Smelling things: A comparison of smelling whisky, wine and coffee

A good wine is one you like.

The same can be said of coffee, and the same can be said of whisky.

The range of flavours and aromas inherent in each of these three drinks make their sampling very enjoyable. Coffee grown in one part of the world will taste and smell completely differently from coffee grown in another. The same can be said with wine and the same can be said of whisky.

Variation in flavour happens naturally -the climate in which any fruit is grown will have an effect. It can also be manipulated consciously, say by burning the inside of a barrel before adding liquid to it.

Ultimately, the effect (what we subtly smell and taste) can be traced back to a single cause. Many of us will never need to trace flavours and smells back to their source, but the joy of recognising them, whether socially or in solitude allows us to appreciate the complexity from whence they came.

It is the skill of the drink creator to manipulate the flavours towards a goal, and to understand the root of natural occurrence.

In the eloquent words of Felton Road Winery of Cromwell:

“Like any good parent, one should encourage but not mould.  If one sees a trait that is perhaps not what one would like to see, the solution lies not in how to cure the problem but in learning to understand where it came from.  Each year we have a new family to raise and our increased understanding can pass back to the new generation’s schooling in the vineyard.”

Tasting “chocolate covered cherries” in a coffee is very enjoyable but recognising it first is a different kind of satisfaction. It is the range of flavours and aromas inherent in these drinks that give them their complexity, and understanding and appreciating this is what makes them so widely enjoyed.

Smelling coffee flowers

This post is about smelling different things: whisky, wine and coffee. For me, my passion and experience is in coffee. Much of my teaching has come from time spent cupping with Mario Fernandez, resident guru. For information on whisky and wine, I’ve tapped into the knowledge of friends, including those from The Whisky Shop in Auckland and VinoFino in Christchurch as well as a variety of online sources. Credit to these passionate tasters.

A comparison of smelling: whisky, wine and coffee.


Whisky is the distillate of grain mash (alcohol) which draws its flavours from aging in wooden barrels. It sits around 40% alcohol by volume, a result of having diluted the alcohol down with water after it’s spent its time in the barrels. This relatively high alcohol content is why you must approach the whisky cautiously and in parts; you don’t want to burn your nostrils or palate.

The glass you use will funnel aromas directly upward, if you get your nose right in there and just inhale deeply you’re going to have a bad time (albeit temporary).

Approach a whisky like you would an unfamiliar dog: with caution of a bite.

Take your time and smell the whisky from afar, focusing on your nose. You’ll be surprised at how many aromas will be present while still a good distance. Swirl it to release flavours and then go in for a gentle whiff. Come back out -it’s important to ‘recalibrate’ before going back in. The first whiff gets your nose adjusted to the high alcohol smell and the latter sniffs will then be able to draw aromas.

Swirling the whisky is an important step: it helps the whisky reveal itself.

To identify the aromas you can start broad: “Is it dry or is it sweet?” and then get finer: “is it sweet like chocolate or like fruit?”, and finer still “is it fruity like dried fruit or citrus?”

Write what you smell.

It’s a hard thing, to recognise these aromas. Often, having the thought of say, figs, and then trying to identify figs will help you smell figs: it’s all about connecting the smells to the memories of that smell.

This whisky tasting and nosing chart* will help you identify the flavours and aromas of whisky.

More on tasting whisky, from Master Blender Richard Paterson (who’s nose happens to be insured for £1.5million):

(Richard Paterson is the Master Blender who re-created “Shackleton’s Whisky”, a whisky forgotten in the Antarctic tundra for 103 years and then re-created with the help of Paterson’s nose. Read the fascinating story of its revival here. You can taste the recreation at Albar in Dunedin. Ask for “Mackinlay’s Shackleton Whisky.”)


In wine, there are different levels of aromas. “Aroma” refers to the smells unique to the grape variety (e.g. Reisling, Pinot Noir). As a wine ages, either within the barrel or within the bottle, chemical reactions create new smells known as a wine’s “bouquet”. The smells which come from reactions in the barrel are called secondary bouquets and the smells which come from reactions in the bottle are called tertiary bouquets. Both aroma and bouquet add to the enjoyable complexity of tasting and smelling wine, but the bouquet is much more difficult to determine. They are the finer, rarer smells and flavours which make a wine unique.

Recognising major smells like oak, passionfruit and butter are fairly clear cut. It’s the guavas, sandalwoods and honeysuckles  etc. which require exposure to.

Like whisky, the glass is designed to concentrate the smell upward toward your nostrils. And also like whisky, swirling the glass will aerate the wine and allow it reveal itself.

The lack of strong alcohol should encourage you to get your nose right in there and breathe deep.

Breathe deep, breathe light, just get your nose in there and sniff!

Repeating this vigorous swirling and sniffing will help release the aromas and allow you to identify. Much like in whisky tasting, the challenge is associating the the smells with the recognisable things.

This wine flavour wheel* will help.

More on wine tasting from Gary Vaynerchuk of Wine Library TV. A down to earth wine taster who has built a huge following from being genuine in his teachings and casual in his approach. Here he puts three NZ Pinot Noirs to the test.


Coffee is the most complex food or drink in the world: The cherries of coffee are grown in a wide range of conditions, resulting in a spectrum of different flavours. From there, there are a number of processes from getting the beans to the roaster. Roasting then brings the number of volatile compounds up from 100 or so to 900. This means many chemical reactions are occurring inside the bean during roasting. It is a very important process with many considerations.

Coffee cuppingFinally, we must extract the coffee. This last process is what makes coffee quite different from whisky and wine, especially when tasting. Because of these variables, the Speciality Coffee Association of America developed the SCAA cupping protocol in order to analyse coffee appropriately. In brief, it ensures that roasting and extraction is the same between tests to allow comparison between the coffees alone (and not the extraction or the roast).

The other difference between tasting coffee versus tasting wine and whisky is that there should be 5 different cups of the same coffee. This is because individual beans can taint the coffee. In wine, the grapes are all blended in before bottling. In coffee, only a small amount is ground per cup, so the effect of one tainted bean is larger.

How to smell coffee

Coffee cupping, concealing the fragranceYou smell the coffee in both dry and wet stages and also the ‘break’ for when you crack open the bloom of coffee. The combination of these three stages gives you an overall fragrance/aroma score but if you’re smelling for pleasure, you will find the dry coffee to be the most interesting.

  • Have 5 clean cups ready.
  • Weigh 5 lots of 8.5g coffee.
  • Coffee should be ground coarsely (at around paper filter level) and then put into each of the cups.
  • Test fragrance. Use a clean cap to cover the cups between testing.
  • Add water to each to each cup to test aroma. The water should be 93°C, or just after it finishes boiling.
  • It should brew for 3 minutes before you test aroma.
  • After aroma, you test the “break”.

There are two terms used: fragrance, for when the coffee is dry, and aroma for when the coffee has been brewed (wet).

Much like wine and whisky you can start broad with the aromas “is it floral or fruity” and then get finer “is it ctirus or redfruit?”. The coffee flavour wheel* will help you identify the fragrances and aromas in coffee.

Use your nose like a scoop by bringing your head back as if your nostrils are a drag net inappropriately catching fish.

It’s also worth noting that most coffee made for espresso is blended, meaning there is a combination of coffee from selected locations around the world. Cupping is normally done to analyse individual coffee locations or speciality coffee. So if you want to analyse coffee, ask for a single origin. Take a note of the roasting date as well.

This short video shows the cupping process well, though it is a little different:

Goodness nose – a summary of smelling

While each drink has a slightly different process of how to smell it, the commonality between the three is practicing identification of the smells.

During any smell analysis you will find yourself thinking “I know what it is but I just can’t put my finger on it”. This is because you haven’t solidified the connection between what the smell is and what you recognise it as. The cornerstone of analysing all of these drinks is training your nose to identify the smells.

You can increase your vocabulary by simply smelling things and remembering it. This builds a mental database of smells which you can refer to when you test aromas. Consider the spices and condiments in your pantry,  or your fruit bowl – smell them all and re-familiarise yourself with their fragrances.

Building this mental database of smells allows you to recognise them within complex drinks.

Smell you later.

*A note on the flavour wheels: these wheels should serve as an indicator, not an ultimate guide. There are many more flavours and smells present in whisky, wine and coffee than what is listed in each of the wheels.

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