Alice & the Magician Cocktail Apothecary is a blog about cocktails, flavor science and interesting ingredients. This blog is a keen look into the mind and laboratory of Alice & the Magician. They write interesting articles, thoughts and recipes.
“DON’T TAKE ALL OF THE SMELL!” is often exclaimed during our free Aromatic Tastings at the Aroma Lab. It happens as each tasting group passes around little cups containing invisible clouds of the scent molecules that make up Aromas such as freshly cut Cilantro or warm Chocolate Birthday Cake. Inevitably, this exclamation is followed by the question: Wait, can you even smell up an entire smell?
What is a Smell and How Does it Travel?
First, a smell is created when a substance releases volatile (able to vaporize) molecules light enough to be lifted and carried through the air. To find out what a smell looks like, researchers at CU Boulder’s Environmental Fluid Mechanics Laboratory pumped a fluorescent chemical that mimics the physical properties of an Aroma into a 50-foot long tank of water. Cue psychedelic art show, including high powered lasers. Check out a video of the scene published by PBS: Science Hour.
The study revealed that when airborne scent molecules diffuse through the environment, they don’t move in a tight uniform. Instead, they swirl around like a wild mash up of an octopus blob and a multi-tentacled sci-fi creature. Long arms haphazardly shoot about, stretching and thinning into long curling filaments. These taffy-like strands churn, folding back into themselves until it’s impossible to tell which strand is which.
Discover more about how Aroma behaves in these Odor Navigation studies sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the White House Brain Initiative.
What Happens When Aroma Meets Nose?
The odor molecules drift along the air, slowly integrating into the world. Should even a few of these nano-sized molecules happen to reach an inhaling nose, the human body essentially absorbs them. Once sucked up into a nasal passage, the odor molecules bind to olfactory receptors that lie in the far back of the inside of the nose. This causes an electrical response that transmits a signal directly to an area of the brain called the Olfactory Bulb. There, the chemical composition of the Aroma is determined and identified. For example, a single whiff of our Feast of Field and Forest Aromatic Mist triggers the savory & hearty experience of garlic, thyme, oregano, mushroom, black pepper, butter and white truffle.
So, Can You Sniff Away an Aroma?
When you inhale an aroma, an odd kind of tug-of-war happens.
“The odor essentially gets stretched out, so you end up with very thin regions of strong, concentrated smells” Says Aaron True, a postdoctoral researcher in CU Boulder’s Environmental Fluid Mechanics Lab, “But then right next to it, you’ll have a region with a very low signal, very low odor.”
The very act of sniffing may actually create pockets of empty, scent-less space within an aroma cloud. But because Aroma is dynamic and constantly moving, these empty spaces are soon flooded and filled in with new scent molecules.
When a scent is contained in the headspace of a cup or glass (like A&M’s Aromatic Mists over a cocktail) it is possible to identify how long it would take to smell up all of a smell.
A&M Aromatic Mists and Elixirs are highly concentrated expressions of botanicals that naturally emit high frequencies of Aroma. We’ve captured and bottled these molecules, closely studying how they interact with the human olfactory system.
Yes, we actually can tell you how long it takes to smell up all of a smell. Following our recommended two spritzes of Aromatic Mist per use, it takes exactly 15 minutes for all of those Aroma molecules to be swept up into your nose. Which, by our measurement, is how long it takes the average person to reach the final sip of a delicious cocktail. Coincidence? Definitely not. Cheers!
What happens when you add a rather unappealing ingredient (lets be honest, no one drinks Tonic by itself) to a very pleasant ingredient? Normally, the gross becomes a little better and the delicious becomes a little gross. One exception to this rule is Gin and Tonic.
At its base, tonic is a less than exceptional mixture of carbonated water, quinine and sugar. Most people do not feel inclined to sip on this beverage on its own. In fact, Gin & Tonics got their start by keeping the British Empire healthy during the nineteenth century when officers stationed in India began dosing their daily malaria-fighting quinine tonics with a bit of gin for palatability.
That move instigated a lasting cocktail trend. In fact, many would argue that the combination of today's tonic water with Gin doesn't just assuage a bitter tasting element, but actually elevates both of its parts.
Believe it or not, Science is behind this phenomenon.
Matthew Hartings, a professor of Chemistry at American University, explains that while gin and tonic taste quite different from each other on their own, their flavor compounds have very similar structures. When the two meet in a glass, their like-molecules attract and this bond creates an entirely new taste sensation. You might say they have a natural and delicious chemistry that delivers novelty.
Moreover, the tonic bubbles play an important role in intensifying the perception of flavor. As each bubble rises through the liquid, different molecules of aroma stick to its surface and are delivered in tiny aromatic bursts to the top of your glass. Since Gin may be comprised of many different botanicals beyond Juniper Berry (e.g. Coriander, Orange, Angelica Root, Lemon, Orris Root and Cardamom), each sip naturally provides a different bouquet of scent.
So, whether you consciously notice or not, there’s a drama playing out beneath your nose as each aroma bubble fights for presence in the headspace of your cocktail.
As some of the most discerning spirit drinkers on the planet, Gin lovers often seek to elevate the spirit in their cocktails rather than mixers. For this reason, Alice & the Magician created an edible fragrance bursting with the natural botanicals of a traditional dry gin called London Dry Aromatic Mist. With ingredients sourced from the cliffs of central North America, this mist displays the sharp, piney freshness of crushed wild Juniper Berry. Get our favorite G&T Recipe Here. You may not be able to tell which scent molecules will triumph in the battle of bubbles within your Gin & Tonic, but you can govern which aromas animate the cloud above with A&M!
If you put a glass of milk, Jasmine flowers and a cotton ball in front of an English speaking audience and ask them what those objects all have in common, the majority will point out that the objects share the same “white” color. If you put bat droppings, petrol and the leaf of ginger root in front of that same audience asking the same question, you’ll find them stumbling to identify the common ground.
Interestingly, if you conduct this survey with speakers of Jahai, a language found in Malaysia, they would confidently answer that objects in the latter sequence emit a scent they call “Cŋεs.” The closest translation we have for that word in English is a stinging smell.
When it comes to colors, the English language has the capacity to name and identify a vast world of pigments like Burnt Sienna, Fuchsia, Azure, or Eggshell. When it comes to aroma, however, there seems to be a void in the English vocabulary. Some even argue that there are only THREE English words for scent: Fragrant, Aromatic, and Pungent. All other descriptors are Similes (it smells like fresh laundry or smoke-y), Tastes (it smells sour or sweet), Textures (it smells crisp or round), and even Color (it smells bright or rich). None of these descriptions truly identify a scent; at best, they merely show comparisons to our other senses.
Arguments over how deeply language influences human thought have surged since the 1930s, when linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf first stated the hypothesis that:
"Humans can only think about concepts we can name."
This debate gained more traction 2014 when researchers Asifa Majid of Radboud University in the Netherlands, and Niclas Burenhul of Lund University in Sweden conducted a study comparing the performances of Jahai speakers and English speakers on two different tasks: color-naming and scent-naming. Each individual was asked to identify the color and smells of 80 differently colored chips and 80 different scratch-‘n’-sniff cards.
The results showed that while English speakers had no trouble identifying colors, they drastically underperformed in scent recognition. Even when sniffing familiar everyday scents, like coffee, peanut butter or chocolate, they could only identify about half of them and their descriptions tended to be long, rambling and inexact.
Jahai speakers, on the other hand, were easily and pointedly able to isolate basic smell properties within a range of objects, finding them just as codable as colors. For instance, they agreed that smell of cinnamon should be described as Cŋəs, which is the same word they used when smelling garlic, chocolate, onion, coffee, or coconut. To the best we can determine, that translates to something that has a tasty and edible smell, like cooked food or sweets.
While the English lexicon may not be expansive enough to define certain unique scents, we've found that this may actually strengthen the bonds between scent, emotion and memory. For better or worse, English speakers have to rely on the integration of external and internal stimuli that surround the experience of a single smell. Almost by default, all senses are "tuned in" and scents are connected by their definition of personal and emotional experiences.
As a flavor and fragrance company, Alice & the Magician was built in part to connect consumers with the rich magic of incorporating and saturating all of the senses in a single whiff of aroma. There is no need to universally and verbally define that experience.
For example, Autumn Bonfire Mist may smell to you like the end of summer's burn pile in the back yard, collecting sticks from the wood's edge to hurl into an enormous fire. To A&M, it smells like New England cleaning out their chimneys in the late fall when the leaves are starting to turn and the countryside is preparing for the first frost of winter. The beauty is that every answer in these scent memories is authentic.
The smell of pavement cooling just after a summer rain, the heavy fragrance of freshly cut grass, the warm waft of baking bread, the soft clean breeze of laundry drying on the line …
While these aromas are highly specific and even seasonal, they are some of the more commonly cited favorites we hear about and are even asked to custom-create by visitors to Alice & the Magician’s tasting bar.
In a world spanning numerous environmental landscapes, cultures and climates, how is it possible for more than two people to agree that something smells good or bad? Are specific scents pre-determined as "bad" in your system? Can a smell be universally liked?
Here's What We Know:
The olfactory system is directly linked to the memory-and-emotion part of the brain, suggesting that fragrance is a deeply powerful and intimate force. The human nose can detect over 1 trillion different smells and when you sniff an aroma for the first time, your brain automatically logs both your emotional state and physical experience as a reference point for when you re-encounter that scent later.
For example, the musty odor of dirty motor oil, chassis grease, and brake dust might smell fantastic to Person A and terrible to Person B. The difference could be that Person A first experienced those aromas when spending positive time with dad tinkering around in his garage, while Person B only negatively experienced those same scents when sitting at the mechanic shop waiting for bad car news.
These positive or negative scent-triggers would suggest that aroma preference is learned, emotional and therefore, completely subjective.
And if you're wondering, YES, we have had clients custom-request that "old garage" scent at A&M.
On the Other Hand:
There is also evidence of a more scientific reason for the difference in scent-opinion.
MedicalExpress reports that no two people experience scent in the exact same way. The variation of a single amino acid on one gene can cause a person to experience a smell as "pleasant" while someone with another amino acid experiences it as "unpleasant." Researchers at Duke University compared people's scent receptors and found that there was about a 30% difference from person to person.
In fact, hating a particular scent (CILANTRO, for example) may actually be hard-wired into your genes. A 2012 Study discovered a genetic link near the olfactory center of DNA in about 10 percent of people that creates a severe cilantro aversion. Some people experience the fresh herb in all it's green glory, while others experience a soapy, pungent aroma. So yes, it's possible that some aromatic preferences are pre-determined.
What We Can't Explain:
Despite variations in genetic code, olfactory receptors, or learned behavior there seems to be certain aromas that are almost (but not quite) universally appreciated.
According to one study, here's a list of the top 10 smells:
(clink on the links to see how A&M uses each top ingredient)
Its origin is rumored to have sprouted over 4,000 years ago from the lush tropical jungles of Southern Asia. As far back as 500 BC the great Chinese philosopher Confucius insisted this herbaceous spice be present on the table at his every meal, like today’s salt and pepper shakers.
Highly valued for its medicinal merits during the Middle Ages, just one pound of it was worth 1 shilling and 7 pence, approximately equivalent to the price of a sheep.
Sometime in the nineteenth century, Irish barkeeps started putting out small bowls of ground ginger for patrons to sprinkle into their ale (ginger-ale?) for taste. In fact, it has been traded throughout history longer than most other spices.
At it’s “roots”, Ginger is a creeping perennial plant that grows horizontally underground from a rhizome and kicks up a flowering stem that can grow up to three feet high. Usually planted in Early Spring, it is harvested after 9-10 months when its green leaves turn yellow and start to dry.
Cultivated in most tropical and subtropical regions of the world, there are more than 1,300 types of ginger. While many are purely ornamental, the edible varietals produce a spritely range of subtly different flavors.
For instance, India produces 40% of the world’s ginger, which is valued for it’s lemon-like flavor, low fiber and high moisture content. Jamaican ginger is heavily fragrant, displaying soft top-notes of eucalyptus. Chinese ginger is typically lighter in color with a more fibrous body and delicate aroma, and Australia produces the most citrus-like ginger. A&M's favorite Ginger is sourced from the Ivory Coast and imparts a sweeter, earthier snap with an unparalleled heartiness.
Ginger's uses have spread from culinary and beverage additives to message therapy and aromatherapy due to its energizing and stimulative properties. Ethno-botanists have even reported "women in Senegal and Fouta-Djalon use the tubers [rhizomes] of the Ginger plant in the making of belts with the aim of arousing the dormant senses of their husbands." 
Check out this Dark 'N' Stormy recipe featuring A&M's Warm Ginger Elixir, specially crafted with Ginger sourced from the Ivory Coast. Perfect for energizing the senses and keeping the spirits warm!
Valnet, M.D., Jean. The Practice of Aromatherapy, 1990, pp. 135-6.