How to nose whisky and win the Islay Nosing Competition

The Islay Festival of Music and Malt, also known as Feis Ile, is a big thing in the whisky world. A week where the whisky-drenched island fills with whisky fans from around the world for a celebration of their favourite drink. There are a few whisky events happening outside of the distilleries, and one of those is my favourite of the festival – The Islay Nosing Competition.

The smell of a whisky is really important, and it’s something I bang on about at Whisky Lounge blending workshops, while trying to explain how to get the most out of your dram. In short, the tongue is rubbish at distinguishing flavour. It’ll pick up the basic building blocks, but to really pull apart a glass of whisky, you need a working olfactory bulb.

This little organ sits behind your eyes, and when you breathe in through your nose, the air wafts around its receptors, firing neurons whenever flavour hits its surface. When you drink a whisky, it still joins in – vapour from the back of your mouth floats around to the back of your nose. The final complexity of a taste comes from both the tongue’s broad brush strokes and the nose’s precision. It’s a combination that is more than the sum of parts, digging deep into your brain to bring back memories and give the rich experience that you want from drinking a whisky.

One of my favourites, but other than the flagship 16 Year Old, one I find difficult to pinpoint when tasted blind

And thus we come to The Islay Nosing Competition.

It’s a simple setup, with nine glasses, one from each Islay distillery and one from Jura. Each glass contains a standard expression from the distillery in question. The challenge is to say which glass comes from which distillery. The catch: you’re not allowed to taste them.

For years I’d heard about the challenge, but had never made it up to Islay at the right time to join in. Until 2015, when after a long day of whisky at Caol Ila, I managed to catch a lift to Port Ellen, buy a ticket just before they sold out, and take part.

I won.

All nine whiskies right. The first Englishman to do so, as I was repeatedly reminded by a number of Scots expressing varying levels of annoyance at the fact. Since then I’ve been asked a few times how I did it. While I’ve often claimed years of practise and dedication to my art, sniffing everything that comes near me to build up a library of smells that I can delve into whenever I want, there’s more to it than that.
Caption: Laphroaig, the first whisky I picked out – a distinctive mix of TCP, fruit and ash

In the end, I think it can be summed up by one of the evening’s judges, who I chatted with after the result was announced. He commented, that after looking at the sheet of paper I submitted my answers on, he reckoned there were two possibilities for how I’d won. Firstly, I had a system where I carefully compared each whisky with the others, marking differences and correlating those with the character of each distillery, slowly discounting options until I had worked out which was which. Secondly, that I was a drunk man who had been very lucky.

I couldn’t possibly comment…

Billy Abbott is a writer for The Whisky Exchange and also sometimes manages to put things on his own blog, He will be on Islay during the festival this year and on Monday he will be at Ramsay Hall in Port Ellen with his nose in nine glasses of whisky.
Can he pull off the same trick as in 2015? Only time will tell…