Scents and Sensibility: The Olfactory Experience

The man who created this non-alcohol "spirit" lost his sense of smell at the age of 21. Images: Courtesy of Seedlip.

Get a whiff of how cocktails are piquing more than our sense of taste.


Is aroma intrinsically linked to enjoyment of a beverage?

That’s one of the questions a seminar at Tales of the Cocktail this past July attempted to answer. “Making Scents Out of Flavor: The Olfactory Experience” examined how aromatics found in spirits, other ingredients, and even garnishes serve to make a drink more enjoyable.

Take gin, for example. Would it be quite the same without the piney, citrusy and spicy flavor of juniper? Most definitely not. Yet those of us at the seminar were surprised that when we smelled out of context (i.e., not in a gin) we were unable to definitively identify it. An inherent smoky quality is another signature marker for spirits – namely, some mezcals and Scotches. But there are indeed other ways to add aroma after distillation: citrus oil expressed on the surface, smoking the glass, or adorning it with a heady garnish. And some drinks are inherently better at augmenting their aromas. The bubbles in a Champagne cocktail and the steam from a Hot Toddy both deliver an olfactory response to our noses before we even take a sip. (Just picture sipping a Toddy at room temperature or chilled. Doesn’t sound very delicious, does it?)

Indeed, sense of smell is crucial when we are tasting and evaluating wines and spirits, says Gareth Howells, beverage director at The VNYL (who also participated on the seminar’s panel). “We are trained to ‘nose’ a wine or spirit before tasting, to allow the aroma to fill our senses and give us an idea of what is to come,” he notes. “We are able to begin to mentally build pictures and make associations before a liquid has reached our lips.” He adds that a spirit, wine or cocktail is a whole built from a series of components – and a big part of that is what jumps out of the glass.

“Aroma has always been one of the building blocks of a good drink,” Howells declares. “It can add an essential evocative element that [lends] depth and character.” He points out that bartenders are looking to other industries for inspiration; he’s recently partnered up with a major global fragrance house to explore potential crossovers. (After all, the stills used to make spirits and fragrances look very similar.)

Speaking of fragrance, ambergris has been used in the industry since the time of the ancient Egyptians. Formed in the intestinal tracts of sperm whales, ambergris is a solid, waxy substance that protects the whale’s digestive system from sharp or hard things they consume. It’s excreted and washed up on the shore, where the chunks (which sweeten and cure with time) are collected and used as a fixative or aromatic component in perfumes, incenses, drinks and food. It doesn’t come cheaply, though: Two-and-a-half pounds cost around $18,000. At the Tales seminar, guests were given a Champagne cocktail with a little ambergris added to it, which imparted a musky, sandalwood-like taste.

When Ben Branson was 21, he lost his sense of smell for a period of time. Losing it – and regaining it – was not, surprisingly, a very significant event in his life. He relearned smells by understanding memories associated with them; today, he sees smells visually as colors. And he consciously smells everything…and everyone.

Seedlip Garden 108 non-alcohol spirit - Scents and Sensibility
The founder of Seedlip, the world’s first non-alcohol “spirit,” Branson was inspired to create a complex alternative to alcohol in part because of the pathetic selection of non-alcohol drinks available at most bars and restaurants, which pretty much tap out at ginger ale, club soda or cola. “You should always be able to get a good adult, complex drink,” he says. You shouldn’t have to always be relegated to pink, fruity, sweet ones.”

He turned to his renewed sense of smell – and the memories tied to specific ones – to create its two formulas. “Seedlip Garden 108 is the memory of me sitting in pea fields with my grandfather as a child, eating peas fresh from the pod,” he muses. It also has notes of spearmint, thyme, hay, and rosemary, and works best mixed with tonic and garnished with peas. “Seedlip Spice 94 is the memory of harvest time for us, so aromatic and earthy.” Its top notes of allspice berries and cardamom bring with it a complex citrus and dry, woody base that’s great with tonic and a red grapefruit peel. Branson’s evocative feelings and smells tied to visceral childhood memories are also stirring him to work on two more products still under wraps.

So just where do garnishes fit in? Some are purely aesthetic, while others add overt (or subtle) aroma; still others that are actually consumed can augment or complement a drink’s flavor. Branson believes garnishes are essential for many drinks, but can be overcomplicated if they are too large or decorative, as they can get in the way of drinking it, all for the sake of appearance. He prefers to concentrate on a single one that has a true connection to the cocktail’s ingredients, and also likes so-called “blind garnishes” like mists. Branson’s also currently working on an scented origami re-usable garnish.

It’s definitely an exciting time for bar professionals to be studying and exploring the world of fragrance. “From an outside perspective, being able to look into the workings of how essences are extracted and how those individual scents are then pieced together to build a fragrance is fascinating,” Howells notes. “I feel we are only beginning to scrape the surface of how a total olfactory experience can be applied to what we do.”


Kelly Magyarics, DWS, is a wine, spirits and lifestyle writer, and wine educator, in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website,, or on Twitter and Instagram @kmagyarics.

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