Discovery in Every Bottle

Discovery in Every Bottle

Originally published in Unfiltered #92
Words: Kami Newton


Uncork a Society whisky and it’s the start of a jam-packed journey into fantastical flavours. However, if we delve deeper into sensory science, we can see that flavour transcends metaphorical language to become a journey in the physical sense too. By embracing this new perspective, we can access new worlds of whisky wonderment. Join us, intrepid adventurer, as we set forth to unlock the secrets of our senses.

We go to a whisky tasting to taste whisky. It seems obvious. But if all we were to do was taste whisky, we would be limited to drams that were sweet, salty, bitter, sour or umami-tasting. We can see therefore, that smell is more wide-ranging than taste. Yet we discuss taste as if it were absolute flavour. Why?

As we shall see, smell and taste are so inextricably linked that it’s difficult to differentiate between the two. It should be no surprise that we commonly confuse flavour with taste. But when we unravel the individual functions of the senses, we can see that flavour is a process whereas taste is one single event.


Let’s start with aroma to explain.

We smell in two different ways. The first is obvious. Through the protrusion at the front of the face called the schnozzle. This is called orthonasal aroma detection, meaning that aroma molecules enter through the nostrils from the front, to reach the odour receptors in the nasal cavity behind. This is how we analyse the external environment to identify objects or events as either a benefit or a threat.

The second way of smelling shares the same odour receptors as the first one. However, the aroma molecules arrive at the receptors via a different route. When whisky is in one’s mouth, molecules from the whisky evaporate from the mouth, up the back of the throat, and into the nasal cavity from behind. Here they interact with our odour receptors as retronasal aromas.

The orthonasal and retronasal processes each have unique functions and talk to different parts of the brain. Orthonasal detection is dedicated to identifying things like food. It constantly asks the brain: “What’s that smell?” On the other hand, retronasal detection speaks to our brain’s reward pathways. It says things like: “That was delicious.”

Even though they both share the same odour receptors, whether the odours arrive at the receptors through the nose or from the mouth changes how we experience the same aroma. Crazy, right? The orthonasal process is concerned with distinguishing good food from poisons. Which makes evolutionary sense as a tool to help us stay alive. The retronasal process wants us to keep eating tasty things.

Coconut and vanilla are great examples. When you sip a dram, have you noticed how the coconut and vanilla notes are more accentuated within the mouth? Especially as you breathe out through the nose. This isn’t taste, it’s your retronasal process in action.

But what about taste? Of course, in-between smelling aromas orthonasally and retronasally we have the taste buds on the tongue. Compared to our odour detectors, taste buds are rather limited. Try pinching your nose and sipping a dram. You will not be able to ‘taste’ much until you release your nose. But taste buds are nonetheless crucial. Experiments have shown that the taste of salt enhances aromas. This is why food is ‘tasteless’ without salt. However, there’s a crucial other component.

Nerve inputs from our five senses are meaningless on their own. It’s like having an internet connection but no computer. It’s the brain that makes sense of them. The brain takes sensory inputs and maps them together as one singular experience of flavour.

For example, picture seeing an apple. The brain will map that image to the orthonasal smell of an apple and place it in a box labelled “things that are good to eat”. The brain then combines this memory with how the apple tastes and adds a mental post-it note that says “this is not poisonous”. The final stage is the retronasal input. This is where the brain files the mental image, the flavour and the emotions associated with eating the apple in a cabinet called “things that make me feel good”.

The brain is the gatekeeper for this information. It responds to sensory inputs with appropriate behaviour. If the sensory organs are the crew of the ship, it’s the brain that’s the captain.

Now that we have the basics established, we can move on to flavour itself.

Flavour may appear as a singular event because it’s experienced within the mouth, but as we have seen, it is in fact a process that integrates all of our senses. Even touch, sight and hearing play a role too. The experience of flavour is a journey that travels from orthonasal aroma in the nose. Through taste in the mouth. Before becoming retronasal aroma shortly after. In simplest terms, it’s a three-stop voyage.

When we approach flavour from this perspective it’s clear that it is a journey, rather than a singular experience. It’s no wonder that Society whiskies are such thrills that touch our emotions in multi-faceted ways. But with every one of the Society’s bottlings being a one-off explosion of character, it may feel like a lot to take in. So where does one start?

The understanding that flavour is a journey empowers us to approach these complex drams in a less overwhelming way. Every great journey begins with a single step. Likewise, to fully appreciate a Society dram we must accept that there are stages to the journey rather than it being a non-stop cruise.

Take your time. Trust in the process. And contemplate each stage as a step along an exciting exploration. We see. We touch. We smell. We taste. We breathe out through the nose. Hold every moment along the journey but enjoy flavour in its entirety.

This is why Society drams are a journey rather than a destination. The most wonderful part is there’s a new journey of discovery within each bottle.


Unfiltered Magazine is The Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s premium whisky knowledge magazine delivering quality content exclusively to members in an immersive multimedia format monthly. To view Unfiltered #92 in its entirety (as well as all back issues), log in and access the members’ portal or join The SMWS today — the world’s most colourful whisky club.


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