The Nosing Wheel: The Attempt to Rationally Capture Taste

The aromas in Whisky are often depicted on a circle, the so-called Nosing Wheel. This is an attempt to capture the taste of Whisky as rationally as possible. Most distilleries and blending companies have developed their own system for this purpose.

What we can learn from Macallan & Co

Taste perception on the human tongue
Taste perception on the human tongue

If you listen to Whisky experts for a while, you will hear explanations of taste such as: 'a light almond tone combined with peat water' or 'slightly salty with seaweed aromas'. The Whisky newcomer will wonder how anyone can detect such flavours in a Single Malt Whisky? And why are they almonds and not marzipan?

Humans smell a thousand times more than they can ever taste. From birth, we are initially endowed with little taste sensation. The taste buds on our tongues can only distinguish four main directions: Sour, salty, sweet and bitter. Sweet tastes are perceived at the front of the tongue. If our prehistoric ancestor touched something sweet with his tongue, he knew exactly: This is food rich in calories. The sensors for bitter at the back of the tongue are a protective mechanism against this. Before we swallow something poisonously bitter, we are warned once again. Sour shows unripe fruit and salt has always been important for our body's water balance. These basic aspects for human survival are depicted by the tongue - nothing more.

Note: In the last century 'umami' was discovered as a flavour of the tongue. Umami stands for the taste of proteins - i.e. meat. Our tongue has more than 30 different umami sensors.

Most of our taste sensations are, however, produced in the nose. The brain has a special task in this process. Let us look back at our evolutionary history. What connects us with the stench – oops, better with the smell - of a lion? Today our thoughts wander back to the last circus or zoo visit. Our Stone Age ancestors or today's savannah inhabitants associate these smells with rather dangerous moments.

The meaning of a smell depends entirely on the context in which we perceive it. Most people have two differently sized nasal passages. In the larger one, the air moves very quickly. Here, only heavier molecules are analysed at the nasal mucosa. In the small channel, the air moves much slower. Here, finer aroma molecules can be detected. Take a look into your own nose in the mirror! Not everyone has differently sized nostrils - but most people do.

Let's start with our virtual tasting

Pour yourself a Macallan aged in a Sherry cask for 12 years. If you don't happen to have it at hand, another Sherry cask matured Whisky, like Glendronach or Aberlour, will do. Take the glass to your nose and smell it carefully. What happens? The various aromatic substances (= molecules) rising from the Whisky are sucked through the nose with the air you breathe and pass millions of receptors. Some of them get stuck, others pass through. With the many alcohol molecules, the brain of a child signals above all 'sharp' and 'pungent'. An adult with more 'alcohol experience' can discover a lot more between these aromas.

Almost everyone among us Whisky lovers will feel two things about Macallan: ‘fruitiness’ and ‘caramel sweetness’. If instead we sample a smoky Caol Ila, usually aged in old Bourbon casks, almost all of us find 'smoke' and 'oiliness' in it.

Where Do the Aromas Come From?

If we question these basic aromas according to their origin, we find the main factors influencing the taste of a Single Malt. The fruitiness comes from the yeasts, which produce a variety of very fruity esters during fermentation. The distillation concentrates these esters. The caramel sweetness comes from the oak wood of the cask. The wood sugars are caramelised by heating the cask during manufacture and transferred to the Whisky through the long maturation period. Ex-Bourbon casks give off less sweetness. After the charring, Bourbon, which we all know as sweet, was already in them for 2 to 4 years.

The smokiness is brought into a Malt during the drying of the malt. Hot peat smoke dries the moist malt and the phenols of the smoke are deposited on the grain. The oiliness of some Malts is determined during distillation. If a Malt is distilled for a relatively long time, not only light alcohol and fruity esters will get into the spirit receivers. With increasing distillation time and higher temperatures, the heavier oils will also get into the finished product. Very intensive Malts like Caol Ila therefore often have an oily note.

The Nosing Wheel as a Chart of Tastes

Now the four basic flavor directions are not all that people can smell in a Malt. There is much, much more to find. Experts use a diagram, the so-called 'Nosing Wheel', to describe their olfactory sensations. Others call it a 'spider diagram'. Since taste is so difficult to describe with words, many different aromas are arranged in a circle and connected with scales to the centre.

Nosing Wheel according to Macallan
Nosing Wheel according to Macallan

The Macallan Nosing Wheel gives the connoisseur the possibility to indicate 11 different aromas on a scale from 0 to 5. In order to describe a Whisky, several people evaluate this Malt and write down all findings separately on scales. The information is averaged and the points are connected. Macallan gives the following diagram for their 12 year old Malt.

Nosing Wheel Macallan 12 years
Nosing Wheel Macallan 12 years

Clearly noticeable are the two aroma focal points opposite each other. If the fruity aromas come from the yeasts in the upper right-hand corner, the opposite aromas come from the Oloroso Sherry casks which Macallan uses for maturation.

A young Macallan cask could look like this. This is of course only an example - all casks develop individually.

Nosing Wheel of a young Macallan
Nosing Wheel of a young Macallan

In this artificial example you can see that at the beginning of the maturation, the distillery character is still very strong. The influence of the cask, however, is still small.

Critics of this process regularly say that it is not possible to describe all tastes with these Nosing Wheels, as they are limited to a certain number of flavours. They also point out that not everyone who smells this Whisky feels the same. Everyone has had their own experiences and will therefore describe the Malt differently.

The Macallan Nosing Wheel is exactly tailored to Macallan and is less suitable for other Malt Whiskies. It is a tool that is only used in the Macallan house.

The Diageo blenders (Johnnie Walker, J&B, ...) use a different Nosing Wheel with far more divisions. They have to make far more distinctions for the different Malts used in their Blends.

Behind each of these 16 special main directions there are again 3 subgroups.

for smoky:

1. bonfire, peaty, cinnamon sticks.

2. lapsang souchong, smoked fish

3. smoked salmon, moss, fresh peat.

for wood:

1. burnt cake

2. ground coffee, eraser

3. exhaust fumes, ginger, wood juice

Around 100 different odours from 'antiseptic cream' to 'cellophane' describe the full Nosing Wheel of the Diageo blender. Johnnie Walker Blue Label is the culmination of this art of smell.

Why the Effort?

Why not take individual casks, fill them unfiltered, undiluted and clean and leave the choice to the consumer? The numerous independent bottlers demonstrate this. And 200 years ago the procedure was quite as simple as that!

As always, the reason lies in the customer. Apart from hardcore Islay fans, most Whisky connoisseurs find the highly intensive Malts too strong. Not for nothing the softer Blends have conquered their place over the centuries. Only 5% of all Scotch Whisky bottles sold contain Single Malt Whisky. But the softest casks are again too expressionless for the Malt Whisky loving customers.

So how to please them all? The answer lies in an always equal distribution of aromas according to the Nosing Wheel. Not only the strength of the aromas must be right, but also the ratio between the individual aromas must remain identical from bottling to bottling. This is the task that Macallan has set itself. In addition, the quantities requested by the consumer are constantly increasing.

Nosing Wheel of different Macallan casks
Nosing Wheel of different Macallan casks

Why Not Always Produce the Same?

Always fill the same casks from the same wood and let the Whisky mature in air-conditioned warehouses? Then you always mix 1,000 casks together and the homogenous spirit is ready. Without mentioning names - this procedure exists. What else is there to do in the hundreds of warehouses, the size of a football pitch, which are located across Scotland? But these are mainly neutral Grain Whiskies and cheap mass produced Malt Whiskies. They are the largest components in Blended Whiskies. Nevertheless, the approach to no-name Malts is not much different.

Macallan has much higher quality standards for its own product. Only 50 casks are ever married in one batch, be it a 12-year-old or a 25-year-old Macallan. The same high requirements are made for both.

Nosing Wheel Macallan 25 years
Nosing Wheel Macallan 25 years

The Problem with Cask Maturation

If the always same distillation works quite well in the meantime, you still have problems with a constant cask maturation. Investigations in Spain showed a very different picture for Macallan. The same oaks, grown only 200 km apart, were used to make identical Sherry casks and delivered to the same Bodega for Sherry ageing. Nevertheless, fundamentally different Malts were produced in Scotland in these casks. The quality of the soil influences the wood just as much as the different microclimates at the growing locations of the oaks.

With a stock of many thousands of casks, Macallan is now spoilt for choice. Which 50 special casks should be married together? Doesn't one work forever to select the right casks to marry? If, on the other hand, you classify each individual cask according to the above-mentioned schemes, you can already roughly predict the result of a mixture. You have a good starting point. From this point of view there are no more good or bad casks. As long as you can deliver enough harmoniously matching casks for the quantities of consistent Single Malt Whisky required by the customer, you have done your job.

But think about the work! With almost three million Macallan bottles sold per year, you have to evaluate several 1,000 casks per year. And not just the ones you use. From the others that mature slowly in the warehouses, those that never become anything useful must be sorted out early. Otherwise they will only clog the warehouses. The blending industry is already waiting for them. And every now and then such a cask escapes unintentionally in the direction of independent bottlers.

In autumn 2002, Horst Lüning was allowed to taste such a misguided Macallan. Despite 12 years of storage it was not a real Macallan. Something was different. The distillery character with citrus and floral notes was clearly noticeable. But the cask had not worked in the sense of Macallan. It became a completely different Whisky and therefore was not allowed to bear the name Macallan - and rightly so.

What does Macallan do with the casks that do not fit? They are stored under close supervision or they find their way to the well-known Blend The Famous Grouse together with similar casks from Highland Park, Glenturret and other distilleries in the company.

At Macallan, no cask is wasted too quickly. The low tide in relation to the 18 to 30 year old Malts has led to great caution. Once again, this will not happen to Macallan: The worldwide demand is growing too fast.