How to Nose and Smell Whiskey (In 10 Simple Steps)


It’s important to nose and smell your whiskey before drinking it because smell is an integral part of flavor. If you want to taste all the flavors of your whiskey, you’ll need to smell all its aromas first. It’s not difficult to do but there’s a little more to it than just one or two simple sniffs, so here are ten steps to nosing and smelling your whiskey properly.

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A person smelling whiskey in a nosing glass

1. Make Sure to Use a Nosing Glass

A nosing glass (they have a wide bowl, a long narrow neck and a thin stem) is essential for being able to smell your whiskey properly.

This is for two reasons. The first is because it reduces the impact of the alcohol which at anywhere between 40%ABV and 68%ABV will overpower the aromas of the whiskey itself making it impossible to smell them whatever you try, or worse singe your nostrils and (temporarily) numb your extremely delicate olfactory system so you can’t smell anything at all.

If you’ve ever tried to smell whiskey and found it unpleasant, now you know why. It’s because you’ve been smelling the (unpleasant smelling) alcohol not the whiskey and were burnt by it.

The second reason for using a nosing glass is because it stops the whiskey aroma molecules from dissipating. Once you’ve poured your whiskey, the aromas molecules will start to disperse and since it’s impossible to smell something that’s not there anymore, you need to do something to keep the whiskey aroma molecules around.

Nosing glasses are specifically designed to help with these two issues via their shape. They reduce the impact of the alcohol because the wide bowl allows air to get to the whiskey so it can breathe. Some of the alcohol will then evaporate, making it much easier to smell the whiskey without any of the above-mentioned problems.

Nosing glasses also stop the whiskey aroma molecules from dissipating by allowing them to accumulate in their long narrow necks.

Man holding Glencairn Whisky Glass at the stem

On the other hand, if you smell whiskey that’s in a shot glass – where there’s no room for air to get to the whiskey and nowhere for the whiskey’s aromas to accumulate, you’d smell the fumes of the alcohol which won’t have evaporated, but not the aromas of the whiskey which will have dissipated.

There is another more minor but still important reason for using a nosing glass and that is because it has a stem. You’re supposed to hold your whiskey glass by this stem to keep your hands and their smells (even pleasant ones) further away from your nose. That way there’s less to interfere with your ability to detect the aromas of your whiskey.

One of the most popular whiskey glasses is the Glencairn Whisky Glass which you can find on Amazon here.

2. Let It Sit Untouched for a Few Minutes

When you pour your whiskey, you should let it sit untouched for a few minutes. This is because although a nosing glass lets air get to the whiskey so some of the alcohol can evaporate, this doesn’t happen instantaneously. If you want your whiskey to breathe, not only do you need to give it the tools to do so, you need to give it some time to do so too.

Some argue that whiskey should be left sitting out one minute for every year of its age, but you can’t go wrong if you wait a little longer. You may not want to wait too long, but remember, the longer you leave it, the more alcohol will evaporate and the more you’ll be able to smell the aromas of your whiskey.

3. Swirl It Often

Swirling your whiskey means holding your glass by its stem and moving it in a spiral pattern so that whiskey … swirls around inside. This will make you look sophisticated or pretentious (depending on the crowd you’re in) but more importantly it lets even more air get to your whiskey so that even more alcohol can evaporate. Some swirl their whiskey before each smell.

For those who do a lot of swirling, Norlan whiskey glasses can be especially useful. That’s because they have unique fins or protrusions at the bottom of the glass which cause a wave shape to form out of your whiskey when you swirl it. This increases the amount of air that can get to your whiskey further so that even more alcohol evaporates than with other nosing glasses.

You can find Norlan whiskey glasses on Amazon here.

4. Always Smell Slowly and Gently

Even though nosing glasses reduce the impact of the alcohol, since the starting point was very high, using them still leaves you with a high amount of alcohol in your glass.

That’s why when you smell your whiskey you need you need to breathe in slowly and gently. Breathing in too aggressively can singe your nostrils and lead to the above-mentioned numbing of your nose. Breathing in slowly and gently ensures you won’t be burnt by the alcohol and that your smell receptors remain operational.

You should also keep your mouth open slightly as you smell your whiskey. This does two things. First, it lets the alcohol fumes that enter your nose escape and second it allows the whiskey aromas to circulate round so you can better detect them.

Man breathing while drinking a glass of whiskey

5. Let Your Nose Acclimatize to the Alcohol

As mentioned, whatever you do to reduce the impact of the alcohol, unless you dilute your whiskey drastically – and ruin it completely, you’ll still be left with a fair amount of it. That’s why you need to let your nose acclimatize to the alcohol so that once it’s desensitized to it, you’ll be able to smell the aromas of your whiskey.

When you smell your whiskey for the first time, you’ll get an overpowering sense of alcohol but don’t let this put you off. It can take two, three or even four sniffs before your nostrils acclimatize to the alcohol, so if you’ve just started smelling your whiskey but can’t detect any of the whiskey’s aromas it’s not because they’re not there, it’s because you’re not used to the alcohol.

Keep smelling – slowly and gently, and keeping your mouth open to let the alcohol fumes escape. As your nose gradually acclimatizes to the alcohol and becomes less sensitive to it, it will be less affected by it, and you’ll be able to smell more and more of your whiskey’s aromas.

6. Smell It in Multiple Ways

There are actually several ways to smell something. (Yes, I also thought that was ridiculous at first but once it’s pointed out it becomes so obvious you think, ‘of course there are several ways to smell something’.) This is important because if you don’t smell your whiskey in all the ways possible you won’t pick up all its aromas.

With the Left Nostril and with the Right Nostril

Now you definitely think I’m being silly as they’re both the same way of smelling something just with a different nostril. However, it is important because one nostril is usually obstructed, only picking up about 20% of what you smell. This means that each nostril will detect the whiskey’s aromas differently and so you have to smell with each of them, one at a time.

And you can’t just determine the unobstructed one and use that each time you smell whiskey because it alternates every two to three hours.

Smelling Quickly and Smelling Slowly

You need to vary your rate of inhalation as you smell your whiskey because some aromas are easier to detect when the flow of air is quicker while others are easier to detect when the flow of air is slower.

Smelling Deeply and Smelling Lightly

Some aroma molecules are heavy, and some aroma molecules are light. To detect the heavier aroma molecules, you’ll need to smell more deeply (though still gently) and to detect the lighter aroma molecules you’ll need to smell more lightly.

7. Examine Every Part of Your Glass

Even though the whiskey aroma molecules accumulate in the long narrow neck of your nosing glass, different aromas will concentrate at different points. As mentioned, there are heavier and lighter aroma molecules, and they will be found higher or lower in the glass.

At the bottom of the glass, you’ll find the heavier earthy, smoky, woody, aromas, higher up will be the spicy, malty, winey aromas and towards the rim you’ll find the lighter fruity and floral aromas.

That’s why you need to make sure you examine every part of the glass. Some people like to put their nose right inside not just near the rim (it’s even more important to breathe in slowly and gently if you do) especially when they’re breathing deeply to find those heavier aromas.

Man nosing different parts of his glass

8. Smell It Again

You can’t just smell your whiskey once and then sip it, you have to constantly re-smell it (my phrasing – if you have a better one, please let me know). That’s because depending on the whiskey, there can be quite a few aromas and you may not pick them all up in one smell. It’s also because some aromas make an appearance earlier in proceedings while others take their time before revealing themselves.

That’s why it’s completely normal to spend one or two minutes or even longer smelling your whiskey and trying to detect its aromas.

You also need to re-smell your whiskey if you think a change could have occurred to it. For example, if a significant amount of time has passed between sips so more alcohol will have evaporated, you’ll want to re-smell your whiskey to see what’s changed. If you add a few drops of water to your whiskey causing more of its aromas and flavors to open up, you’ll want to re-smell it to detect any new aromas that there might be.

Another good time to re-smell your whiskey is after drinking a sip. Not only in the usual nose-near-glass way but also by exhaling through your nose to draw the aroma molecules that build up in your mouth, especially after a few sips, to the back of your throat and up into your sinuses. That way you can smell your whiskey’s aromas better from right inside your nose.

9. Use an Aroma Wheel

If you’re finding it difficult to think of good words to describe what you’re smelling, you can use a whiskey aroma wheel. These are visual representations of words commonly used to describe aromas, grouped together in families with aromatic similarities.

They can be helpful as you’ll get a better idea of the type of words that describe aromas, and you’ll also have a list of them you can use instantly. Be careful not to rely too heavily on them as they’re not the sum total of all descriptors and you don’t want to confine yourself based on their limitations.

And don’t worry if your descriptions of the aromas are different to those of other people. The perception of smell is a personal thing so what smells like one thing to one person may smell like something else to another. It’s also because smells are linked to memories, so depending on your psyche, personal descriptors may be quite unusual.

10. Nose and Smell Other Whiskey(s)

Learning how to nose and smell whiskey can take time. You may not pick up very much on your first few attempts, but like anything else it becomes easier with practice. That’s why you need to keep nosing and smelling as many whiskeys as possible (and as many whiskeys as are responsible). Yes, you can even use me as an excuse when your significant other asks why you’ve bought another bottle of whiskey.

There are also some other things you can do to improve your whiskey nosing and smelling abilities:

  • Try nosing and smelling different types and styles of whiskey
  • Smell two or more whiskeys side by side. Comparing things is always easier
  • Try to be as specific as you can about what you’re smelling
  • Find out what aromas other people have detected in that whiskey
  • Smell foods and drinks with specific aromas to learn what they smell like
  • Practice your nosing and smelling abilities on foods and drinks whose aromas are easier to detect.

Good luck!

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Josh Mitchell

I'm Josh Mitchell. I love whiskey and am working on increasing my whiskey tasting abilities and my collection.

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