In the ability to identify the characteristics of whiskey, its aroma–also called its “nose”, is essential. It might be easy to think that, because of whiskey being something we drink, taste is the most important sense. The reality is that what we experience is a combination of gustatory (taste) and olfactic (smell) perception, and the latter plays a much bigger part than you might think. To demonstrate the importance of this, simply hold your nose while tasting something. Apart from picking out the basic categories of taste that the tongue is capable of, we learn to identify more subtle characteristics with our nose.
Then is the perception of smell something that can be trained? The answer is yes, and to do so, two things are needed: familiarity with the common aromas of whiskey, and the ability to assign words to them. These are two separate skills and are handled by different parts of our brain.
In my writing on improving my own ability to nose bourbon, I learned about this two part-process and I was looking for a physical tool to use and discovered the Aroma Academy:
The Aroma Academy offers aroma and perfume system products, as well as training and master classes in the field of aroma science. Their services are offered to both enthusiasts and trade professionals. Among other things, they make training systems, “aroma kits”, containing aroma samples representing isolated common aromas found in different types of spirits: whisky, gin, rum, and wine. The one I am reviewing is specially made for the bourbon category: The Bourbon Aroma Training Kit.
The Bourbon Aroma Training Kit is an elegant dark brown box with embossed golden letters. The box contains twenty-four aroma nosing samples, paper strips to use with the samples and also a booklet that goes into detail explaining the individual aroma samples, as well as guides on bourbon nosing and tasting.
The twenty-four aroma samples are, to quote: “carefully selected by the leading specialist Aroma Scientist from the Aroma Academy, Dr. George Dodd”, selected to cover the most common aromas found in bourbon whiskey. Among the twenty-four are vanilla, caramel, charred oak, leather, and tobacco.
Using the Kit
The two main obstacles of nosing whiskey are one: the complexity, and two: the alcohol. The sheer number of different aromas and the veil of evaporating ethanol makes it extremely hard to pick out individual notes in bourbon. The isolated aromas in the kit take care of the first problem, and dipping the aroma strips into the vials and then letting the alcohol evaporate before nosing them takes care of the second.
The recommended process of getting started with the kit is explained in the included booklet. The Academy recommends starting with a few samples at a time, and to pace oneself in order to prevent aroma fatigue. I consider myself a somewhat disciplined person, but I had way too much fun to limit myself to the recommended first-use time. What followed was one instance after the other of “Oh I have absolutely gotten this in a bourbon!”-moments!
Moving through the kit, the individual samples taking some getting used to, as you’re now experiencing them out of their usual setting, among many other aromas, and the hurdle of alcohol.
Our sense of smell is unique, and perception of individual notes vary from person to person. The aroma of an object can often be pinpointed to a specific molecule, but our perception often consists of multiple aromas combined. I found a couple of aromas in the Kit that was very different than my idea of it, not getting what they are going for. I’m sure this is inevitable, and it is brought up and explained in the booklet.
I also found the aromas varying a lot in how much they smelled–some very faint, and others very strong. Maybe that is inherent in certain aromas, or maybe it’s because of my ability to perceive them.
I’ve been using the Kit for a couple of months and have since tried different methods of use: I started with sessions of reading the content of the samples first, knowing beforehand what I was about to nose, and then familiarizing myself with the aromas and their characteristics.
I then moved on to blind nosing the aromas, guessing what they were, one by one. While guessing, I tried to associate. Maybe it reminded me of another aroma, or maybe a memory–a place in time.
The consensus among researchers seems to be that the method of improving your aroma “vocabulary” is linking them to experiences. The more links you can make, the better the chance of committing the aroma to memory.
At $136, the Bourbon Aroma Kit is priced towards professionals and serious enthusiasts. It is a learning tool more than a party game and it takes continuous use to get results. Depending on what your definition of fun is, you could use this in a group as a social activity, but my guess is that these products are to be seen mainly as educational tools for people in the spirit industry.
Using the Kit I quite quickly found myself improving in my ability to both pick out individual notes in bourbon and also naming them. Since first starting to train I’ve expanded my aroma vocabulary and gotten much better at discerning similar types of aromas–wood types or fruits.
To get your money’s worth with the Bourbon Kit, continuous training is the key, and I would only recommend the Kit to people serious about improving their ability to nose bourbon, but for those people–I think this is exactly the right product.
Written By: Erik Hasselgärde
All Photos By: Erik Hasselgärde & Aroma Academy. Used here with permission
Exclusive to all readers of Son of Winston Churchill the Aroma Academy is offering a 10% discount in their online shop! Use the code ”NB10” at checkout to get 10% off all products! The offer is valid to November 30th, 2017. Worldwide shipping.
Click here to go to the Aroma Academy’s online shop