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Whisky and the sense of smell

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Whisky tasting glass

A good tasting glass gives direct access to whisky aromas.

Smelling aromas

At inhalation aromas enter nose and bind to receptors.

Sensations in the brain

Odours are sensed in the brain and evoke emotions and memories.

Whisky and the sense of smell – from bacteria to whisky tasting and aromatherapy

This afternoon I was familiarizing myself with a new whisky – new for me, surely not for the age of the elixir – with the help provided by the handcrafted SAVU whisky glass. The sensation was wonderful. I enjoyed a truly pleasant moment rich with outstanding aromas as I admired the sun shining through the glass containing the beautiful brown liquid. While I was cherishing this rare moment that I had just for myself, my mind started to wander. I thought I’d share some of my more or less science-based thoughts in this blog. So, here goes about the sense of smell in the context of whisky nosing and health, by a restful and contended scientist and MD.

Evolutionary, the sense of smell or ‘olfaction’ is the most primitive one of our senses. Already bacteria living in the primeval sea learned to sense dissolved molecules. This ability called chemotaxis guided their movement. Some molecules were attractive and some repelling for the bacteria. In a similar manner, our sense of smell is based on airborne chemical compounds or aroma molecules, which are dissolved in the mucous liquid that lines the smell receptors inside the nose. In principle, this process informs also us humans which aromas are attractive and which repelling.

Naturally, there has been some evolution that took us from bacteria to humans. For instance, in our sensory system there is a strong and direct link between the sense of smell with memory and emotions. We readily recall a childhood memory after sensing an aroma linked to some positive of negative event from the past. For example, the scent of fresh baked gingerbread. Such processes are mediated by the amygdala and the hippocampus through the limbic system, which together constitute the core subconscious parts of the brain. Moreover, a smell and sniffing activate their own separate areas of the brain. It matters, whether an odour activates only olfactory nerve or additionally trigeminal nerve. To make things even more complex, also the optical nerve gives its effect to the experience!  – Remember, how I mentioned earlier the beautiful and inviting brown colour as the sun was shining through the glass.

Unfortunately, our ability to smell decreases with advancing age. This phenomenon may be a primordial symptom of a developing memory disease, years before a disease is otherwise evident. Us doctors advise people to practice their brain diversely to prevent dementia. For example, by doing crosswords, puzzles etc., or by learning a new instrument such as piano or guitar.

Sense of smell can be practiced too! Why not do this in a sophisticated and relaxed way? Simply laying down and enjoying distinguishing the myriad of odours that different whiskies contain. Up to recently, it has been thought that we can differentiate some 10 000 different odours. However, new research with published calculations says that us humans can differentiate at least a trillion different odours. That is 1 and 12 zeros.  So long dementia!

But hey! There is a lot of alcohol in whisky! What about the effect of that to the brain cells? Surely, it is not recommended to drink a whole bottle of whisky as a side product of nosing session. You need only a small portion of aqua vitae in a SAVU-glass for a successful nosing experiment.  Furthermore, there is some proof that a low amount of alcohol can improve the sniffers’ ability to distinguish different odours. However, be cautious, since this is a dose related response. Only low levels of alcohol improve performance of smell, whereas roughly two to three units within an hour leads to reduction in the sense of smell.

Since this text already took a turn towards medical issues, let’s keep going. In the scientific literature ‘aromatherapy’ refers to the use of essential oils extracted from herbs, flowers, and other plants to improve physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being and to the treatment of various diseases through inhalation, massage, or a bath treatment. How is this different to nosing whisky? Clinical studies show that aromatherapy is beneficial for reducing stress and pain. Furthermore, it enhances alertness and feelings of relaxation as well as reduces anxiety by stimulating endorphin production. Moreover, menopausal symptoms, like hot flashes, fatigue and emotional imbalance etc. may be relieved with aromatherapy. Ladies often insist that they do not like whisky. No worries, to get the therapeutic effect of nosing whiskies with SAVU-glass, you do not even have to drink! To this end, when the excess alcohol vapour has been removed by the SAVU-glass most ladies actually change their minds and report liking whisky. Of course, as a doctor I must say that this surely does not compensate for hormone replacement therapy, but it sounds more fun to do!

– Kalle Savolainen, MD, PhD, MSc.

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