Sunday, September 17, 2017

Training your nose - Can you get bettet at smelling whiskey? - Part Three

If you missed part one or two of this chapter, check it out here: Part one - Part Two

Third step: The Aroma Academy Bourbon Kit

In my method of improvement consisting of three steps: own research, talking to an expert, and using a learning tool–I’ve now checked off step one and two. In part one of this article I read a bunch of Wikipedia articles, hoping to get an overview of what our sense of smell is. Then in part two I spoke with Maria Larsson, professor of perception and psychophysics at the Department of Psychology, hoping that she would affirm that I was starting to understand the subject, and also give me some direction on how to improve my smelling skills.

Maria confirmed that the sense of smell absolutely can be trained and suggested that repetitive exposure with a feedback system would be a good method. I need to smell something, guess what that smell is and then get told if I’m right or wrong, and verbally affirm the smell to commit it to memory. So in step three I want to find a physical learning tool that enables this process.

Using physical objects as educational tools is established in the educational realm, but in my experience something we tend to overlook as we leave the elementary school system.

The Ocean To a Blind Man
I consider myself mainly a kinesthetic learner–needing to experience first hand and physically interact to really register. Skill-retaining is often my main objective in these processes, so hands-on practice is crucial.

So to get physical, my first thought was to identify and inventory the most common aromas in bourbon whiskey myself. Quickly realising the hassle of collecting and storing everything from butter and charred barrels to fresh roses and malted grains–I abandoned the idea and started searching the internet for a commercially available product instead.

The Kit

What I found was the Aroma Academy Bourbon Kit, and it seemed to be exactly what I was looking for. The Bourbon Kit is a box consisting of 24 vials, each containing an aroma sample commonly found in bourbon whiskey–from apple to wheat. The Aroma Academy offers specialist aroma and perfume system products, master classes & training programs which include training kits for wine, gin and whisky in general, developed by Dr. George Dodd, aroma scientist, biochemist as well as a master perfumer. Also included in the kit are paper aroma strips to dip in the vials and a booklet with bourbon facts, detailed information about the 24 aromas, and an assortment of other information, tasting guides etc. etc. The kit does just what I want it to–offering isolated aromas to experience, compare and train with.

Waiting for my order to ship, I couldn’t be more excited. After gathering information and then bouncing questions and ideas off of an expert, I was now finally going to practice what I’ve learnt. When it finally arrived–I got straight to it.

Smell ya later

The booklet tells you to pace yourself in shorter sessions but when I looked at a clock after first sitting down with it, over two hours had passed. I was enjoying the hell out of the Bourbon Kit.

The Feedback System
After reading through the booklet and getting myself acquainted with the aromas, I employed a feedback system. Testing myself, Maria had told me, would be the key to improvement.

I set up a system as easy as I could make it: I prepared six aroma strips at a time, without knowing what they were, but labeling them so I could refer to a key. I then smelled each strip, trying to name the aroma, and also explaining to myself why I thought the way I thought, adding adjectives to the aroma. I then checked the key to see whether I was right or not. If wrong, I smelled the strip again, trying to reason why I got it wrong. If right, I smelled the strip once again, naming the aroma then moved on to the next.

The Proof
Marias observation in her training program was that achieving improvement happened quite fast, and soon after my introduction to the Bourbon Kit I was eager to see if just a couple of evenings with it would yield results.

Gathering a few of the bourbons I’ve had the most experience with I wanted to see if I could pick up the individual notes I’d been training with. As a benchmark, I went through the five reviews I’d written for Son of Winston Churchill so far, and in total I had used fifteen different words to describe aromas.

Referring between whiskeys, the Bourbon Kit and my previous notes I found I was never far off but also that my aroma vocabulary had increased. Notes that I got before but weren’t able to put words to were now obvious!

I also noticed that I had become both more secure and faster in picking out the classic bourbon notes: vanilla, toffee, burnt sugar, charred oak etc, as if I’d gotten a more complete “vision” of those notes in my mind.

These early results gave me confidence in my improvement, which in turn worked as a reward system for putting in more time and focus with the Bourbon Kit, a process I find to be great fun!

Sum of all smells

My mission in all this was to see if any of these steps on their own would suffice as a method of improvement. Could I isolate a single factor in a process, maybe as a shortcut to quick advancement?

Sure all three steps gave me knowledge that made me “better”, but what became clear is that they are different approaches, and the really cool stuff happens when you combine all three:

The first step serves as an introduction, giving a context and a general idea of the subject, and often gives the first hints to what areas are keys to understanding and improvement. An important part of this is that it is supposed to be free. I’ve started this step with many different subjects, only to realise that they were about something else, and not what I was interested in. Nothing is lost in the first step.

The second step could be seen as a test: you should try to distill your new-found knowledge and explain your findings to the expert. Your somewhat understandable reasoning is something the expert can give quick feedback on, and that’s a great exercise in improvement. What makes the expert the expert is doing what you’ve been doing, but far more thoroughly and for a much longer time. Any questions you might have, they’ve probably already answered.

The third step is the main one. Without a few exceptions maybe, I doubt that true improvement can happen without actual work. If your goal is to get better at swimming, you need time in the water. The theoretical knowledge gives you answers to the why’s, which no doubt is important, but in my quest to get better at nosing and my greatest improvement happened when I got to use a tool to practice exactly that.

As with other previous undertakings this has absolutely been a journey, and one that I am just starting. I do now know some things. I’ve gotten to know a lot more of what I don’t know yet. My understanding of whiskey has improved deconstructing its parts, and in the process of it–my enjoyment of it even more!

Written By: Erik Hasselgärde