Sunday, 13 December 2009

The Whisky Apprentice

The cultivation of olfaction is about refining one’s ability to detect and name aromas. This requires training the nose through practice and expanding one’s vocabulary for describing what the nose detects. The process can be active when adjectives are used to prompt the nose to search for specific aromas, or passive when one just becomes receptive and really ‘listens’ to the object of enquiry. The whole point of this process is to increase appreciation through understanding, which leads to increased pleasure and enjoyment.

The active search for specific aromas is very much like tuning in an old fashioned wireless set. One holds an adjective in one’s mind and using the nose one scans for a specific aroma to match the adjective. For example think ‘peat’ and sniff a whisky sample. The process of holding a specific aroma in mind focuses the nose, which is then able narrow its enquiry by momentarily ignoring other aromas that are present in the whisky. As one practices in this way and learns the aromas specific to whisky the ability to detect even very small traces of those aromas is increased.

The passive part of the process is to sniff the whisky without any specific adjectives in mind and see what adjectives the aromas in the whisky invoke. The part of the brain that receives aroma messages from the nose is the oldest part of the brain. The rational part of the brain which learns and uses language is much more recent. Research has shown that novices can smell every bit as well as experts but the attempt to describe what they smell during the process undermines their ability. This is because in the novice the rational part of the brain is
not integrated with the olfactory part, so they can only function separately. This has been verified by using MRI imaging techniques on people during wine tasting. This technique also showed that when a properly trained sommelier sniffs a wine both the rational part of the brain and the olfactory part work as an integrated whole.

The idea being that if a person gets to know each of these smells individually in isolation, then their ability to detect even very small traces of those same smells in enhanced. So, back to the analogy of the old wireless set: as you sniff your whisky you think 'smoke', 'peat', 'medicine' etc. and your nose in collaboration with the rational part of the brain scans to detect each.

The ten samples in this kit are 100% natural and represent ten aromas that are found in good quality whisky. The most complex, beguiling and seductive whiskeys are the Islay single malts and these were used for inspiration when blending these aromas. If you get to know these individual aromas in isolation your ability to detect them in whisky will develop and enhance your appreciation.

The real joy of tasting good whisky is to savour the mellow, warming and harmonious complexity on the nose and in the mouth.

The Whisky Apprentice Kit which will be available from Essentially Me soon contains the following aromas :-
Honey, Vanilla, Caramel, Grape, Medicine, Peat, Seaweed, Tar, Tobacco and Smoke.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Vanilla supplies at risk

Vanilla absolute is the Queen of Balsamics and has an incredibly long dry down period of several days on a smelling strip. This coupled with its propensity to preserve its odour profile as it dries down makes it an incredibly versatile fixative. Real vanilla is rich, deep, dark, complex, voluptuous, incredibly sexy and a million miles away from the sweetie pie Pollyanna synthetic notes found in teeny bop perfumes.

Vanilla absolute will anchor and increase the tenacity of many oils as well as acting as a great harmoniser. It blends beautifully with vetivert Bourbon, sandalwood and absolutes of oakmoss, opoponax, labdanum and thyme. That combination makes a perfect set of base notes onto which can be added all manner of florals.

All is not well down on the farm. Historically, Mexico and Madagascar controlled the vanilla market. The US tried to break the monopoly by introducing the bean producing vines to Costa Rico, Guatemala, Hawaii, Tahiti, Fiji, La Reunion, the Seychelles and the Comoro Islands. Twenty years ago there were large plantations on Sumatra 100 miles long and twenty miles wide. The vines are susceptible to a fungus called fusarium which establishes itself in the soil and attacks the roots of the vines. In densely planted colonies the fungus spreads quickly and once the soil is infected susceptible species can no longer be grown in that area. Fusarium can also affect coffee, mangos and palms. Most of the old producing areas are no longer able to grow vanilla.

Fusarium has arrived on Madagascar so there is great cause for concern. Most crops on Madagascar grow around the coastal areas so the lack of intensity will at least slow the speed of infection down. There is a variety called vanilla pompona, which appears to have greater resistance to the fungus and it has been suggested that creating a hybrid with planifolia may be the answer. This is a similar solution to that used by vineyards to combat the deadly nematode phylloxera devastatrix. Time may well be the problem with vanilla and there is a strong possibility that vanilla prices will climb very much higher as the supply dwindles.

In the meantime, I’ve taken the precaution of stocking up.