Basic Spirits Nosing – The Science and the Myths

Keep NEAT in your tool box
(Part 1 of 3 Arsilica, Inc. Educational Series)

What’s In Your Toolbox?  Awaken your inner connoisseur with simple science.

Evaporation is everything. Back in the ‘60’s when scotch popularity was on the rise, distributors realized that American noses simply would not acclimate to the strong smell of alcohol, so they advised “Never swirl spirits”. It worked. No swirl, no evaporation, no smell, and sales magically increased. Today we know the only way to smell an aroma is from evaporation. Evaporation occurs because colliding liquid molecules break free through the liquid/atmosphere interface. Three things improve evaporation, swirling, stirring, and warming. Swirling is the most common way to promote evaporation, so swirl vigorously. A proper glass must have a large evaporative surface area.

Surface tension controls evaporation. Surface tension is a force in the surface of a liquid which keeps things from getting in or out of a liquid. Water bugs run along on top of the water surface because they weigh less than the force required to break through and fall in. Higher surface tension = slower evaporation. Alcohol surface tension is lower than water surface tension. More alcohol = less surface tension = more evaporation. More water = more surface tension = less evaporation. Swirling helps break surface tension and exposes more liquid to the air, further promoting evaporation.

Diffusion: Evaporated vapors diffuse upward toward the rim of the glass and outward from areas of high concentration. Most heavy evaporated compounds (the good smelling stuff, fatty acid ethyl esters) fall back into the liquid, but many are forced up and out by newly evaporating molecules below. Along the entire liquid surface millions of different molecules are breaking out from the surface and diffusing. No evaporation = no smell.

Different compounds physically act differently. Distillation and oak ageing yields many compounds, each with different molecular structure, shape, weight, solubility, and volatility, each of which behaves differently when they evaporate. Lighter molecules tend to diffuse quicker than heavier molecules. Many heavy molecules are good to smell (honey, fruits, caramel, fatty acid ethyl esters). Many volatile molecules such as alcohols, are not so good and numb or even damage your sense of smell. If glassware is too tall, many heavier less volatile components may be so rare at the rim of the glass, that they are never detected. Use short glassware to smell a wider variety of smells. More flavors are detected close to the liquid surface. Think short and fat, not tall and skinny when choosing glassware.

Ethanol alcohol is neuropathological, numbs, desensitizes, causes nose burn, and irritates nasal lining. Drinking spirits neat is much more enjoyable without alcohol on the nose. Avoid inhaling alcohol if you want to smell what’s in that expensive spirit. Dissipating alcohol first is one way to accomplish that.

Dispelling Popular Nosing Notions – Mythology Loses
Myth #1: Adding water opens up whiskey. “Open up” from wine to white dog means enhanced evaporation. When using tall convergent rim glasses that concentrate odors at the nose, add a few water drops to cut burn. Remember, adding water raises surface tension, and severely closes down ALL evaporation including alcohol. Less alcohol is mistakenly perceived as “opening up”, because there is less alcohol aroma detected after adding water. Water doesn’t “open up” anything drinkable by humans. If you have to add water you are using the wrong glassware (unless you can’t handle the alcohol sting of straight spirits on the palate). If you insist on drinking from convergent rim glassware and concentrating all the aromas at the nose, you may need to add water. Instead, find a proper glass.

Chemists have solid proof that adding water makes some compounds less soluble in a spirit containing alcohol. We agree. The chemist stops thinking about it at that point. So does the expert who thinks he has the answer because it justifies what he wants to believe. These insoluble still have to break through the surface tension of the liquid to be smelled. Adding water increases the surface tension. Need we say more? Improvement from adding water is doubtful at best.

Myth #2: Tulip shaped glasses are better. Not if you want to smell something besides alcohol. Convergent rim glasses concentrate alcohol at your nose. Think short and fat, nose closer to the beverage where many complex fatty acid ethyl ester aromatics lurk, large evaporation area, and rim flare to dissipate alcohol prior to nosing and place the nose in a good spot to smell other aromas. A tall slim neck concentrates alcohol and keeps many aromas from reaching the top of the glass with enough presence for strong detection. A flared rim releases volatile alcohol to diffuse quickly from the other aromas and positions your nose above the alcohol pouring over the rim edges as it diffuses.

Myth #3: Chilled Stones or ice “smooth” a spirit. Adding chilled stones or ice decreases temperature and reduces evaporation, closing it down. If you want to know what’s in the spirit, never add ice or stones. Ice cools, melts and dilutes. Stones cool, but do not melt or dilute. Have a good reason if you insist on using stones, and don’t leave them around for a toddler to swallow. Their only practical use is to cool a cocktail you don’t want to dilute with melted ice or to make bad spirits more palatable. If you have to use stones in straight spirits you shouldn’t drink straight.

Myth #4: Legs or “tears” in spirits or wine indicates quality, high residual sugar or “body”. It’s all about the difference in viscosity, miscibility, and surface tension gradient between alcohol and water. Alcohol and water do not mix uniformly, and surface tension differences actually cause water molecules to pull together, away from alcohol (cohesion). Legs mean absolutely nothing, and they appear in all spirits and wine regardless of quality, body, or residual sugar. It is truly amazing that this myth sticks around and is repeated many times daily by those who consider themselves experts. There goes one of the world’s oldest bar pick-up lines.

Myth #5: Breathe through nose and mouth at the same time when nosing spirits. Partially true, it works well with convergent rim glassware, slightly easing whiplash and nose burn. Use a glass that dissipates alcohol so you can breathe deeply and detect even more aromas without the nose burn and accompanying anesthetics and nose burn.

Myth #6: Hand heat ruins the drink. Hand heat coaxes out more aromas, but don’t overdo it or you will detect things you wish you hadn’t. Used properly, hand heat is a valuable tool to evaluate quality and make informed buying decisions. Used indiscriminately, it ruins the drink. Above all, you should never flame-heat a spirit. It deconstructs the drink and completely destroys your sense of smell with alcohol vapor.

How did all these crazy myths come about? Glassware sells if it looks pretty, and function has absolutely nothing to do with appearance. For centuries we stopped thinking after defining a glass as a vessel to “hold a liquid before drinking” or “convergent rim is a design basic because it assures no aromas will escape the nose”. Experts experiment to discover which techniques work best with an existing glass. Myths are born from techniques developed for a specific glass used indiscriminately with different glasses. Adapting poorly glassware to function is putting the cart ahead of the horse. Choose functional glassware and know how to use it.

Glassware engineered for nosing dissipates alcohol prior to smelling, and eliminates nose burn, pain, and a numbed sense of smell. Naturally Engineered Aroma Technology (NEAT) is state of the art. Visit us for more at: http://www.theneatglass.com .

George F Manska, CSO, Arsilica, Inc

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