Book Review: The Essential Scratch & Sniff Guide to Becoming a Whiskey Know-it-All

Let’s get something out of the way first: There is no whiskey to sniff here. The scratch areas contain aroma compounds to simulate the components of whiskey and the common aromas associated with it: corn and other various grains, peat, cinnamon, vanilla, oak, raisins, iodine, honey, maple, etc.

Next, the title is a little misleading. The book is fun, mildly educational, and a great gift (bordering on a gag) for anyone interested in whisky, but it’s not going to turn you into a “know-it-all”. Besides, take it from me: being a know-it-all makes you a lot less fun at parties.

The construction of the book itself is solid, with thick paperboard pages, creative use of fonts, fanciful well-colored illustrations, and witty, concise prose. There’s also a large and very thorough fold-out flavor wheel in a back page pocket which includes brand recommendations in each flavor category. The book is not long, with only 22 pages (counting title pages and afterword), but it does cover a range of information for the absolute beginner: grain types, distillation, barrel aging, regional and world whiskies, labels, and nosing/tasting.

Co-Authors Richard Betts and Wendy MacNaughton have collaborated before on a similar scratch-and-sniff wine guide. For this book they are joined by co-author Crystal English Sacca. The book retails for $22 (on sale for $14 right now on Amazon!).

What about the scratch-and-sniff? Many will remember these things fondly from our youth, and I was excited to try them. I’ll warn you, though, that most of the aroma patches are faint at best, and mostly reductionist and inaccurate. (Sherry-aged whisky has a wide range of complex fruit flavors, not just grape gummy candy.) This is probably because the lab-made aroma compounds available to scratch-and-sniff book printers is very limited, and probably looks a lot like what’s available to candy-makers and candle manufacturers. Here’s a full list of the patches in the book (there are 16), with my impressions of each (remember, these are subjective, just like whisky tasting!):

  • Corn: Smells sweet, more like candy corn or corn syrup. Faint.
  • Rye: Smells like soap, or perfume. (I think it’s supposed to smell like mulling spices). Medium-strong.
  • Malted Barley: Smells like nothing. Maybe I got a dud? Faint to nonexistent.
  • Vanilla: Spot-on. Vanilla. Strong.
  • Cinnamon: Spot-on. Cinnamon, although in a spicy, slightly fake candy way (like Cinnamon Red Hots). Strong.
  • Toast (oak): Smells like sugar cookies, or maybe almond extract. Faint.
  • Raisin (sherry): Woah. Smells like sour fruit candy, like Sour Patch Kids. Fruit punch. Very strong.
  • Hazelnuts: Something nutty, yes. Medium-strong.
  • Sandalwood: Nothing. Dud. :(
  • Caramel: Nothing. Another dud. :(
  • Iodine/Ocean: Smells soapy – exactly like those “Ocean Breeze” shampoos at the grocery store. Strong.
  • Peat/Smoke: Nothing! Damn.
  • Cedar: Yup. Cedar, just like those moth-repellent hangers in the closet. Strong.
  • Maple: Maple syrup, but very faint.
  • Apple: Exactly like sour apple candy. Strong.
  • Honey: Spot-on! Honey. Medium-strong.

Conclusion:

If you’re intimidated by the world of whisky appreciation and want a whimsical crash-course, or if you’re trying to think of a fun gift (last-minute Christmas gift? Yes!) for a whisky lover who doesn’t take it all too seriously, this is an excellent purchase. If you think this will teach you about whisky via scent, you may be disappointed.

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