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Dr Gordon Steele on the Diploma in the Art of Tasting Whisky

Dr Gordon Steele on the Diploma in the Art of Tasting Whisky

There are very few formally taught lessons about how to use your sense of smell, how to use that in an analytical way. The Diploma in the Art of Tasting Whisky (full day, £495), which is certified by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), allows you to start that analytical dissection of the sensory makeup of a Scotch whisky.

To start, the course looks at the anatomy and physiology of our sense of smell. How are flavours are appreciated by the brain? What mistakes can the brain make? We illustrate that with various whisky samples, as well as some surprising ones.

We then look at the manufacture of whiskies and unpick where different flavours likely come from. How they are generated, how they interact with each other, how they create the entire flavour spectrum that we know as “Scotch whisky”.
From that, we look at wood. The influence of oak wood, what the extracts do, how that influences flavour, how that keeps some flavours in and throws other flavours out.

We then look at various ways of assessing whisky aromas; how we can compare two different whiskies, how we can do a descriptive analysis. The important thing about sensory appreciation is there's no right or a wrong answer. Everybody's answer is equally valid, so the interesting bit is where people start to discuss how flavours change for them, how different flavours are generated for them.

By the end of the course, instead of just picking up a whisky and enjoying it, you will be able to analytically examine it from a sensory point of view. I always warn the students right at the beginning: "You're never going to look at whisky the same way again, so watch out!

Originally, I was an evolutionary biologist, so I tend to put things in terms of evolution and point out that our sense of smell is our most ancient sense. Because of that, it has certain attributes which our other senses don't have; it's very attached to emotion, for example.

I really enjoy putting that into context and seeing the gradual realisation in the candidates that they've got this fantastic sense. How they've been unaware of their behaviours influenced by their sense of smell and how they can use it to describe things – how they can use it to describe whiskies – which they've never done before, other than in a rather superficial way.

And, for me, that's the enjoyable bit: seeing people change from the beginning of the day into people that suddenly are aware of their sense of smell and can use it in an analytical way. Occasionally, you see that sort of lightbulb moment in a candidate. An "Oh my goodness, look! I've been experiencing this particular phenomenon, but I've never been able to understand it or never been able to put that into context!"

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