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Scent Memories vs. The Communal Lexicon: Bringing Objectivity into Sensory

Published on:

February 24, 2021

Written by Liz Rhoades, Founder & Principal, Spirit Safe Consulting, LLC

Traveling down the sinuous path from olfactory epithelium to the cognitive mainframe are neuron-transmitted fragments of sensed information. Aromatic detections are translated into tangible descriptors facilitated by learned psychological associations called scent memories.

Everyone has a mental reference book of the smells of their lives which are often tied to specific memories relevant to us, but largely incomprehensible to others.

Recollections of that Chinese restaurant on Broadway and Oakdale, bubbling rectangular vessels on Seagram Road, bloody knees by the Bay, that lab in Parmer Hall, and that time I forgot my watermelon-flavored Lip Smacker® in my pocket on laundry day– each is an excerpt from the “Liz Rhoades Scent Library.”

While the guide of this individualized, humanistic terroir might have a time and place– survival, trauma therapy, advanced troubleshooting, and sheer consumer thrill– does it have a role to play in communal sensory exercises?

Perhaps. But relying on abstract and personal references is less than ideal for objective appraisals– insert the communal lexicon.

Making Sense of Scents

A sensory lexicon is an agreed upon vernacular used to describe and analyze a particular type of product, such as whisk(e)y. Comprised of hundreds of different compounds in varying proportions, “the water of life” is a complex liquid; thus, resulting in variations in orthonasal and retronasal aromatic properties (nosing vs sipping; see Figure 1) with effects on taste and mouthfeel as well.

For example, a 100% Hazlet pot-distilled Rye fermented with a PAD1[1] containing yeast strain would likely have “clove” or “4-vinyl guaiacol” as a key attribute. However, these descriptors would most likely be inappropriate for a 100% quadruple-distilled Corn Whisk(e)y aged in used casks.

Figure 1) The Human Olfactory System – Source: CNX OpenStax, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; edits by Liz Rhoades

Descriptive, discriminant, applicable, and replicable– these are a few of the guiding principles for a robust and specific descriptor pool. Equally as important, is how the descriptors are used.

Applications of The Communal Lexicon

Unlike hedonic assessment, a communal lexicon is a standard, internal vernacular used to measure quality and consistency, not overall acceptability. When performing sensory analysis, it can help answer critical questions:

  • Does this batch meet the established profile(s)?
  • Are any elements missing?
  • Are off-notes or gross quality defects present?

This information is critical to assessing the quality of the liquid and serves as the basis for data-driven business decisions during root cause analysis, blending, inventory management, special releases, or liquid rejection. Regardless, data is only as good as the methods employed to generate it and the lexicon plays a pivotal role.

Targeting Lexical Specificity

To ensure validity of the data, the compiled list of terms should categorically characterize the product:

This whisk(e)y tastes and smells like X, Y, Z… Immediately the facts are presented.

Bringing these principles to life, one might produce a lexicon of fruity, caramel, cereal/grainy, wood, spice, and even citrus peel. While not unreasonable attributes for a general use vernacular, these terms could describe any number of whisk(e)ys.

Specificity in the lexicon is key for constructing accurate brand profiles. Describe the type of fruit and its state (i.e. dried, fresh). What type of wood– is it charred, or perhaps seasoned with some other libation? Does the sharp bite of black pepper provide the true delineation of “spice” or is it anise? Even citrus peel is complicated, as it could be pithy or zesty. While grossly oversimplified, this illustrates the importance of a robust lexicon that can be used to ensure consistent spirit production.

What The Nose Knows… It Could Know Better!

Effectively, the goal is to turn our olfactory system into a well-trained, analytical instrument. Since sensory evaluation is subjective by nature, training helps eliminate the noise between individuals. This illuminates why constructing an easily trainable lexicon, built with terms that can be associated with standards is paramount for replicability in the data set.

Consider the slightly exaggerative descriptor, “a breezy spring day;” clearly, this doesn’t fit the model. On the contrary, grassy/hexanal, cherry blossom, or even geosmin (off-note lexicons are also important) are more appropriate and specific terms. Numerous commercial kits and guides exist that could provide value and direction when developing a lexicon and panel training.

Experiences, moods, health, psychological associations, and genetics all factor into the neurological translation of a sensory trigger. A robust and specific lexicon can help bridge the gap from subjectivity to objectivity across a panel.

Scent memories are useful for individual assessments, as they facilitate the translation into analyte identification: translating “that time I forgot my watermelon-flavored Lip Smacker® in my pocket on laundry day” are the terms lipid oxidization/stale, waxy, and disappointment.

Attempting your brain’s translation, my guess would simply be, “WTF?!” Insert the communal lexicon and that “WTF” moment might actually become something viable.

Interested in advancing your knowledge of distilling and the spirits industry? Check out Moonshine University’s upcoming courses to learn from the best in the business.

[1] Phenylacrylic acid decarboxylase, the gene/ enzyme responsible for converting ferulic acid (the precursor in rye) into 4-vinyl guaiacol. Not all Saccharomyces cerevisiae contain this gene.

Written by Liz Rhoades, Founder & Principal, Spirit Safe Consulting, LLC

About the Author
Liz Rhoades is a technical distiller with over a decades’ experience in beverage alcohol, working across a variety of substrates, spirits, and sites spanning the Americas and Europe. After spending the majority of her career at Diageo, she is now the Founder and Principal of Spirit Safe Consulting LLC, specializing in distillery technical process support, new product development, and spirit education. Liz holds her Diploma Distiller from the Institute of Brewing and Distilling, as well as a Master’s in Food Science from North Carolina State University. Outside of making, thinking, talking, and writing about spirits, she enjoys yoga and Boulevardiers– but typically not at the same time.

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