Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Training your nose - Can you get better at smelling whiskey - Part One

Arguably, our sense of smell triggers memories more vividly than any other sense. It’s something just short of time travel. Someone you pass on the street wears the same perfume as someone you’ve met once a lifetime ago and it takes you back instantly–in the same way that you wake up in a weird mood from a dream too real.

My knowledge of smell
What I know about the sense of smell isn’t much. I know it’s one of the five traditional senses. I once learned that the senses of smell and taste are somehow connected, and that holding your nose while tasting is a neat trick to prove that. I have no idea of how the sense of smell works, but I sure have been playing pretty fast and loose with it in my interest in bourbon. I have many times experienced a glass of bourbon, struggling with a smell or taste that I couldn’t articulate, but yet it was right there–literally on my tongue.

Deep diving
Understanding a subject is for me a huge part of enjoying it. When I started getting serious about bourbon whiskey I knew that nothing would be different.

If I enjoy bourbon as much as I claim to–how do I get a better understanding of why I enjoy it, and is enjoying bourbon something you can actually get better at?

The heart of it
I imagine an interest in bourbon to be hopelessly unrewarding without a love for the taste. You could get into the history, the defining characters or its link to the culture of its native soil but at the heart of it is the actual product, and bourbon is a product made to drink!

When I started getting serious about bourbon tasting, I learned that nosing is a big part of it. Maybe the biggest part. It’s supposedly easier to pick out individual notes with the sense of smell than the sense of taste alone. So if I want to get better at enjoying bourbon and pinpointing what I like about it–the sense of smell seems to be the sense to focus on improving.

The Three Steps
Then how does one get better at something? My personal favorite is to employ a three-step method. Step one: search the internet. Step two: talk to a expert, and step three: use a learning tool. Usually when I’m acquiring a new skill, I do all three concurrently. In this series of articles though, I will try to separate and evaluate them on their own merit, to measure their effectivity individually as methods of improvement.

The idea is to use the three steps and write about it in the process of my quest to get better at nosing bourbon. Will this journey bring me even closer to something that I already love so much? Let’s find out!

First step: The Internet
The internet can be a great learning resource as long as you have a basic understanding of source criticism and the difference between opinion and fact. As my first action I will be searching for information the easiest way I know: Googling!

A Google search will probably generate a Wikipedia article high up in the results. As a huge fan of Wikipedia this will hopefully be my primary source for this method. Other than Wikipedia I’m hoping that the first page of Google results will generate a couple more pages to draw from, but that will be it. I will try to keep these steps somewhat simple in execution.

Search results
I was right. The Google search for “smell” generated a link to a Wikipedia disambiguation page, which referred me to two pages: Odor, and Olfaction. Let me delve into these and I’ll let you know what I find!

“An odor or odour or fragrance is caused by one or more volatilized chemical compounds, generally at a very low concentration, that humans or other animals perceive by the sense of olfaction.” (Source)

I’ll be using the word aroma instead of odor, as it strikes me as more neutral. Whether a smell is considered good or bad is irrelevant in this article.

The word for the sense of smell is olfaction. The chemicals that trigger the olfactory system in our body are called odorants.

But let me stop right here. Almost immediately when reading about the olfactory system a lot of fancy words appear. I have huge amount of respect and a sense of wonder when it comes to the human body–especially the brain. I understand that this isn’t like explaining what a sandwich is, so I will just briefly go through what I think is the basic setup and then move on to how and why it works:

The Science
In the nasal cavity there is tissue called the nasal epithelium. Through the epithelium runs olfactory neurons–cell receptors that triggers impulses that runs via the olfactory bulb to other parts of the the limbic system, a part of the brain also considered important for memories and emotion.

Impulses pass through the olfactory bulb to, among other parts, the hippocampus and the amygdala. This means that aroma acts as actual triggers for memory and emotion. The evolutionary point to this is probably–like everything else–survival. The sense of smell is in this way a tool to navigate us away from danger through learning and previous experience.

What is that smell?!
Aromas themselves are mostly carbon-based compounds. And that’s about as far as I get before running into some heavy chemistry terms. For me to understand what makes something smell, I need additional Googling. After some navigating I learn that different aroma compounds are categorized by their composition. Different compositions have their particular smell and often correlate with the adjectives I’ve been cowboying around with in my reviews: woody, fruity, spicy etc etc. The names for these compound groups–esters and terpenes, collecticly known as “congeners”–I’ve read before, in articles about fermentation and distillation techniques and its effect on flavors.

I try to dig deeper into why things smell the way they smell, but this is chemistry country, and I don’t have a passport.

What is in the glass?
So how do I apply all this information to getting better at smelling bourbon? The physiological insight doesn’t really give me applicable knowledge beyond that we use our nose to smell, and I already knew that.

But in all that science I found a possible explanation to the neural disconnect between experiencing a smell and naming it: That’s because the two actions happen in different parts of the brain, and the two are at best crudely linked. The process of giving adjectives to things seen or heard is much more refined than the one of things we smell. This Wired-article from 2014 explains theories on this subject very well.

Conclusion - Step One
So where has step one gotten me? It’s given me a basic understanding of olfaction (or at least I learned a new word!), and some contextual information which I can use to navigate myself towards further learning. I’ve gotten the lay of the land, and I can now move in more conscious directions.

It seems that I should focus my training in two areas: experience and language. I imagine I need to experience commonly found aromas in bourbon and then assign words to them. In my research I believe I’ve found a tool to develop both skills, but that’s method three. What comes after step one is step two: talking to an expert! 

Written By: Erik Hasselgärde

Make sure to check back in next week, as Erik walk us through step two