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Sociology of Spirits (Members only)

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“Flavour” and “The Sense of Smell”

As each niche Aroma Academy blog series is developed, it is our intention to begin each one with a common first entry focused on the basics of the “Sense of Smell” and the “Source of Flavour” – as this represents the key common thread in each Aroma area.

George Dodd at work in the Aroma Academy R&D Studio

You may notice that we used the word “flavour“ above and this was very deliberate as  it is central to the message that we deliver. When people talk in general about “taste” – they are actually, in real terms, talking about “flavour” as it is a “flavour sensation” that we experience when we have a liquid or solid in our mouth. The flavour sensation is actually a combination of three key related, but independent, senses – a triad that The Aroma Academy describes with the acronym tSt – representing “taste” “Smell” “trigeminal.”

The letter S for the “Sense of Smell” is given prominence in the centre as we convey the central message that 95% of the flavour experience actually comes from the “Sense of Smell.”

This is a fact that is not widely understood so let us repeat ;

“95% of the flavour experience comes from the “Sense of Smell.”

Armed with this key fact, the importance of having a trained sense of smell (a “good nose” in other words) is clear and, you will be pleased to learn, that the series of blogs, newsletters and other training materials supplied by the Aroma Academy focus on honing skills in “Aroma Recognition” and in helping master “The Sense of Smell.”

A fundamental tool in this process is the series of aroma solutions supplied in the Aroma Academy Aroma Kits and associated Aroma Standards. We believe that discussing and reviewing aromas, without the associated physical experience of experiencing the aromas, is like trying to pass a driving test by reading the car manual without ever stepping into a vehicle or learning a foreign language by reading a translation book without ever hearing the spoken word!

As noted above, our future blogs will concentrate on features of the Sense of Smell and in particular on information related to the key aromas in the relevant subject areas – be it Fine Wine, Scotch Whisky, Gin, Beer, Gourmet Food or any other field –  in which identifying flavours and distinguishing flavour differences are an important enhancement to your enjoyment.

However, before we move on to an overview of the “Sense of Smell,” let us consider an overview of the two other senses in our triad tSt, namely “taste” and “trigeminal.”


Some of you will be aware that the sense of taste is actually very limited in the information that it delivers to the brain with the messages being received restricted to a measure of five main factors – sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami (savoury.)

(For those unfamiliar with the term “umami” it is often associated with monosodium glutamate (MSG) a substance found in much Chinese food and in a lot of processed foods which provides a significant umami taste.)

In very general terms, the sense of taste is experienced via taste buds which then deliver the information to the brain via the nerve structure – and it should be noted that taste buds are not only located on the tongue (several thousand in a typical human) but also in other parts of the mouth including the soft palate, esophagus and epiglottis.


As with many senses, humans could be said to be “programmed” to quickly recognise whether substances are beneficial or potentially harmful and the Trigeminal sense can be thought of as part of the body’s “safety mechanism.” One of the most obvious examples of the trigeminal sense is the body’s reaction to the cutting of an onion – the immediate response of tear formation to protect from the stinging release of the onion vapours. The body’s reaction to hot chillies or peppers is another example of this “trigeminal” sense. A less extreme, but just as valid “trigeminal” reaction is the sense of “fire” or “heat” that is experienced when a particularly high alcohol concentration spirit is consumed – for example a cask strength Single Malt Whisky. When a small amount of water is added, the “firey” feel is reduced as the alcohol concentration is reduced.

So we now understand that the “trigeminal” and “taste” senses are providing part of the “flavour experience” and – if we wish to be fully encompassing -we should not ignore the contributions of texture and temperature also (perhaps our acronym should be ttStt !)

However, let us turn to the real heart of the flavour experience – the “Sense of Smell” – that is actually delivering the many different wondrous flavours that we enjoy and providing those key nuances that make the enjoyment a never ending experience!

The Sense of Smell

Glass of Whisky

The “Sense of Smell” could be described as one of the most primitive of all the senses and it is unique in that it is the only sense that is “sensed” or “experienced” directly by the brain itself – and not be some intermediary sensor. Incredibly, the aroma, or more accurately the aroma molecule, is actually physically sensed by the brain directly. The first question often asked when this fact comes to light is “How does a flavour get from the mouth to the brain?”

Well, there are airways that lead from the mouth which allow the aromas that are expelled from the food or drink in the mouth to travel upwards through the airways – and eventually the nasal opening in the skull – to directly contact with the brain. Therefore, without being aware of it, whilst you are chewing a piece of food or warming up a whisky or wine in your mouth, the aromas are being passed to the smell brain for examination – even though everything appears to be happening in your mouth. In future blogs, we will discuss how the different types of aroma molecules are recognised by the brain and how the characteristics of these aroma molecules deliver different aroma experiences (or recognisable smells/flavours.) Suffice to say, for the present, that this is how, in principle, the aromas register in the brain and it is these aromas that are the key element of the flavour experience.

It is usually most easy to reinforce the validity of this assertion by drawing people’s attention to instances when they experience a common cold – everyone is familiar with the typical experience that “it is impossible to taste” anything. The main issue is not, of course, a particular problem with your “taste” buds but rather the fact that the airways from your mouth to your key brain “aroma sensors” are blocked and therefore you cannot experience any “flavour” in your food and drink. As is so often the case, it is the sense of taste that gets the headlines even although it is the sense of smell that is performing the majority of the work!

The sense of smell could be said to be the “forgotten sense” as -particularly in the modern world – it is a sense that does not enjoy any of the prominence or attention that the other senses such as sight, hearing or touch receive.

One interesting consequence of this fact is that the majority of people typically have very little confidence, or trust, in their smelling ability. When we offer people the opportunity to smell an aroma “blind,” the reaction that we often get is a comment such as “I will have a go but I have had a cold this week so I might not be able to smell very well!” This tendency to “get the excuse in first” is a reflection of the fact that people very rarely encounter the need to identify aromas without a visual clue and therefore are concerned that they may appear ignorant.

To set people at their ease, we attempt to convey two central messages ;

  • That everyone can train their sense of smell and develop their nosing ability – although very few people ever have – and
  • That a real individuality exists with regard to the sense of smell. Every person has a different sensitivity profile with regard to the sense of smell – with some individuals being particularly sensitive to certain aroma types yet practically unable to identify other types

Future blogs will explore the topic of “Individuality in the Sense of Smell” in some detail together with recommendations regarding “nosing” techniques. This will also lead into our plan for a series of interactive exercises with owners of our Aroma Training Kits which we believe will be “world firsts” – with a significant number of “trained noses” providing feedback on different products with reference to the Aroma Standards in our Aroma Training Kits.

As noted above, the Aroma Academy helps individuals “Master the Sense of Smell” and develop “Aroma Recognition Skills” via our Aroma Training kits and Aroma Master Classes complemented by Aroma Academy blogs and newsletters.

In our future blog series, we will not only be providing detailed explanations behind the Aromas available in the core Aroma Training Kits and providing information on, and access to, a series of new Aroma Standards but also exploring the aromas found in many leading and interesting Whiskies as well as continuing on our on-going journey into “mastery of the sense of smell.“

Full access to these blogs will only be available via the “log in” received when you register your Aroma Training Kit.

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If you have not yet purchased an Aroma Kit – but are interested in doing so and joining us on the journey – please click here