• Charl Folscher

Stop and smell the coffee … in your whiskey!

As a little girl, I collected empty perfume bottles to stick my little freckled nose into the lids and be carried away by a combination of emotion and imagination.

As I grew into womanhood this fascination with aroma expanded to essential oils, luxury soaps, spices and of course my first love, the complex smells and aromas in wine and whiskey.

When our sense of smell is stimulated a nerve impulse is sent to the olfactory, the brain’s smell center. The olfactory is located very close in proximity to a part of the brain that processes emotional information, in particular emotional memories. This explains our emotional reaction to smell.

While visual information is processed in the left (logical/analytical) side of the brain, our creative right brain is responsible for smell. The information is then sent form the right hemisphere to the left hemisphere of the brain to be “named and filed” (…If you are neurosurgeon reading this, please keep in mind that my knowledge and terminology of the brain is limited to Gr.7 biology).

Now, this is where it becomes interesting. Even before birth, a female baby has more connections between the two hemispheres of her brain than her counterpart male baby. Information can move between the two hemispheres much faster. This might just be my theory, but I strongly believe this is what makes women better at tasting whiskey and wine than men.

With all this being said, you can have information flowing at the speed of white light from your right brain, but if it finds the “file” empty, you will have a heart full of emotion, but the cat will have your tongue! So how do we fill this file?

Tip 1 – Really smell whatever is around you. Walk through the spices aisle and smell the different spices, the fresh strawberries on your breakfast table, the soap on display while you are waiting in line at Woolies. There are beautiful aromas all around you, pay attention and make mental notes. Stop…and smell the coffee!

Tip 2 – Whenever you are tasting whiskey or wine, keep a tasting wheel or cheat sheet handy. This makes it much easier to identify aromas. Next time you smell for example roasted nuts, you will have a description to match the stimulant “on file”.

Tip 3 – Surround yourself with experience! Sit next to the expert, you will learn a lot by listening. Try to identify whatever they are picking up and do not be afraid to ask questions.

TIP 4 - The sense of smell is subjective. You can never be wrong about an aroma you pick up. Do not be afraid to take part in the discussion or to raise your opinion. You will be surprised at how often people will also pick up an aroma after you've voiced it.

Remember, the more you expose yourself to tasting experiences, the faster you will learn. The bottom line: fill up those glasses so that we can fill up those “files”.

If you have any tips on how to expand your "nosing vocabulary" we would love to hear about it!



Smell begins at the back of the nose, where millions of sensory neurons lie in a strip of tissue called the olfactory epithelium. The tips of these cells contain proteins called receptors that bind odour molecules. The receptors are like locks and the keys to open these locks are the odour molecules that float past, explains Leslie Vosshall, a scientist who studies olfaction at Rockefeller University.

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