So there we were, challenged to come up with an answer by the producer of a name-embargoed, barrel-strength Bourbon to be released in May. (UPDATE: Bulleit Barrel Strength.)
Around the table a small group waited – hosted by Old Limestone Mixing Water, which bottles mineral-heavy, incredibly pure water from beneath the Bluegrass specifically to be used to cut Bourbon.
In a line across the table, glasses — each containing an ounce-and-a-half of 119-proof whiskey mixed with from one drop to 1.5 ounces of water.
As the host poured the Bourbon, the long-running argument continued. A woman at the end of the table argued that a single drop would magically break the surface tension of the water to release the Bourbon’s heady complexity. The guy next to her argued that a one-to-one mix with absolutely pure water would dilute the alcohol enough to protect the delicate tissues of the nose, allowing longer, more deliberate sniffing. Everyone else occupied positions in between.
One group sniffing one whiskey does not settle this kind of argument, but it’s interesting how quickly a consensus developed.
The favorite: the 2:1 Bourbon-to-water mix. Above that, the nose was weak and watery. Below, the alcohol fumes made it hard to separate the nose’s aromatic subtleties.
As a barrel-strength whiskey, the 2:1 cut lowered the proof to 80, the standard bottle strength of most whiskey brands. You can make the argument, as some did, that the importance is not that the cut itself but the resulting strength of what’s in the glass. Assuming normal 80-proof bottle strength, a single drop might be exactly the right amount of water to use. Others debated how a single drop of water in a Bourbon that had already been cut from barrel to bottle strength could possibly make a difference.
The debate continued unabated until everyone turned to a scientist who had been sitting quietly throughout. She shrugged.
“Is it an argument,” she asked, “that you really want to settle? I would prefer to continue my research.”
She held out her glass for more.
Aroma Academy believes the aromatics of fine spirits and wine are best understood by learning individual aromas. There are a lot of different ways to do this, but this is one of our favorites. It immediately ties specific aromas with specific brands, and helps you identify the broad differences between those brands very quickly and with a minimum of frustration.
Below are the specifics of a half-hour nosing session, right down to the brands you’re sampling and the aromas you’ll learn. It gives you a framework that applies to any set of Bourbons and aromas you want to learn about. If you want to put together a nosing of collectible exotics, this will help you understand why they’re special. If you want to slap together a sniffing of what you already have on your shelves, go for it. You’ll be surprised how quickly your understanding of fine whiskey expands.
So, off you go. Let us know how well it worked for you.
Every now and then, Dr. George Dodd puts together fairly detailed notes on different aromas prominent in fine drinks. Dr. Dodd has one of a the best developed noses in the world. He’s a professional perfumer and directs the Institute of Olfactory Research at the University of Warwick in Scotland. Here are his notes on the aroma of cassia bark, which adds a surprising, spicy note to modern gin.
Few people know the aroma of Cassia Bark. The cassia tree is an evergreen found in east Asia. There is a distinct overlap in the aroma profiles of the oils from cassia and cinnamon. When you smell it, the ravishing, hot, spicy, and distinguishable “cinnamon-like but heavier” aroma is very evident. This is the archetypal hot, spicy smell. It arouses and conjures feelings of being in markets in far-off Asia or Africa.
The major molecule with the characteristic cassia aroma is cinnamic aldehyde. It’s a powerful odorant that makes up between 70% and 90% of cassia oils — a greater concentration of aromatic oil than is found in cinnamon. Like all aldehydes, it is prone to oxidation. It’s important, when using cassia bark to make a spirit, that the oils be extracted during the distillation rather than before.
Cassia is mentioned in the Bible (Exodus 30:24) as a constituent of holy anointing oils. It is one of the foundational herbs of traditional Chinese medicine. It’s blood-thinning qualities can damage the liver, and European health agencies have warned against its overuse. Coumarin, the medically active ingredient in cassia does not make it through the distillation process into the gin.
When nosing the cassia solution in Aroma Academy’s gin aroma kit, you will notice that it changes over time. On the first whiff, ‘something’ is there on the wet Aromas Strip — simultaneously vaguely familiar and exotic. Over a few minutes, as the strip dries, that note metamorphoses into a clear, dark, spicy note that is cassia bark’s contribution to the gin. It’s somewhat like cinnamon, as noted above, but more complex.
Bombay Sapphire pioneered cassia bark in gin, establishing it as a marker for new-style gins. It’s distinct in other brands, including Martin Miller’s, Ophir Oriental Spiced Gin, Bathtub Navy Strength, and Langley’s No. 8. We think our friend Guy Rehorst at Great Lakes Distillery is sneaking a little into his Premium Milwaukee Gin, too.
Learn more about the gin aroma kit here.
All joking aside, women (in general) have more acute senses of smell than men. The reason for that, according to aroma research published in Brazil, is the number of neurons found in the brain’s olfactory bulb.
Wedged down between the top of the nasal cavities and the bottom of the frontal lobe, the olfactory bulb is a computer, of sorts. It processes raw data from the nose into information the rest of the brain can use.
Women’s olfactory bulbs are bigger than men’s — significantly bigger, as it happens. Women have almost twice as many of the cells that sort and categorize smell information. The result of all that extra processing power is that women detect and identify odors at far lower concentrations. They also learn and remember particular aromas faster and better. At every age and stage of life, women smell better than men.
Women are Drawn to Different Aromas
Women also prefer different aromas than men. Generalizations of this sort are always risky. But to the layman, the apparently genetic smell preferences uncovered by the researchers explain a lot about why it’s hard for men and women to live together. For example, women are more likely than men to be able to detect and be disgusted by various body odors. (Does this sound familiar to anyone?) Women prefer the aromas that underlie many florals: camphor, citronella, menthol, and ferric valerian. Men, on the other hand, prefer manly aromas like cedar, pine, and musk.
The physical differences between men and women at least partially explain differences in drinks selections. Gin that is lighter and floral are said to be “feminine,” for example. Less subtle, juniper-heavy gins are masculine. The same goes for wines.
Again, generalizations only explain so much. We certainly know a lot of women who attack a robust Bourbon or gargantuan Cabernet with all the zest of any man. But the physical differences are real, and would seem to indicate that the under-representation of women as both sommeliers and master distillers is based on culture, not biology. If it were up to biology…look out, guys.
Science has long believed that people are able to discern only five flavors — bitter, salty, sour, sweet, and umami. The rest of what you perceive as flavor is really aroma. That’s why we believe so passionately in aroma training.
That has changed with the announcement that scientists have discovered a sixth distinct flavor element. According to an article in the journal Chemical Senses, tests of how sweetness is perceived have uncovered a set of taste buds sensitive to chemicals common to starchy foods. We’ll let CNN translate the highly technical language of the study into something understandable.
The study involved five separate experiments and about 100 adult participants. The participants were asked to taste different liquid solutions of simple and more complex carbohydrates under normal conditions and then while the sweet receptors on their tongues were blocked. The researchers discovered that even when the sweet taste receptors were blocked, the study participants could still detect a starchy taste.It was previously assumed that starch was tasteless.
The addition of an entirely new flavor to our sense of taste changes the balance between taste and smell. Instead of being able to discern 200 million aromas for every taste, the ratio will be 166 million to one.
For now, we’re still sticking with aroma as the most important part of “tasting”.
Everything is confirmed: at 2 PM on Tuesday, September 20, we will hold the very first Introduction to Rum at Lost Lake Tiki Bar in Chicago.
The rum training is new to the U.S., and we couldn’t be more excited. It’s a fine spirit that’s getting even finer, with craft producers releasing new interpretations of the cane-based classic without robbing it of its tiki bar vibe. For us, Lost lake is the perfect venue, a whole staff of rum aficionados and a back bar that will keep everyone sniffing and tasting long after the class has ended.
Because it’s the day before the Chicago Independent Spirits Expo, where we will participate in a panel discussion on nosing fine spirits, we’re going to offer the best price we’ve ever offered: $25 for a two hour introduction. Attendees will also be offered $50 off Aroma Academy’s new rum home training kits.
We’re very excited. There are only 24 seats available. If you’d like to buy a ticket, visit out Shopify store.
Every now and then, Dr. George Dodd puts together fairly detailed notes on different aromas prominent in fine drinks. Dr. Dodd has one of a the best developed noses in the world. He’s a professional perfumer and directs the Institute of Olfactory Research at the University of Warwick in Scotland. Here are his notes on the aroma of blackcurrant, which dominates the nose of many red wines, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon.
When considering our aroma and flavour categories, It is easy to appreciate that blackcurrant belongs to the sub-division of berry in the general category of fruity. In fact, when you are nosing an unknown red wine, the likely sequence of your mental pictures as you sniff and reflect are likely to be – first, fruity and then – on more sniffing – berry and then on sniffing again you may very well identify the unique blackcurrant aroma note. It is unmistakable when you know it.
This aroma note plays such a prominent role in the aroma profile of red wines from some classic grapes, especially Cabernet Sauvigon (CS), and also in Syrah and Merlot (to a slighter extent), that it made sense to give it a distinctive place in our Wine Aroma Kit. Those readers who prefer their technical language in French, will recognize Blackcurrant as Cassis.
Anyone who has ever followed the evolution of the flavour preferences of their children as they grow up, may very well have noticed that many young children dislike the flavour and aroma of blackcurrant juice and drinks, but they often come to like them later in life, sometimes when they are adults. This is probably a strong example of the reduction of our smell sensitivity as we get older.
Aroma molecules with a distinct blackcurrant note have a well-defined molecular profile. One part of the molecule has a group containing a sulfur atom (usually what is called a thiol group, denoted as -SH), and another part has the characteristic bit of a molecule which is called a ketone group (denoted by the symbol –C=O). Therefore this class of molecules is often called the thio-ketones and even by the most extravagant standards of the Aroma Sciences, such molecules can be really smelly.
The tale of the thio-ketones in odor science is a convoluted one and very often, the impetus to investigate such smelly molecules has come from some type of odor problem. It was the occurrence of catty off-odors in tinned meat which first led to studies on thio-ketones. It is interesting that a cat’s pee aroma note is sometimes used to describe a particular odor in Sauvignon Blanc wines. In fact, the scent note in question is not in fact pee, but is actually that of the pheromone spray which a tomcat uses to mark his territory, a strong and powerful odor of a sulfurous nature, not as bad as the olfactory calling card of the skunk, but definitely noticeable in a distinctive olfactory way, as I am sure that many of you know.
One of the demonstrations that we sometimes perform when we are holding Perfume or Wine Aroma days, is to present to the audience, two dramatically different (one low, the other extremely low) concentrations of the aroma molecule which we use as our standard for the blackcurrant note. At an extraordinarily low concentration, at which you begin to wonder about how many smelly molecules are actually there, you get the distinctive whiff of a fine blackcurrant drink, and so attractive is this cassis type of aroma, that it is a pleasure to linger and sniff.
However, at higher concentrations, it is the aggressive and pungent smell-love charm of the tomcat which is evident, and the smelling strip is rapidly removed from the nose. Yet it is the identical smelly wine molecule, at different levels of smell concentrations, which give us these profound differences in our reactions.
Often, you will find the blackcurrant note in a good Cabernet Sauvignon to have a floral character, along with the distinctive fruity note. So, as an additional smelling exercise, for those who possess one of our Wine Aroma Kits, we suggest that you bring an Aroma Strip of the Floral (Rose) aroma note together with the blackcurrant Aroma Strip. At just the right smelling distance, you will get a soft floral halo appearing around the blackcurrant note, capturing the full richness of the blackcurrant theme in the classic Cabernet Sauvignons
- They pour the Bourbon sample too early – 95% of what you perceive as flavor is really aroma. The aroma of a fine whiskey is the product of hundreds of different compounds, each evaporating at its own rate. The volatile compounds that evaporate most quickly include delightful fruit and floral aromas that most people never smell because, by the time they get around to it, the aromas are gone. What’s left are the spicy mid-notes and the base aromas most people associate with Bourbon: wood, caramel, vanilla, cooked sugars, earth, smoke. If you must pour ahead, cover the glass so air exposure is minimal. Only uncover the glass when you’re ready to sniff.
- They inhale too deeply – the goal of sniffing is to let aroma molecules linger over the olfactory epithelium, which is pressed up against the bottom of your brain at the top of the nasal cavity. If you take a big, long whiff, you’re blowing a numbing overdose of aroma molecules past your smell receptors. Instead, sniff like a dog: a series of short, gentle inhalations, allowing each to linger a fraction of a second in the sinuses before the next replaces it. Do five little inhales and then exhale through your mouth.
- They don’t reset their noses – After a few whiskey samples, you’re brain starts to think the whole world smells like whiskey, and starts to block out some of the common aromas. There are those who advocate coffee beans to clear their noses; we don’t. Instead, to reset your nose smell yourself – your arm above the wrist is the most socially acceptable option. A couple of deep breaths will clear your olfactory receptors and remind your brain that whiskey is not a background smell that needs to be filtered out.
- They smell the spirit only out of a glass – Nothing improves your enjoyment of whiskey like good glassware. Glasses like the Glencairn glass, with wide bowls and narrow openings, concentrate and preserve whiskey aromas. They also concentrate evaporating alcohol, which can overwhelm whiskey’s more subtle aromas. Nosing the whiskey off a perfumer strip rather than out of a glass can add dimensions to your perception. Perfumer’s strips are scent-neutral paper that retains aromas while letting those aromas evolve naturally. Dip that paper into the whiskey, and then sniff the strip over the next few minutes. This gives you a slightly different perspective on what’s in the glass, and can help confirm and focus your earlier observations.
- Take breaks – Depending on the aromatic profile of what you’re sampling, your nose is at its best for only three to six whiskies. After that, it’s harder to detect some of the subtle aromatic notes. So: take a little break. Walk outside or into a different room; inhale deeply. Give yourself a few minutes and then back to it.
All of this said, don’t over-complicate your enjoyment of whiskey. Incorporate intelligent sniffing techniques without obsessing, and learn to match your assessment ritual to your context. Be more careful at an organized tasting, but don’t get carried away when you’re just having a drink with friends. They might find it off-putting if you start sniffing like a dog and smelling yourself over the appetizer.
Buy the Aromas of Bourbon training kit and become a Bourbon ninja.
When it gets hot in the summer things slow down, and we have time to collate data. We’re sure you do the same thing. Anyway, last week over light cocktails we did the math and discovered that the people who’ve been through our training really like it.
This is not the kind of data we usually share, but the feedback is so good it’s worth breaking our own rules. We asked about 100 participants to rate certain statements from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). Then we turned them all into averages to see how we were doing. Here’s how we did.
The one we watch most closely is the third: “The training will help me at work”. Professional training is our bread and butter, and if participants in those sessions aren’t happy, we aren’t happy. The average score was 4.44, which is good enough to make us happy. But what makes us really, really happy is that not a single person disagreed with that statement,. Every single bartender, distributor, server, and retailer who has been through our professional training thought it would help them in their work.
The other thing that stands out in this data is that people didn’t have a real strong idea of what it was they had signed up for. It makes us curious why they signed up, but we’ll leave that for the next survey. For now, we’ll work harder to clarify what people should expect when they sit down with us, starting with a revision of our “we help you smell better” value proposition. Apparently, there’s more than one way to take it.
We’ll let you know when we come up with something.