Have you ever noticed that certain foods or wafts of smell can take you back to childhood moments, remind you of people or places? Things like the smell of pipe tobacco. My grandfather used to smoke a pipe and when he would come to visit he would take us down to a little store on the Seattle docks with a wooden statue of an indian outside the door. To this day the smell of that tobacco reminds me of that little shop with its glass counters and wooden bins and the painted indian.
I read an article in an airport about a year ago entitled ‘the art of forgetting’. The article was about how we as humans store experiences as memories, that what is remembered are sensations or events that have some emotional significance and that because of our limited ability to store these experiences we have to forget. In the process of forgetting, only the strongest emotional markers are retained.
The wonderful thing about smell is that it can be one of the strongest triggers for long-term memories. When you smell or taste something, what you will remember of the sensation will be much more than the sum of your senses. It’s worth noting that taste refers to five sensitivities; sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami (savory, the flavor of red meat or tomato). When talking about taste ‘aroma’ is key. Your nose is a far more sensitive organ than your palate. Neuroscientists refer to it as an ‘olfactory’ sense.
While you may be able to detect more complex aspects of flavor through smell the multiplicity means that we need a far more complex frame of reference and for that the brain uses comparative memory. You associate smells with objects, you smell vanilla or cherry, pencil shavings, or wet leaves. This is one of the reasons whisky notes often employ metaphors in describing taste.
The sensation of flavor includes smell, temperature, expected texture and length. It is what is called a ‘hedonic’ sense meaning that it is a culmination of molecular stimuli which form a sensation that is quite literally greater than the sum of it’s parts.
‘Consult the Oxford English Dictionary and it will define aroma as a pleasant and distinctive smell. Ask almost any Society member, and they will tell you it is one of hundreds of potential memory triggers, conversation starters and sensory delights that leap out of a whisky glass at any one time.’
- The Scotch Malt Whisky Society Handbook
Talking about flavor and aroma instead of taste and smell are a semantic nod to the complexity, emotion and individuality that we appreciate and which colors each person’s enjoyment of whisky. The memories will be personal, the smells will be associations and the taste will ground the experience together creating the personality of the spirit.