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Issue 10 - In conversation with Shelia Burties

Whisky Magazine Issue 10
June 2000


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In conversation with Shelia Burties

Charles Maclean talks to Sheila Burties, the highly espected sensory chemist.

CM Can everyone nose?
SB Physiologically we are all the same, and whatever stimulates our senses is the same. But just as with sight or hearing, the senses of taste and smell vary from person to person: you may see the colour orange and smell the fruit, but I have no way of knowing that you are seeing and smelling the same as me.
CM How do you tell when someone has a faulty nose?
SB This is called anosmia or odour blindness. You can tell if you
are anosmic when everyone else says, “What a delicious smell” in the garden or the kitchen, but you can't smell anything. Actually, complete anosmia is uncommon, but many people have gaps in their sense spectrum. We call this “specific anosmia”. In whisky, it is most commonly found in relation to phenols, quite a few people can't smell smoke, which is curious, since it is a basic survival scent.
CM What about describing smells?
SB Language is crucial to the communication of what you smell, but verbal descriptions depend upon the individual's
experience, character, vocabulary, ability and willingness to articulate, and so on. When assessing people in the industry, I think the most important stage is the conversation before the actual tests start. I want to find out how open the person is to smells, how aware of them, how
interested in them. The same with taste. Do they enjoy food? Do they cook? I want to know how enthusiastic they are about the subject, and how quickly they are prepared to respond. Spontaneity is important. I...

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