We had a table at The Bourbon Classic in Louisville over the weekend. Since it was a Bourbon event, we offered Bourbon’s defining aromas to the curious: vanilla, caramel, maple syrup, butterscotch. They’re all base aromas that remain long after the fresh top notes (e.g., orange peel) have evaporated away, and they’re all in the same family of sweet aromas.
People would walk up and we’d offer them an aroma to see if they could identify it. Just about everyone got their first aroma wrong. That’s no big deal, of course, and we had a lot of fun offering those who identified butterscotch as maple syrup a whiff of maple syrup to illustrate the difference.
Teachers like to talk about “light bulb moments,” when their student suddenly get it. We had a lot of those, but one stands out because the woman’s experience with our kits was so perfectly illustrative of what we’re trying to do.
She walked up to the table and we handed her a strip dipped in caramel aroma. She sniffed it and announced confidently, “Pecan.”
Of all the senses, aroma is the least conscious. There are blurred lines and overlapping memories all through our untrained senses of smell. This was a perfect example. Clearly, the caramel aroma had triggered in her a memory. We asked her what her favorite candy is.
“Turtles,” she replied, and there you have it: a perfect moment for learning. Turtles are chocolate, caramel, and pecans, and those aromas have blended together in her mind into a single thing. To pull those aroma memories apart, we set her up with some nut aromas. She went back and forth, from strip to strip, separating in her mind the suddenly distinct scents of pecans and caramel. It is a distinction she will remember for a long time, and we will, too.