Perfumer and Royal Salute creative advisor Barnabé Fillion adds a new dimension to whisky appreciation.

“You must be wondering why a perfumer is talking about whisky,” starts Barnabé Fillion, creative advisor for Royal Salute Whisky, as an introduction to his Olfactory Studio. “Ninety-five per cent of everything you taste usually happens in your nose. What we are doing is what I call an ‘anatomy of a blend,’” he explains at Bab Al Shams Desert Resort & Spa in Dubai. The rustic desert getaway is one of the many venues—Seoul, St Moritz, Jodhpur and Sanya are some others—that Fillion has held such sessions at since teaming up with Royal Salute in 2016.

“Whisky is very interesting. It’s a pure liquid, which obviously has a certain smell when just distilled,” Fillion shares before pointing out that “the real essence” is in what one discovers “after the alchemy of being in a cask for a long time”. To him, it is very much like appreciating perfume—“if you close your nose and drink, you cannot enjoy it to its fullest”.

The importance of the olfactory factor to our ability to taste food has no doubt been a topic of great interest for quite some time—research has proven that such cues play a dominant role in the perception and enjoyment of taste and the flavour of food or drinks. As such, one could say that Fillion’s contribution, as a perfumer, adds a very visceral touch to the appreciation of whisky.

Training the senses

This time, the whisky in question is the Royal Salute 21 Year Old; the iconic spirit Samuel Bronfman of Chivas Brothers presented to Queen Elizabeth at her coronation in 1953. Bronfman was the first civilian to be invited to the coronation, which saw 8,251 guests represented by 129 nations and territories, and he made it that much more memorable by presenting a whisky whose entry-level expression was 21 years—no mean feat considering the economic climate of that time. Although there have been many more memorable iterations from the house since the Royal Salute 21 Year Old holds its own to date.

The aim of the session is to get a deeper appreciation of this iconic blend, and that meant tasting the five whiskies—signature single malts and grain whiskies of the Royal Salute House—that made up the blend; namely, the Strathclyde, Longmorn, Glen Keith, The Glenlivet Nàdurra and Strathisla, each aged for 21 years.

The olfactory experience starts with nosing each spirit, then taking a whiff off perfume cards spritzed with scent notes Fillion had picked from the drink. We then add water to the spirit using a pipette—no more than 10 drops—to release its “fragrance”.

“What I try to do is create an experience around drinking whisky,” says Fillion. “By introducing a perfume that has a dominant smell from the whisky, I help trigger your olfactory sense. So the next time you drink that whisky, the notes will come to mind immediately.” It’s like training one’s senses of smell, he explains, affirming its significance in the “art of celebrating the drink”.

The process extends to touching and feeling objects that help build a more robust memory around the drink. Fillion uses fossils, ceramics, gadgets and the like, items that draw parallels to, or contrast with the spirits, as the case may be, lending a tangibility to flavour, smell and taste.

Balancing the elements

“When we are making a blend, we are trying to create a balance of the elements,” says Fillion.

In the case of the single malt from Strathclyde Grain Distillery, fresh notes of green apple, green tea and green grass are complemented by green tea-doused mimosa notes and the feel of a two-million-year-old bent-iron fossil. The balance, he defends, is created by touching something old as a contrast to the smell of something comparatively young.

Similarly, the spicy notes in the Glen Keith pair with notes of mimosa, nutmeg, saffron, clove and cinnamon. Fillion uses a radiometer, the scientific instrument that measures radiant energy, or more accurately, the radiant flux of electromagnetic radiation (to detect infrared or ultraviolet radiation), to draw a parallel with the alchemy that takes place in the barrels in the absence of light.

The point, he stresses, is to highlight the fact that "even in the deepest and darkest parts of the barrel something magical can happen to the whisky". He goes on to highlight how the rate of natural evaporation of the alcohol (given the porousness of the barrel) during the ageing period (angels’ share) balances the strengths of the whisky. “The taste of the whisky is getting purer,” he adds.

The session ends with a bit more of the abstract, as Fillion pairs the fruity and complex Strathisla with a viewing of the Perishable Vase by multi-disciplinary artist Marcin Rusak, with the aim of affirming how in life, the things that give us the most joy are in fact transient.

Fillion’s narrative does tend to leave one with a sense of bewilderment. But, if there’s any truth to the fact that our emotional response to most things is governed by association, then, his analogies should come to mind the next time we enjoy a glass of blended, aged scotch whisky.

This article was originally featured on Singapore Tatler.