never actually drink it; they evaluate the quality of the scotch based on smell alone. When we smell a Scotch, we look for the scents of earth, peat, smoke, fruit, wood, dirt, brine, sulphur, grain, and spice among others, and physiological reactions like ‘nose burn’ the feeling of light pain from the rising alcohol of a Scotch. We also look for ways to describe the ideas we get about the kind of space the scent occupies—is it round, angular, smooth?
Smelling Scotch can help hone our noses for fragrance, and vice versa, since many of the scent catgories are the same. Learning the vocabulary of a scotch connoisseur opens up ones vocabulary for describing perfume, as well. The same is, of course, true for wines as well.
When we finally taste the Scotch, we look to see if it matches in flavor the smell that met our noses. We want to feel in our mouths what we smelled with our noses, a complete sinaesthetic moment of clarity. Scotch, like perfume and wine, will change over time in the bottle, and in front of our noses in the glass.
Another interesting parallel between the connoisseurship of scotch and that of fragrance is that it is often difficult to detect the line between the appreciation of the juice per se and the fetishistic attraction to the crystal bottle or glass containing it. I have seen scotch lovers’ crystal and bottle collections, and they can certainly rival those of all but the most devoted perfume bottle collectors.
And the final, most fundamental parallel between these two difficult elixirs: when they are right, they can make you high, deliriously happy, and drunk on life.