Whisky is a complex spirit with a range of flavors; often, people have an experience with one variety and dismiss the whole spirit. The Macallan recognizes that introducing whisky to some people requires a bit of eduction, and happened upon an idea that is really quite clever. Knowing that smell is such an important element in taste, they thought it would be an interesting experiment to teach people about the flavors of whisky. The Macallan’s partnership with celebrated British perfumer Roja Dove created an olfactory experience to do just that, and the result is a Scottish take on the Japanese Kōdō ceremony, which celebrates the art and customs of incense.
Roja is a master perfumer who creates his own line of perfumes as well as creating bespoke fragrances for people and places (like shops and hotels). He also has a well known shop, Roja Dove Haute Perfumerie at Harrods in London, which sells a range of “Roja approved” scents. Ironically, Roja had an unpleasant teenage encounter with Scotch that prevented him from ever trying it again. In his first meeting with The Macallan, he had to confess to his whisky-making partners, “I absolutely hate whisky. I don’t like it, I can’t drink it. I don’t like it whatsoever.” Since the project was about creating an experience to introduce the unexperienced to whisky, they were actually encouraged by Dove’s opposition to the spirit, relying on him to create an experience to make the characteristics of whisky more approachable.
The Macallan and Roja Dove Sensory Experience takes people through the spectrum of scent, educating the nose in common whisky notes. It’s meant to help people approach the whisky palate without the immediate—and often overpowering—alcoholic sensation so that later on, tasting the whiskey may bring out characteristics that may otherwise have been missed. “Everybody so far has said that they are shocked that they are able to smell things in the whisky that they have never, ever noticed before,” explains Dove. I was lucky enough to spend an hour going through the Experience with Dove and David Cox, director of The Macallan’s Fine and Rare whiskies and indeed learned to distinguish the various components that give whisky its flavor.
Dove selected 12 pure essences that he felt were representative of different whiskey traits. The first six introduce scent pairs that help distinguish between things like stillness versus volatility, fruitiness versus spiciness, and maturity versus immaturity. Dove’s experience goes back and forth between scents in an opposite way from traditional whisky-tasting, bringing out base notes after the high notes and the sweet before the dry. The kit provides a certain education that a tasting alone cannot. The second set of six scents creates two aromatic blends that imitate whiskies from The Macallan range, which are later used in combination with the whisky during tasting. By the end, the nose has been properly trained and participants leave equipped with the vocabulary to go forward and taste whiskey on their own. It’s perhaps not a surprise that through his own methods Dove has come to appreciate and enjoy whisky.
The “aroma station” comes in an exquisitely detailed oak box constructed by Scottish cabinet-maker Duke Christie with bottles arranged like a perfumer’s desk—a set-up that Dove playfully likens to a church organ. The box contains scent strips for testing and glasses to combine the scents into a “bouquet,” which mirrors the whiskey-tasting experience. Armed with this educational tool, The Macallan’s brand ambassadors are set to spread the essence of their spirit through scent, hoping to convert non-believers to the fascinating world of scotch whisky and provide connoisseurs with an additional tool for appreciation. While the Ambassadors’ are currently making the rounds with the press, they promise that small, intimate consumer events will follow. Until then, check out the video to hear Dove himself explain the unique process.