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Scent-sory Perception

By Lesley Jacobs Solmonson

“Odors have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will. The persuasive power of an odor cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally. There is no remedy for it.” – Patrick Suskind, Perfume

In the Bay of Bengal lies an archipelago of islands known as the Andamans. The sea breeze flows across the warm, tropical sands and rainfall come heavily during monsoon season. The islands are home to the aboriginal Ongee people, whose lives are structured not by what they see or feel or hear, but by what they smell: the shifting odors of the various flowers as they bloom create a literal “calendar of scents” that chart the year. Each season is named for a specific odor; each season has a unique “aroma-force”. Moreover, the Ongee don’t ask “How are you?”, but rather, “How is your nose?” as a form of greeting. Their world is defined by how it smells.

This past week, for Mixology Monday, we challenged colleagues to create a drink around the theme “Come to Your Senses”. And, while visual presentation played a major role, it’s no surprise that many of the drinks relied on our sense of smell with smoke-filled glassware, aromatic herbs like mint and basil, and potent ingredients like orange flower water and hops. There’s no question that a cocktail that smells good tastes even better.

If you want to get an idea of just how connected smell and taste really are – and why, then, smell is so important from a food and drink standpoint – try a little experiment. Choose an easy-to-recognize food item – green pepper, strawberries, even a swig of whiskey. Now, pinch your nose, and take a bite of the food (or a sip of your drink). Keep your nose pinched. You’ll get a taste, but not a clear one. In fact, in controlled experiments, blindfolded tasters whose noses are plugged have no idea what they are eating. Now, release your nose and taste again – there’s no denying what’s in your mouth.

Of course, anyone who has had a cold and tries to enjoy a piece of pizza could tell you that food enjoyment goes out the window with a stuffy nose. When talking about food, sensory psychologist Avery N. Gilbert, a self-proclaimed “smell chauvinist”, notes that the concept of taste is indeed overrated. “We use the words ‘taste’ and ‘flavor’ interchangeably in casual conversation. This makes it easy for us to forget that flavor is actually a fusion of taste and smell.” He points out how 19th century American philosopher/critic Henry T. Finck observed that “aromas released from food in the mouth reach the nasal passages via the back of the throat, and are exhaled through the nostrils.” A few centuries earlier, in The Physiology of Taste, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin expressed the belief that “without the interposition of the organs of smell, there would be no complete degustation… taste and the sense of smell form but one sense.”

Taste and smell being “one sense” is a bit of hyperbole, but Brillat-Savarin’s point is well taken, particularly from the perspective of food and, for the purposes of 12 Bottle Bar, drink. For all intents, when we smell something, we do it with “Paleolithic noses”, says D. M. Stoddart in Tastes & Aromas. In fact, we’ve only been actual humans for a short blip of our evolution. In A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman begins her discussion of the sense of smell by noting that our pre-human selves started in the ocean, relying on the nose to seek out food and identify enemies. Thus, “in our earlier, fishier version of humankind… smell was the first of our senses… Our cerebral hemispheres were originally buds from the olfactory stalks. We think because we smelled.” It seems, then, that the Ongee are really just doing what comes naturally.

Today, there are still a vast number of cultures that use the sense of smell to help define their world view. “The Smell Report” from the Social Issues Research Centre talks about how the Brazilian Bororo tribe links body odor and life force, how people in Arab countries breathe on the person to whom they are speaking as a sign of good will, and how our friends the Ongee don’t ask “How are you?”, but rather, “How is your nose?” as a form of greeting.

Oddly enough, smell is probably the most powerful of our senses, yet the one least recognized, developed, and embraced in the industrialized world. The authors of Aroma: A Cultural History of Smell go so far as to say that Westerners are “so ‘odour-blind’ that unless smell is placed right under our noses, so to speak, it usually gets lost in the shuffle.” We Western folk, for all of our forward thinking, often tend to perceive smell as something to hide (body odor) or to hide behind (perfume), rather than as a key element that shapes our daily lives. The Western obsession with cleanliness (both physical and spiritual) doesn’t really jibe with the invasive, animal nature of various smells. Indeed, vodka became popular in the 1960’s, eclipsing gin, primarily because it had no smell (or taste). Smirnoff’s “It leaves you breathless” campaign was targeted at anyone who was fond of the five-martini lunch, but didn’t want to reek of alcohol, a real social faux pas.

What makes smell all the more powerful is that scent evokes emotion and, more importantly, invokes memory. We’ve all had the experience of being in the midst of doing something when we are suddenly frozen in time, caught in a moment – from painful to euphoric — from our past. When we snap out of it, we usually realize that something we smelled triggered the flashback. For me, any time I smell Herbal Essences shampoo with its green, clean scent, I am whisked back to my time at summer camp in the ‘70’s when every girl there washed her hair with the stuff. For David, the smell of Toys ‘R Us (hey, we have a toddler; we are there a lot) is the same now as it was when he was a kid, buying his first Star Wars toy.

At its core, that’s what smell – or scent – makes us do. Think. Or at least feel. Perfumers know this all too well, using potent ingredients like musk and civet as binding, sexual notes in fragrance. Some of them, like Christopher Brosius, think so far outside the box that they strive to capture concepts like “Snow” or “Roast Beef”. Others, more classically oriented like Mandy Aftel of Aftelier Perfumes, use essential oils (like the one we used here today) to focus a scent in its purest form.

In making cocktails, we can take a cue from the perfume world, which assembles complimentary combinations of scents called “accords” to create a unified fragrance. In fact, the most successful mixologists already do this naturally, marrying spirits with profiles that meld seamlessly to create a new experience, and they have done it since the ancients first dropped some wild berries and herbs into their mead. So, smell what you are mixing first – get a literal sense of the scents. If it smells good enough to eat – or, in this case, drink – it probably is.

The Grand Fir Martini (a 12 Bottle Bar original)

2.5 oz London Dry Gin
0.5 oz Dry Vermouth
1 drop (literally) Aftelier Grand Fir Essence

Add all ingredients to a chilled mixing glass
Shake all ingredients and strain into a pre-chilled coupe

Today’s drink plays on the sense of smell to an extreme. It’s our riff on a little something called the Gin and Pine from Jerry Thomas’ Bar-Tender’s Guide. Unlike Thomas, we didn’t have the inclination to “split a piece of the heart of a green pine log into fine splints, about the size of as cedar lead pencil.” So, we did the next best thing, using one of Mandy Aftel’s amazing essential oils for cooking. The Grand Fir Essence isn’t exactly “pine”; in fact, it is exactly “grand fir”, thus the name of our drink – the Grand Fir Martini. Aftel offers a wide range of oils, which — bang-for-the-buck — present some amazing ways to crank up a cocktail.

If you’ve ever had London Dry Gin and said “This gin isn’t gin-like enough for me”, this is the drink for you. It is literally a “scent-soral” experience from the first piney whiff to the first sip when the flavor of grand fir sap hits your tongue. You can almost chew it. Should you, however, feel like our dear friend Lars and believe that “gin tastes like Christmas trees smell” (and not in a good way), then steer clear. When it comes to heightening the juniper qualities of gin, this one goes to “11”. You’ll note that we have forsaken our Leopold’s here for a London Dry. Sure, you could keep to the 12BB canon, but this is a drink that really needs a juniper-forward spirit. Another important switch is that, in order to emulsify the oil, this drink needs to be shaken – hard. The resulting martini conjures up images of snow-blanketed forests (and tastes like them too). Just remember Avery N. Gilbert’s statement that “strictly speaking, smells exist only in our heads… Odors are perceptions… A tree burning in the forest does not smell if no one is there to smell it.” (And a drink that tastes like grand fir doesn’t taste like grand fir if no one is there to taste it.)

We don’t expect you to become a master perfumer to mix your drinks, but we are suggesting that you use your nose as you mix. You may not invoke a memory with your concoction, but you might just create one. As you breathe in and sip your Grand Fir Martini, consider Ackerman’s poetic observation of the act of breathing: “A breath is not neutral or bland – it’s cooked air; we live in a constant simmering. There is a furnace in our cells, and when we breathe we pass the world through our bodies, brew it lightly, and turn it loose again, gently altered for having known us.” Life force, indeed.

Esoterica: Anosmia is the inability to perceive odors. Some famous anosmics, present and past, include actor Bill Pullman, Ben and Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen, and poet William Wordsworth.

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