Revisiting the 2003 eGullet Symposium

Recently I came across a staggering body of work I previously wasn’t aware of, even after being a long time eGullet member. The Boston apothecary blog was born out of eGullet as a place for things that didn’t really fit and its even probably safe to say the entire modern bar tending scene is a product of eGullet.

I came across the Symposium Fridge while searching for the essay Wet Dogs and Gushing Oranges by Sean Shesgreen that was referenced in linguist Adrienne Lehrer’s beyond brilliant look at wine tasting language, Wine and Conversation. The essay was republished with the consent of the author who even provided some follow up commentary.

The body of work reminds me of Ruth Teiser’s interviews for the California Oral History Series which I have read a ton of and profiled briefly. Any one wanting to make a career in wine should definitely spend time with them.

Many of the ideas I’ve been grappling with I’ve been finding discussed by probably the most brilliant gathering of minds culinary has ever seen. Grant Achatz, of Alinea fame, even participates in a few of the discussions and of course there is the voice of my favorite thinker of the series, Steven Shaw aka Fat Guy, the creator of eGullet, who tragically recently passed (anyone young in the culinary arts should familiarize themselves with the contributions of Steven Shaw). The symposium shows other great thinkers, I had some familiarity with (Lord Michael Lewis, Janet A. Zimmerman), at their absolute best and I just wish it wasn’t well before my time and I could have participated.

Issues of language, acquired tastes, art theory, and rhetoric were up for discussion and received the brilliant debate that eGullet is famous for. Sadly, its eleven years later and so many of these discussions have been abandoned. There is a new generation interested in the culinary arts and they just aren’t producing thoughtful commentary anywhere as close to what is revealed in the 2003 symposium.

I thought it might be useful to highlight my favorite parts of the symposium and comment here since the forum is closed.

Mind Over Palate A Divergence of Opinions
This discussion covers what I’ve started calling stance and I touched upon in my last essay on rhetoric, problem solving and categories. The discussion starts to bring ideas from phenomenology into the culinary arts and looks at the polarized opinions on very high profile restaurants.

Secrets of the Incredible Shrinking Brigade
This discussion is really interesting and you hear the first murmurs of sous vide cooking. What they are talking about is the shrinking staffs in high end restaurant kitchens which I guess is a result of increases in labor productivity. People had mixed opinions on whether labor saving technologies like temperature controlled cooking methods were positive or negative.

On the bar I’ve done a ton to increase labor productivity in the face of the cocktail renaissance’s challenges. Pretty much all of modern batching is attributed to the bostonapothecary blog and batching represents the most significant trend in the bar world. In the past, some forms of batching were illegal and people had strange notions that liqueurs would separate in the bottle or ratios had to be changed as the batch scaled up. I disproved those ideas and then eventually created the craft cocktail on tap, reflux de-aeration, the champagne bottle carbonated cocktail, and now new ideas for hot drinks. I also have new equipment I’m keeping a secret for the time being.

To bring it back to kitchens, one of the coolest things I’ve been seeing in NYC is people cooking beyond the logistics of their kitchen. Basically, they are putting out the food of a kitchen with twice the square footage and twice the staff in a tiny retrofitted postage stamp. They do this using the best new ideas in organization and logistics and the results are spectacular. This is about to be pushed even further with new tools like the searzall.

A Hierarchy of the Senses or of the Arts?
This post examines the works of two horribly confused people from the fine arts world musing about food and thinking “food cannot express emotion”. The art world here is just so lost and really shows how incomplete their ideas are and how they do not scale. What I have to add is that all art is a form of problem and solving and the smallest problems a work of art can solve are anxiety, complacency, cementing memories, and retrieving memories. Food typically works on these small problems but they are no less important than other larger problems painters try to tackle.

Eleven years later, food is the new painting and people like me work on painterly problems relating to the nitty gritty of perception just like so many mid 20th century painters whose work is fetching big dollars these days. One of the problems is that food is so ephemeral and that once its eaten its gone and that is something touched upon in the discussion.

The best part of the discussion for me came in the beginning from Suvir Saran. Then ballast_regimes comments are a must read. Ultimately, Lord Michael Lewis crushes everything :

“Taking this further, it may be reasonable to claim that food, in the proposed hierarchy, is above Art being, as it is, so worthy of Art’s attention.”

Complexity or clutter in tasting menus
I loved this topic because it got into the territory I’ve been attracted to lately of cementing memories. Clutter and excess can destroy the memory of a meal. Some culinary experiences you can remember forever and others, though delicious, are somehow forgettable. Not much articulate and analytic attention seems to go into cementing memories and I see it as a big area culinary should be focusing on.

Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting
This discussion covers the journal article Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting by Carolyn Korsmeyer. It gets into the territory of acquired tastes but doesn’t get very far. Lord Michael Lewis opens with a question I’ve been tracking for quite some time : “why is there commonality amongst the items that provoke this reaction?” But then commentors start to compare adventurous eating to bungie jumping. LML even mentions hardwiring which today is being disproven by new ideas in neuroscience. The problem with the discussion is it looks at examples that are too nth degree like high meats and not less extreme scenarios like enjoying black coffee or dry wine. I could probably write a book about this.

Achieving balance in a menu
I was attracted to this discussion for the Thomas Keller quote:

For Thomas Keller, the answer is “five to ten small courses, each meant to satisfy your appetite and pique your curiosity. I want you to say, ‘God, I wish I had just one more bite of that. ‘The way to keep the experience fresh is not by adding flavors, but rather by focusing more on specific flavors, either by making them more intense than the foods from which they come, or by varying the preparation technique.”

The focusing of flavors Keller describes is the creation of a super normal stimuli. I have theorized before that all creative linkage in food & beverage is a means of creating a super normal stimuli and its something we can study in more depth and possible find more patterns in. I touched upon the patterns in recent post inspired by an amazing book, the Geography of Thought.

Are we likely to go the post-modernist way…
The thing about this discussion is it uses the word post-modern in the opposite way I do. I suspect I’m correct in my word choice, but many in the art world also do not see my logic. Basically, people incorrectly see post-modern as the state of the art, but really modern is at the forefront of creation and newness. Post-modern is when the imitators come around. They could not create the modern patterns themselves when immersed in the broader culture, but they could work with them later on after culture has absorbed the newness. That is why Adria is modern and his imitators are post-modern. The flow of money can also help us differentiate the two. When I used to stir a drink or make a Manhattan with vermouth I made myself, I used to get a $5 tip, but now I only get a dollar. The gesture used to be modern and extraordinary but now its ordinary and less worthy of $5. But stirred drinks are classic so how can they be modern? and some forms of art called modern resemble primitive forms, but yes, a renaissance can be modern and then go post-modern. It all has to do with the ideas relative to the broader culture and then with how they finally get absorbed. As time marches on what retains the desirable stamp of modern is the precedent. An artist’s subsequent works can become post-modern even though they hold the modern precedent. The artist is imitating himself, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it just means the work of art won’t be worth as much money.

This discussion interested me because I just read of the point/counter point musical metaphors at the end of Adrienne Lehrer’s Wine and Conversation. Here the context is different and best exemplified in Jonathan Day’s quote:

I was struck by how rarely menus are constructed around point and counterpoint – alternating warm and cold dishes, for example, or sweet and savoury, or rich and meagre. Why is it not possible to introduce a theme at the outset, then return to it later in the menu? Have members encountered contrapuntal menus? Are there chefs who think explicitly in this manner? Are point and counterpoint impossible in the medium of food?

I think one problem is that one comparison is in space (music) while the other comparison is in time (food) [at least in relation to tasting menu progressions]. My theory of food & wine interaction was called contrast enhancement in space and time which is borrowed from the work of neuroscientist Gordon Shepherd. That being said I don’t have much to add. Fat Guy had the best comment of the bunch. As far as hot & cold dishes go and throwing sweetness into the bunch, I think strong symbolism comes into play of hot and cold which makes it only appropriate in certain contexts. A cold dish is too often a flaw; a regret or missed opportunity. Sweetness also comes with strong nutritional reward phenomenons. Sweetness can change contrast markedly with experiences that come afterward and it might create some sort of palate fatigue where contrast detection abilities decline.

Comparing food, music and other arts
This is a follow up conversation to the previous discussion and relates to a metaphor project I’m working on now to improve wine language. Fat Guy has my favorite comment :

The point I was trying to make — and I was, perversely, trying to make the point metaphorically — was that metaphors don’t work unless we’re all referring to a common pool of experience and understanding. Otherwise we’re speaking different languages.

Some have been skeptical of my metaphor project because how could anything new not be more specialized like music jargon and therefore sacrificing common experience? Well common experience can be gained, especially when introducing a new word, by grounding the metaphors! Don’t let a term exist on its own, ground it in common understanding (through the magic of hypertext!).

Wet dogs and gushing oranges
This was the discussion that led me to the 2003 Symposium. The essay is a lot of fun to read and the comments are even better, particularly that of Fat Guy who refutes some of Sean Shesgreen’s conclusions. What is funny is I’ve never lived in the Gordon Gecko world that Fat Guy describes as contradicting Shesgreen. In my corner of Brookline Village where my clientele hails from the most expensive neighborhoods in the entire country, I’ve only seen it as Shesgreen describes it, but years later, under different presidencies, after recessions and therefore on a completely different time scale, but very much similar.

Developing my new wine language project has coincided with five years of intense conversations with a friend whom is a poetry professor, translator, and national book award winner of his own poetry. He doesn’t believe in wet dogs and gushing oranges. He thinks wine speak is silly. A poet, really? We are due for our next conversation but the last one ended with me liberating David, or so I told him. Aromas are often illusions, I told David. A wine never has enough chemical compounds in common with a cherry to objectively be cherry. Therefore wine speak is not descriptions of the wine, wine speak, I guess counter intuitively, is an exploration of our own recollections. Perception is the meeting point of incoming sensation and out going recollection and thats how the cherry gets there. But then can there be a point in sharing this with the goal of recommending wines? Yes, and finding commonality against the challenges of articulation and specifics of our own experiences is a way that wine brings us together.

Maximum Rhetoric, Problem Solving and Categories

“I don’t explain—I explore” -Marshal Mcluhan

I guess I must have been ahead of my time, but two papers I wrote back in the day seem to have resurfaced. The first paper from two years ago was the summary of my talk for a science club for girls fundraiser. I was assigned to speak about the Manhattan cocktail and of course I put my own high concept spin on it. The people whom asked me to speak pretty much didn’t know me and were cringing left and right about their wild card speaker. They would have been fine with rehashed & cliched ideas, but I presented something fairly new and the audience, to everyone’s surprise, absolutely loved it. The rediscovery even included a criticism/reflection piece by a well known wine writer which is definitely worth checking out.

The second piece that has been gaining traction, was written four years ago and recently just got a comment endorsement from someone at Atera in NYC, which is a place I deeply admire. It was written with the remnants of pressures from me leaving my last job at a fancy restaurant with an overly ambitious beverage program to work at a cash only, red sauce, neighborhood spot with more regulars than restaurants should have (and I’m still there after five years!). A lot has happened since I wrote those papers and its probably time for some idea updates or maybe just some quality wandering.

The two things I think we all should be chasing in the culinary arts these days could be called maximum rhetoric and improvements to contrast detection. To play in this fertile territory means we have to figure out a couple things. Firstly, for rhetoric, we have to grapple with what art does so we can make it do more and then even hit well articulated targets. This will keep us from being ten thousand monkeys banging randomly to come up with Shakespeare which is a very inefficient business.

Secondly, for contrast detection, which is telling what from what, we really have to grapple with our language/non-language. Contrast detection is far bigger territory than you’d think. It involves analytically deconstructing the multi sensory perception of flavor and putting its facets into categories. It also involves categorizing the symbols that get attached to sensory values so we can see how they exert pressure on each other (the source of our rhetoric!). If you want to work on contrast detection, places to start are the categorization of aromas (to find patterns!) or mapping the path by which we acquire acquired-tastes which it turns out are crucial to sustainability and personal health. For example, fully exploring the path by which some people start to enjoy black coffee could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the national health care budget if we could get more people to go black. If we better understood the nitty-gritty etymology of every possible tasting term we might be able to create a successful wine recommendation engine which can respect wine diversity and scale to very polarized tastes (this is what I’m working on using some new post-language hyper text ideas).

Rhetoric is all about persuasion, which in the culinary arts regards persuasion to follow the path to a problem’s solution. This isn’t readily apparent because, in culinary, we are typically dealing with the smallest problems a work of art can solve. I don’t think in the history of art criticism anyone has ever said: what are the smallest problems a work of art can solve? A lot of great art critics like Leo Steinberg or Dave Hickey have danced with the art equals problem solving idea, but their versions could never scale to the smallest problems and that weakened them. When you can categorize the small stuff, you can capture the decorative, indispensable works of art that confuse everybody. This all leads into one of my favorite ideas, that all art is a form of problem solving, and the smallest persistent problems a work of art can solve are anxiety, complacency, cementing memories, and retrieving memories.

The better we can articulate, contextualize, and categorize our own work, the more likely we will be able to pick a problem and work backwards from it to a solution like media theorist Marshal Mcluhan said would be possible in the future (with enough literacy or as Mcluhan would say, fragmentation). Its all about calling your shot as well as ennobling the smallest problems. The best (what an inarticulate term!) restaurant in a region might not be a hushed place where you have 30 courses of foraged sushi with sauce that you have trouble remembering, but rather a tightly packed red sauce joint where everybody manages to have a good time and remembers their meal forever. Remembering your life is particularly important so if as an artist you can cement a pretty large memory for somebody, that is pretty much as good as it gets. Fancy restaurants at the top of the dining food chain just don’t do it as well as they think. Maybe you’ve have heard that dreaded one word summation of a restaurant experience before? Forgettable.

We can call our shot and articulate all sorts of other small stuff as well. To illustrate with cocktails, I can make your daiquiri a little more tart and teach you how the highly attentional nature of it helps get the work day anxieties out of your head. You will stop reciting ways you are going to tell your boss off in your own head and start chatting with the stranger beside you. We can go back to the complacency problem, and I know daiquiris might be getting played out, but have you had one made from Cape Verdean rum? I can make you something like a daiquiri with Dominican Mamajuana, and you can tell me you’re surprised I know what it is because you haven’t seen it since you went on vacation there fifteen years ago. I get a lot of that last phenomenon, but only from the odd underdog products I make a market for and not the mass market stuff most bar tenders hock to win a contest or to get their kickback trips to TOTC.

We can change it up a bit and I can simply serve you a cocktail you can afford like a batched old fashioned made with an modest & affordable Bourbon or a cocktail on tap because I need that technique to keep the party moving since its so busy and I’m working by myself. Whats possible is, though you’re young and poor, with affordable drinks you’ll be able to go out more often and rub elbows, and because I can serve more people with my batchzilla techniques, you are more likely to meet your soul mate or your next business partner who you are more likely to be able to buy a round for. The average person cannot make the investment and buy a round of $13 cocktails, even if the gesture is the door to the best version of the rest of their life.

Its better to have a notch in your belt for introducing someone to their soul mate than for a nod in a PR about a forgettable new mass market premium product. These notches can probably be looked at with a different metaphor. I can work at a turn & burn where my small problem solutions amass in a large pile of pebbles or I can work at an upper echelon place and share some new details on measuring carbonation with a kitchen scale that only applies to a few people at the moment, which is just one single big rock. Many small solutions or one big one, but they can end up weighing the same. Unfortunately, these days it feels like you will only be called the best if you solve the big problem, but we need to refocus our pursuits and start glorifying those that constantly amass large fading piles of pebbles.

Another way to analyze the difference here is that one set of solutions is very much ephemeral (dust in the wind!) while the other is a big solid precedent, it even made it into a book (though unattributed!). The ephemeral arts are wild territory and not a lot of thought has been applied to them. Just think about it, people can line up in front of one painting and endless amounts can view the work at near negligible cost, but a culinary creation has to be recreated every time and at considerable costs, and in candle lit context after a long work day. Culinary players trying to get immortalized in books get swept up in the ephemeral wave all the time. Beware being ahead of your time.

I made the first house produced vermouths in an contemporary culinary bar program, and actually served them at the James Beard house before any other bars tried their hand, but sadly to a bunch of people that couldn’t contextualize what they were consuming nor even remember it now. My vermouths were also arguably more extraordinary than any of the hundred that came after. But, we drank them all, and nothing is left but some message board time stamps (you all missed my sforzato chinato). Ask around and most people will attribute the trend to someone else, no big deal because I got a lot of small notches in my belt. I got so many five dollars tips making Manhattans for mid western business men who finally met someone else that loved the drink as much as them. I boldly suspect, the ridiculous gratuities for a single drink were because my rhetoric was so powerful; five dollar solutions when the industry average is only a dollar.

That modern era of rediscovery and innovation is sadly over as evidenced by the fall in tips. You used to also get five dollars all the time simply for stirring a drink or stocking rye, now the gestures are post modern and you get pretty much no special notches. One of the deepest notches I ever got back in the day was when I served a ratafia of pomegranate seeds to some Louisiana oil men as a gratis. These guys weren’t particularly into culinary, just business guys anyone would write off as lame, but then 20 minutes later their ring leader released his Louisiana drawl on me and said: “What you’ve done here son, we call Lagniappe, and it’s terrific. Do you know what that means?” Me : “No, sir.” Him: “Something extra.”

One of the great restaurants, that I had eaten at a few times, that seemed really aware (most positive sense of the word) of all the subtle, wonderful things it was doing was the M. Wells Diner in Long Island City. All these subversive little things were happening. I was watching ordinary people think they’ve stumbled into a common diner and get blown away by some spectacular food at the normal prices these stumblers were expecting to find. No monkeys hoping for Shakespeare there, someone was calling their shot and hitting the mark. It was maximum rhetoric and quite memorable. Every time I see a French Picpoul, I immediately think of lunch at the M. Wells.

To see problems, especially the smallest ones, and then solutions is about fragmentation which is about categories, which in turn will require an obsession with language. That is where we go next. The monkeys that make up the culinary world have typed up some Shakespeare, but now the challenge is to contextualize it and wrap language around it. The next leg up in the culinary arts will require new language.

My writing on sensations over the years has included some new language where aromas are described possibly as olfactory-sweet or as olfactory-umami. Olfaction can be categorized in terms of gustation and the technique is justified through non-linguistic contrast detection (that some mistake for synaesthesia) which is induced by accumulated co-experience. Non-linguistic thought can be used to investigate the origins of tasting notes like angular, acrid, and provide new insights into minerality.

New language, which is essentially new categories, has helped see big successes like noticing, in the wild, near all the aroma illusions proposed by RJ Stevenson. They also helped pen probably the leading articulation of wine & food interaction which was heavily inspired by Gordon Shepherd’s Neurogastronomy. Language developed for creative linkage, helped identify all creative linkage in the culinary arts as a form of supernormal stimulus and possibly explained a network flavor pairing mystery published in Nature.

Scrutiny of language has led to an exploration of semiology where sensory values and symbols can be separated and their relationships explored. Each of these categories has its own harmony and disharmony and each influences the other which is a mechanism by which we acquire acquired tastes. Acquired tastes, which I mentioned earlier, are of staggering importance, but which few seem to realize.

Semiology even opens up into phenomenology and we each will have a stance on a dish or a drink. Stance is the baggage you bring to an experience, be it history, literacy, stress levels, or personal nutritional reward requirements and these all can be categorized so they can be targeted for manipulation. An understanding of stance can help us with the Other Criteria idea of judging experiences as well. We judge experiences differently when we are starving or stuffed or stressed or when our mom made the definitive version of it. We can call features flaws when our unique stance allows us to see them as regrets and missed opportunities, but remember, when you have no special stance, they are not yet flaws. Cocktails are certainly not one size fits all, and balance, a term I abhor, if it must be used, is only relative to stance.

Nutritional reward or nutritional preference as it can be called in relation to wine pairings is an interesting idea to explore and might even prove an explanation to the philosophical problem of the inverted spectrum. We think we can have no idea what goes on in the minds of others and our red is their blue and our sweet is their bitter, but sweet and bitter are sensations anchored with nutritional reward and that makes sure that we all have enough commonality of experience to sit at the table together. There certainly is subjectivity, and investigating aroma illusions that arise in the construction of reality when incoming sensations are completed by our personal catalog of recollections, is another way to explore the bounds.

Reward systems and nutritional preference might lead some people to think we are hardwired for certain aspects of flavor perception, but we likely are not as explored in Richard Nisbett’s Geography of Thought. Some of my previous ideas, like the order of operations of multi sensory flavor perception, to be universal, were dependent on hard wiring. Ideas I had used to create or explain aroma driven cocktails like, the simplified gustation model, where a path is flattened to perceiving aroma (best exemplified in port) might not be as universal as I thought, and as someone develops intense experience with flavor, they can warp their attentional spotlight to focusing on whatever they choose. There might prove to be a starting point to the order operations of perception that can be described, but then we are probably capable of diverging from it.

With experience, the acidity of very dry wines can be overlooked to get a better glimpse of the aroma. This idea should make people optimistic and hopefully they will invest in developing the skill, but it also means we have to be aware of this journey and the changing of our stance. Terroirists & wine adventure advocates too often downplay the acquired taste nature of interesting wines and forget all the baggage & skills needed to be fully seduced by those experiences. To be a true steward of wine, the concept of stance must be integrated into recommending wine and helping people on their wine appreciation/therapy journey.

To get back to rhetoric, one of the greatest things a steward of wine can hope for is to help someone select a wine that will deeply cement the memory of their evening. During an explosion of wine literature, this seems to have been somewhat forgotten after it was most articulately proposed by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher in the Wall Street Journal’s Guide to Wine. The flip side of cementing a memory is using wine to retrieve one which was also a big theme of Gaiter & Brecher’s writing. What wine should I bring home this evening? How about one that will remind me and my company about another time we spent together so many years ago. Nothing here is exactly novel, but it does seem to be out of the current discussion.

The somms out there, too often ten thousand monkeys, only seem to aim for your new memories, and too often leave you in the dust for retrieving anything with their wine. Instead of playing musical chairs with the wine list I have now, I try and emphasize that this is our 12th vintage of this wine for us. When I thought regulars were just being complacent by ordering the same bottle over the years, in many cases these astute diners might have been seeking to pick up where they left of with a cherished memory. Without categories or problem solving, I probably would have overlooked that my entire life.

So here is plenty of new ideas, plenty to complain about, and I’m sure plenty I must have left out.

The Tribuno Papers

This document, which was about 14 typewriter pages, was written to the IRS by the executor of Mario P. Tribuno’s estate. The document was given to me by the executor of the son, John L. Tribuno’s estate. The story of the company and its founder are told as well as all liabilities explained in the hopes that this artisan company will be valuated lower for tax purposes while it is transferred from father to son in 1962. This paper was financially very important so it is very well organized and persuasive especially when it comes to the liabilities. I do not think much is exaggerated because eventually in the 1970’s domestic vermouths were being out advertised 20 to 1 by Italian companies.

Tribuno was at one point in time the biggest American vermouth company and had about a quarter of the domestic vermouth market. Their vermouth was considered by some to be the greatest ever made. The company ended up being sold to Coca-Cola in 1970’s where it is now just a shadow of its former self. The paper ultimately describes the company as a “one man organization” and after two generations there was a particularly rocky market and no one to pass the torch to. Coca-cola just couldn’t man up.

The Tribuno family started a fellowship at UC Davis in Mario P. Tribuno’s name to study vermouth and commissioned Maynard Amerine to create the Annotated Bibliography of Vermouth, which after being re-popularized on this very blog!, has launched quite a few ships. Sadly, with the declining popularity of vermouth, someone shortsightedly redirected the fellowship to the study of wine aroma.

This document is followup to a project I tackled more than five years ago. I had not searched for anything related to Tribuno in a while. At the bottom, below the document, are some links and one lists many of the botanicals in the Tribuno formula.


Mario P. Tribuno was born in 1882 in Torino, Italy. His father was a vineyardist and other members of the family were in the wine business.  Thus Mr. Tribuno had an early introduction to the business that as to become his life’s work.

In 1903, by arrangement with an uncle in California who was president of Italian Swiss Colony, a large wine producing organization, Mr. Tribuno came to the United States for the purpose of learning American methods of grape growing and wine making. He spent four years in California at the Italian Swiss Colony vineyards and plants. In 1907 he came East to serve the company as their eastern sales representative.

In 1909 Mr. Tribuno severed his connection with Italian Swiss Colony and went into business for himself as an importer of wines. Thereafter, he bought a California vineyard and continued in business until the event of prohibition as both an importer and domestic wine producer.

Shortly after the event of prohibition, in 1921, Mr. Tribuno organized California Grape Products, a California corporation. This company produced grape concentrate from its own vineyards as well as from purchased grapes. Mr. Tribuno continued in this business until the early 1930s, at which time he liquidated his interest. During 1926 Mr. Tribuno played a prominent part in the formation of Fruit Industries, now known as the California Wine Association, one of the largest wine cooperatives now in existence.

In 1935, shortly after repeal, Mr. Tribuno organized Vermouth Industries of America, Inc., a predecessor of the present Vermouth Industries of America, Inc. This venture, because of a 50% reduction of import duties, became economically untenable and the company was liquidated in 1939. The present Vermouth Industries of America, Inc. was incorporated in October 7, 1940.

Mr. Tribuno spent his entire business lifetime in various phases of the wine business. He was an expert on all phases of grape growing and wine and vermouth manufacture. His expertness was well known and widely recognized in the trade.

Today approximately 37% of all vermouth consumed in this country is imported from Europe and the balance, approximately 63%, is of domestic manufacture. Prior to prohibition practically all vermouth was imported. Only 5% of the total consumption was then manufactured domestically and that principally in California for local consumption within the state. In the early post-prohibition period, domestic wineries attempted to produce and sell vermouth. However, they met with little success in competing with the imported product. For the first six years after prohibition the consumption of domestic produced vermouth was not in excess of 15% of the total consumption.

With the event of World War II, foreign imports gradually dried up, and in the course of time there were no importations of vermouth from Europe whatsoever. Several Italian companies during the war years did establish vermouth making plants in Argentina and succeeded in importing Argentine manufactured vermouth into the U.S. However, this vermouth was of poor quality and did not meet with public acceptance.

During the World War II years the manufacture of domestic vermouth was greatly expanded to meet the demand created by the lack of importations. After the conclusion of the war, foreign shippers again brought their merchandise into the United States markets. With respect to more recent trends, the available statistics indicate that the total vermouth market during the period from 1949 through 1955, increased 88.9% whereas the United States vermouth increased 53%  and foreign vermouth increased 106.4% During this period the United States vermouth declined from 70% to 63% of the total market. The statistics reveal that a definite shift in favor of foreign vermouths is taking place.

At the present time hearings are pending before the United States Tariff Commission with regard to the reduction of duties on imported vermouths. The domestic vermouth industry is opposing such reduction. The outcome at this point is uncertain. However, any reduction that may be made in the present duties will result in immediate unfavorable financial consequences to the domestic vermouth industry and could possibly recreate the economic situation that led to the dissolution of the predecessor Vermouth Industries of America, Inc. in 1939.

Competition among vermouth producers is very keen. There are over 300 brands of imported vermouth and over 200 brands of domestic vermouth distributed in New York State. Martini & Rossi and Cinzano imported from Italy, and Noilly Prat imported from France account for approximately 70% of all foreign vermouth sold in the United States. Some other imported brands are: From Italy – Gancia and Cora, and from France – Broissoire. Many better hotels and restaurants and private clubs feature and serve imported vermouths exclusively. Some of these establishments, to name a few, are as follows: St. Regis Hotel, Longchamps Restaurant chain, Schrafft’s Restaurant chain, Yale Club, Racquet & Tennis Club, and such New York famous restaurants as Pavillon, Chateau Briand and Voison. Some popular brands of domestic vermouth made in the United State are: Gallo, G & D, Lejon, Hublein, and Roma.

Purchasers of vermouth fall into two categories: First, those individual consumers who purchase from retail outlets individual bottles for home consumption, and second, sales to restaurants, hotels, bars and to others who are in the business of vending food and drink. Both the individual buyer and the business buyer, because of the many brands available, are extremely price conscious, and the meeting of price competition is an important factor in the operation of the vermouth manufacturer.

Prior to World War II, domestically produced vermouths were made and distributed by relatively small organizations engaged solely in the wine business. Almost invariably these companies were inadequately financed and had no funds available for the exploitation of their product through nationwide advertising channels. With the event of World War II, the large liquor companies, in an effort to replace lost whisky volume, acquired wineries and thus established themselves in the wine and vermouth business. In 1942 Schenley acquired the Roma Wine Company, and the Roma brand of vermouth; in 1941 Hublein Brothers came on the market with a Hublein brand vermouth; in 1945 Hiram Walker acquired Valliant Vineyards, Inc. and marketed a Valliant brand vermouth. Only some six months ago Seagram-Distillers Corporation acquired Fromm & Sichel, and have brought onto the market a vermouth under the very popular label of Christian Brothers. Two of the large wine companies, Gallo Wine Company, with Gallo vermouth, and Italian Swiss Colony with the Lejon and G & D brands, have, in the last two years, begun to extensively feature and advertise their vermouth line.

The entry of the large corporation in to the wine and vermouth business has forced out of the industry many of the small independents, in many instances by the bankruptcy route. The large companies operating on substantial advertising budgets are exploiting wines and vermouths on a national basis via the radio, television, newspaper and magazine media. Their willingness and capacity to spend advertising dollars dwarfs the advertising budget of an independent such as Vermouth Industries of America, Inc., which company has never spent more than $50,000 a year on all forms of advertising. Vermouth Industries of America, Inc. is faced with the bleak prospect that in the course of time the greater advertising expenditures by larger and wealthier competitors will result in a serious loss of business.

Vermouth Industries of America, Inc. occupies approximately 20,000 square feet of space on the street floor and basement floors at 420 West 45 Street, New York City. The space is rented at an annual rental of $17,000. The office as well as the manufacturing facilities are located on these premises. The company has no other facilities elsewhere.

The company’s cooperage capacity is 195,000 gallons, consisting of approximately 80 tanks of varying capacity. Approximately 40% of the cooperage was erected fifteen years ago with the balance being added through the intervening years. The cost of new cooperage is today some 18¢ a gallon. However, the resale value is only 1¢ a gallon because the principal cost of cooperage is the labor coast of erecting the tanks. The principal mechanical equipment in use in the winery is the bottling line. The company owns one bottling line, the value of which in new condition is approximately $12,000. The companies does not own any plant assets which any substantial appreciation over book values and in general, the balance sheet of the company reflects a fair approximation of the in-place value of the plant and equipment.

The company does not own its own vineyards and therefore all of its base wines must be purchased. It has been the custom of the company to contract each year with two California wineries for its needs. From time to time additional spot purchases of wine are made as conditions dictate. Wine supplies are purchased for one to two years’ needs. There have been marked fluctuations in the cost of wine, which is one of the principal cost ingredients of vermouth. The manufacturer of vermouth must invariably shoulder the brunt of increased costs, although he may also profit in a reverse situation. The inability of the finished product to readily reflect changes in basic costs makes the vermouth manufacturing business highly speculative.

The quality of vermouth is a factor ranking equally in importance with that of price. Vermouth is a wine flavored with herbs and roots. It originated in Italy some two hundred years ago. It was first used as an aperitif and drunk straight and is still so consumed today in European and Latin speaking countries. However, is today used in the United States principally as an cocktail ingredient. The sweet type or Italian type is used in the marking of Manhattan cocktails, and the dry or French type is used for the Martini and dry Manhattan cocktails.

Some thirty odd herbs and roots gathered from every continent of the world are used to make the extract which is used to flavor the wine. The extract is made by macerating several hundred pounds of herbs and roots and soaking them in wine for several months. At the end of the soaking period the wine, which is now called extract, is drained off and is aged for a period of six months or more. Approximately 1% of the extract is added to the base wine along with sugar, citric acid, caramel and other ingredients, varied as required, to make either the sweet or dry vermouth. After a period of aging, the vermouth is then filtered and bottled.

The flavor and character of the vermouth is imparted to the product by the extract. The United States Government requires that the vermouth producer file with the Government a list of all the herbs and roots which go to make the extract. However, the Government does not require that the formula show the relative quantities of the various botanicals used. This is the vermouth makers secret. Only minute quantities of some herbs are used and there are but two herbs that are common to both the sweet and dry type of vermouth.

The formulas used by the company for dry and sweet vermouth were developed by Mr. Mario P. Tribuno, the decedent, and label on each bottle of vermouth bears the legend that “This vermouth is made solely from selected California wines and imported herbs according to the original formulas of Mr. M. P. Tribuno.” At the present time the formulas are known only to Mr. John Tribuno, son of Mario. To provide for emergencies and to permit continued production of the vermouth, the formulas have been placed by Mr. John Tribuno in a vault, access to which is available on his death to his heirs.

The making of vermouth is therefore an art rather than a science. There is no stability or consistency in the botanicals used. Because of changing climatic and soil conditions each harvest produces roots and herbs somewhat different in character from previous crops. It is the vemrouth-makers art to blend with each batch of extract manufactured the 30-odd herbs and roots in such quantities so that the end result will yield a vermouth of a standard and uniform quality. Mr. Mario P. Tribuno, the decedent, during all of his years as president of Vermouth Industries of America, Inc. personally made and supervised the making of the vermouth extract and the finished vermouth according to his own secret formulas. The only person to whom the decedent had imparted his formulas and methods is his son, John Tribuno, who today is head of the company and is carrying on the work of his father. The real test of whether or not the art of vermouth making has successfully been imparted from father to son will soon come with the exhaustion of the supplies of extract manufactured under the aegis of the decedent. The drinking public is sensitive to subtle changes in taste and quality and great harm will result unless the company is able to continue to turn out a vermouth containing those characteristics of taste and quality which have created a place for Tribuno vermouth in a highly competitive market.

Vermouth Industries of America, Inc. remains a “one man” organization. John Tribuno is present, production head, general manager, “21” Brands liaison man and general factotum. The company has in its employ no other persons capable of continuing the work of John Tribuno and should he resign, become incapacitated, die or for any reason whatsoever be unavailable, the company would be unable to maintain the continuity of product quality, and generally financial loss would result on his removal from the Vermouth Industries picture.

The company distributes its product nationally through a sole distributor, “21” Brands, Inc. a prominent firm in the industry, whose operation consists of handling a line of liquor and wine products on an exclusive basis. Some of the lines it handles exclusively in addition to Tribuno vermouth are Ballantine Scotch, Hine Cognac, Boca Chica Rum and Martini wines. “21” Brands distributes directly to retail liquor stores, restaurants, bars and grills, etc. in the borough of Manhattan. Elsewhere “21” Brands acts as a jobber or primary distributor and sells the Tribuno vermouth to other distributors who in turn sell to their local customers, that is, the liquor stores, restaurants, etc.

Vermouth Industries invoices all of its shipments to “21” Brands, Inc. and Vermouth Industries has no contact whatsoever with the customers of “21” Brands, Inc.

The relationship with “21” Brands, Inc. originated in 1941. The initial agreement was set forth in a give year written contract which was not renewed at the expiration of its original terms. Since 1946, all arrangements have been made orally and there is no written contract in existence between the parties at the present time.

In 1941, “21” Brands, Inc. acquired by purchase an 18% stock interest in Vermouth Industries. They own 250 shares of the total outstanding stock of 1,450 shares. As stockholders of Vermouth Industries “21” Brands, Inc. is represented on the Board of Directors of Vermouth Industries and of course receives all financial reports of the company.

As matters now stand, “21” Brands, Inc. is the sole customer of Vermouth Industries. Vermouth Industries has no access to the real distributors of the product, that is, the liquor stores, restaurants, etc. and “21” Brands, Inc. is under no obligation to furnish such a list to Vermouth Industries. Since there is no contract with “21” Brands, Inc. they may at their own pleasure terminate the existing relationship. Recent events have given the Vermouth Industries management some cause for concern. Within the last month it was announced that “21” Brands, Inc. had acquired a distillery in Kentucky for the purpose of manufacturing their own whiskeys for distribution under their existing brand name of Club Special. The acquisition of a distillery represents a departure on the part of “21” Brands, Inc. from their previous method of operation. Without question, increases costs of operation, higher salesmens’ commissions, wages, freight rates and the general price increases which have characterized our economy of recent years, has compelled “21” Brands, seek increased profits through expanding their operation to include manufacturing as well as distributing with the purpose of earning for themselves the manufacturers’ as well as distributor’s profit. The extension of such thinking on the part of “21” Brands, Inc. could have calamitous results insofar as Vermouth Industries is concerned. Vermouth Industries, without any access to the ultimate customer, would find itself in a difficult position to continue the distribution of its product without interruption should “21” Brands, Inc.for one reason or another be forced to or decide to discontinue its distribution of Tribuno vermouth.

At the inception of the relationship with “21” Brands, Inc. the price charged by Vermouth Industries to “21” Brands, Inc.was a matter of arms length bargaining between the parties. However, as heretofore related, “21” Brands, Inc. soon became a stockholder of Vermouth Industries and thus obtained access to Vermouth Industries financial figures and its affairs generally. As a result of such information “21” Brands, Inc. has continually brought pressure for price adjustments and other concessions which have had the result of effectively reducing the sales price of the product by Vermouth Industries to “21” Brands, Inc. For example, Vermouth Industries now pays all of the advertising bills and reimburses “21” Brands, Inc. for all or a substantial portion of expenditures made by them in connection with the sales promotion of Tribuno vermouth. The business and future of Vermouth Industries is subject to all of the infirmities and risks that result from having but a single customer, complicated in this case by the fact that the customer has a minority interest in the supplier company.

The liquor business, of which the wine industry is one branch, is without question the most highly regulated industry of its size in our economy. There is strict regulation of the industry at all government levels, federal, state and local. The Alcohol and Tax Division of the United States as they apply to alcoholic beverages including wines and vermouths. No one may engage in the liquor business unless a basic permit is obtained from the Division. The issuance of such a permit is a permissive act and is not mandatory on the part of the authorities. The Division controls ever facet of its permittees’ business operation. It determines production standards and methods of manufacture. Its rulings, which it may make arbitrarily, may and do have financial consequences to the manufacturers. For example, about a year ago the Division issued a ruling change a traditional vermouth production practice that had been in use in the industry, with government sanction, since 1933, with the result that this change in method increased the cost to make the vermouth about 8¢ a gallon. The Division also controls selling and distribution practices. For example, no alcoholic goods may be sold on consignment. Labels must be submitted for approval. Advertising programs are subject to review by the Division, and in like manner the whole conduct of the business operation is under the scrutiny and control of the Division.

The State of New York, through the State Liquor Authority by means of permissive licensing, again duplicates all of the controls of the federal government. The State Liquor Authority of New York State also controls credit practices and wholesale and retail pricing. No person can be an officer, director or substantial stockholder of a licensed liquor manufacturer, distributor or retailer without the approval of federal and state authorities. All of the various states in which the sale of alcoholic beverages is legal have Boards similar to the New York State, State Liquor Authority.

Because of these government controls the business of Vermouth Industries may be placed in jeopardy not only because of the wrong doings of its own employees, officers, and directors, but may also be placed in jeopardy by reason of the wrong doings of its distributor “21” Brands, Inc. over whose affairs of course Vermouth Industries has no exercise or control.

Instances of permittees who have sustained great financial loss because of the inability to secure license renewals are well known in the industry. These incidents involve permittees at all levels, manufacturers, distributors and retail liquor stores. A few years ago the State Liquor Authority of New York State refused to renew the license of International Distributors, Inc., a large New York company. This company was unsuccessful in its efforts in the courts to compel the state authorities to issue the license and the company closed its doors and went out of business. This company was the exclusive distributor of a well known scotch, Kings Ransom, and it is a safe surmise that all the suppliers of International Distributors were to some extent adversely affected and suffered financial loss as a result of the sudden cessation of the distribution of their products. Longchamps, Inc. was closed by the New York State Liquor Authority some years ago because of violation of the state’s credit regulations. Longchamps gave credit to its patrons for liquor consumed in the restaurant contrary to state regulations. As a result of this violation the bars of all the Longchamps restaurants were ordered closed, and this situation resulted in the sale of the restaurant to new owners at a price reputed to be 25% to 50% of the value of the business had Longchamps not been in violation of the State Liquor Authority regulations. Ilsa Wine and Liquor Company, a retail store, repudiately incurred legal fees in excess of $50,000 in an unsuccessful attempt to compel the issuance of it of a license by the New York State Liquor Authority which had refused to renew on the grounds of alleged violations.

The stock of publicly held liquor companies which are traded on stock exchanges, reflect in the relationships of book value to market price the uncertainties of the industry. In this day of inflated values and booming stock markets, the liquor stocks for the most part are priced below book values. Some current book values and market prices are as follows:

Book           Market
Value           Value
American Distilling                       $38.23        $23.00
Distillers-Seagram                         40.33          35.00
National Distillers                           24.93          25.00
Schenley Industries                       52.63          19.00
Brown-Forman Distilling Co.         21.39          19.00


Talk. Visit to the Vermouth Industries of America, Inc., one of the largest vermouth-blending cellars, underneath 420 West 45 St. (between 9 and 10 Ave.) Proprietors are Mario P. and John L. Tribuno, father and son. Alcoholic content of vermouth must match label specifications. The elder Tribuno worked out the formula, more or less as a hobby, during prohibition days. The vermouth is made of white wine plus wormwood, the basic herb. They use a fortified sherry-type wine and some of the herbs used are: angelica, tonka bean, hyssop, orrisroot, rosemary, elder flower, sage, sweet marjoram, nutmeg, orange peel, and lemon peel. It is aged for about a year, and it takes a year and a half to get a batch of extract ready for mixing. – John Brooks October, 6th 1951, The New Yorker


For those with a Time Magazine subscription, here is a great article with John L. Tribuno from 1955.

PAR. 6. As a result of its Tribuno acquisition, New York Coca-Cola is the largest producer of vermouth in the United States. Tribuno holds a 12.3 percent share of the total vermouth market, and its share of domestically produced vermouth is 24 percent. Thus Tribuno ranks first among all domestic sellers of vermouth and second among all producers of vermouth. –FTC June 1979


Until its acquisition by Coke-New York, Tribuno had been a family-owned company in New Jersey bottling and blending vermouth under its trademark in its plant in New Jersey. Some vermouth was also botted for Tribuno by A. Perelli-Minetti & Sons, Delano, California from whom Tribuno also purchased bulk wine for its bottling plant in New Jersey

Tribuno did face a boycott at one point in time (1967) due to association with Perelli-Minetti. Mario Tribuno might have been associated with Perelli-Minetti since prohibiton where the produced grape concentrate for home wine making.

Short Tales of Olfactory Illusions

Recently I came across a wonderful paper from the journal of Consciousness and Cognition called Olfactory Illusions: Where are they? by Richard J. Stevenson. The paper is a great review of the literature on the topic and examines the existence of olfactory illusions. The author writes in a clear, articulate style which I thinks makes exploring the ideas accessible to culinary professionals that are not used to reading scholarly journals. I recommend getting a copy and checking it out.

Richard J. Stevenson it turns out is the author of two books I’ve had in my amazon wish list for a while: The psychology of flavour and Learning to smell: Olfactory perception from neurobiology to behavior which is written with Donald A. Wilson. The descriptions makes Wilson and Stevenson’s work sound particularly interesting.

From Learning to smell:

“Donald A. Wilson and Richard J. Stevenson address the fundamental question of how we navigate through a world of chemical encounters and provide a compelling alternative to the ‘reception-centric’ view of olfaction.”

Without having read the text, it sounds like their view tries to explain the significant role of recollection at completing aromas which is something I’ve been starting to suspect more and more over the years.

With the proliferation of modernist cooking it really comes as a surprise that there is little interest and/or no awareness of olfactory illusions. They seem like fertile ground for extraordinary creative experiences. It may help to kick things off by detailing a few of the olfactory illusions I’ve found in the wild.

One of the first illusions I had ever come across (and have never had the resources to reproduce) was an experience of eating meatloaf at staff meal with a group at restaurant Dante, probably seven or eight years ago now. I was half way through my meal and someone approached us chewing mint gum. The aroma of the chewer’s mint leaped from their mouth into mine. Frontal-olfaction became retro-olfaction and the location of the aroma changed dramatically, but that is not the end of the story.

First I inquired if it happened to anyone else at the table. Yes, to everyone, and because the experience was not harmonic we sent the chewer away (dissonance makes illusions easier to spot). No one but me seemed intrigued by the experience which is worth noting. I then went to ask chef how exactly he made the meatloaf. He confessed to adding some mint water left over from another dish (lamb?) into the meatloaf. I really feel like the mint aroma in the meatloaf was below the recognition threshold. Somehow the gum chewer awakened it.

How exactly to classify this illusion I’m not sure. I always thought it would be interesting to duplicate it in a beautiful context. Perhaps the same course could be served twice but for the second course a candle or a lamp-warmed aroma oil could be added to the table that awakened a dormant aroma in the food. These illusions can risk being inharmonic so cocktails which are often squarely in the realm of acquired tastes might be perfect for inducing such an experience.

Another illusion I had come across back in 2009 I dubbed the “Maraschino Blackberry Illusion”. I had wanted to create a cocktail garnish akin to a maraschino cherry but with another fruit. Cherries are unique because alcohol can be used to pull the aroma of the pit into the meat of the cherry creating juxtaposition. For a blackberry I would have to use another aroma source to provide the juxtaposition. I chose the spice Mace. I distilled a blackberry-mace eau-de-vie which the eventual blackberries were macerated in and brought to equilibrium with. Once at equilibrium, the eau-de-vie could be consumed alone and found harmonic but when eating a blackberry the mace aroma was intensified so significantly that you had to spit the berry out. The haptic heft of the fruit changed the threshold of perception so significantly you could not consume it. Again, in this case I suspect dissonance is important to spotting the illusion.

Years later, for a recipe in my distilling book, I re-did the illusion in a beautiful context with Fernet Branca aromatized cherries. Fernet is added to the cherry eau-de-vie at about 10% scaling, but when you eat a cherry the Fernet derived aroma qualities seem as if you are consuming 100% Fernet. The haptic heft also changes the threshold of perception of the alcohol and the the 18% or 20% alcohol cherry easily feels 40%.

Using newly developed reflux de-aeration techniques to prevent citrus juices from oxidizing, I was hoping to re-do the illusion again by placing a classic Side Car cocktail in the body of a golden raspberry (the fruit would have its color and aroma leached out as best possible by a vodka/sugar blend). The familiar cocktail and the cocktail filled raspberry (hopefully same color) would be consumed side by side to illustrate the changes. Haptic influences on the threshold of perception of alcoholic means that a generic triple-sec, which is low alcohol, might have to be used instead of the usual 40% premium stuff.

This same illusion can be seen simply when juicing fruit and was illustrated to me so many years ago by a pastry chef I worked with. Eat a strawberry and it is lively and natural. Juice the strawberry and the flavor (probably mainly the aroma) goes flat. To perk the aroma back up, now that texture has been simplified, you have to add flavor enhancers like sugar and acid to bring the fruit back to its original lively-ness. I think this impacts fruits of low sugar contents the most hence we enjoy unadulterated orange juice which has a high brix/acid ratio but not raspberry juice which has a low brix/acid ratio.

I noticed a very simple illusion when playing with Marmite. I was using Marmite to explore yeast autolysis in distillates for my book project. I was making silly stuff like Marmite aromatized rye whiskey where a commercial rye underwent simple re-distillation with a portion of Marmite. In the principle aroma categorization scheme I use, where I categorize aromas in terms of gustation, Marmite is olfactory-umami (a grounded cross modal metaphor). I smelt Marmite countless times and drank a lot of the whiskey without ever tasting Marmite alone. It always smelt olfactory-umami. I finally tasted the stuff and it quickly became olfactory-salty in a way that I could not shake for quite a while. The olfactory-umami was gone. I suspect that nutritional reward systems can have a big influence on these sudden categorical changes.

The loosest aroma illusion I have been able to generate which increases my suspicions that nutritional reward is very important to aroma illusions happened when working in my small plastic foundry. I make a few small plastic parts (champagne bottle manifold & door hardware). Anyhow, I’m drilling holes in red plastic and I start smelling cherries. When I start drilling holes in black plastic I start smelling licorice. The plastics I work with have phthalates in them which themselves produce the illusion of sweetness. The generic olfactory-sweet smell of phthalates plus color is enough to produce vivid olfactory hallucinations. The interesting context here might make for a fruitful experiment to see how many people can notice the illusion. The experience was harmonic but I still was able to notice it.

Plastics that contain Phthalates are considered dangerous to infants and young children because the illusion of nutritional value (exacerbated by harmonic olfactory illusion) makes the material more likely to be chewed on and the toxic compounds ingested. Better understanding the illusion could help make safer plastic products.

The plastic example generates an olfactory illusion from such little other stimuli and really illustrates how perception can be seen as the meeting point and synthesis of incoming sensory stimulus and outgoing recollection (completion). The meeting point is sort of like Aldous Huxley’s “doors of perception”. This door, which connects the two hallways, slides around all the time. I suspect that the presence of nutritionally valuable features makes perception recollection, and therefore completion heavy. We might be more susceptible to aroma illusions when eating, and because of the co-experience with other more salient flavor features, they are really difficult to notice. Again, the harmonic nature of many illusions may make them harder to notice.

The two congeners ethyl acetate and acetaldehyde, which are significant to most distilled spirits, I suspect work akin the the phthalates in my plastic experience. The master cognac distiller, Robert Leaute, describes these compounds as “aroma fixatives” but he does not elaborate on the term. Distillers try to keep these compounds as close to the recognition threshold as possible without going over. When above the absolute threshold but under the recognition threshold, I suspect they can turn on “nutrition mode” where perception is recollection-completion heavy and allows us to have very subjective flavor experiences with distilled spirits. All the mass-spectroscopy and chromatography data does not seem to align itself with the tasting notes. The realm of distillates and wine might be the realm of olfactory illusions. Acknowledging olfactory illusion might give us a completely different perspective by which to build spirits and wine.

If wine is the realm of illusion, it would drastically change the notions of terroir and sense of place. But I suspect the boundaries of subjectivity is narrow and can be predicted. To start, we have to understand more of how we detect contrast in olfaction. For example, we can detect contrast between blue and red with purely arbitrary linguistic categories like “blue” and “red” or use a non-linguistic frames of mind to creative alternative categories such as warm & cool which is color in terms of thermoception. We detect lots of contrast non-linguistically then translate it to named linguistic categories and then we even build layers of metaphor on top of that. And we never notice and never expand the categories (if aromas can be sweet they can also be acidic, bitter, salty, or umami). I suspect when “wet cobble stone” is used as a wine descriptor, the imbiber is detecting contrast by perceiving the aroma as a shape and the shape is akin to the surface of a wet cobble stone. I also suspect wet cobble stone can be put into the olfactory-umami category. “Acrid” is another layered metaphor. The word euphonically has an angular shape and that angular shape is a metaphor for the aroma (perhaps also to be categorized as olfactory-acid). A really fun book that illustrates a word’s euphonic convergence with its meaning is Euphonics: A poet’s dictionary of sounds.

If wine is the realm of illusion (which we should embrace), in that famous study where experienced tasters used red wine tasting terms for white wine dyed red they were perceiving normally. We may have to rethink how we abstract color in wine and whiskeys.

An illusion that I cannot believe is not better recognized is tasting certain stimulus followed by others. Such as bitter espresso after tasting something sweet (dissonance!). I call these nutritional preference comparisons and suspect that our mind often constructs reality in a way that can reinforce nutritional preference. This illusion has profound influence on food and wine interaction, but no one seems to use it beyond the adage that “a dessert wine always has to be sweeter that the dessert”. There are many layers to contrast detection in food & wine interactions but I suspect nutritional preference comparisons are a large component.

The coolest illusion I have been able to generate happens by passive training with aromatized hand sanitizers. I made a series of aromatized hand sanitizers like wormwood to teach myself to better recognize aromas and practice making distillates. They could also be used as a bizarro garnish where the application to the hands of the imbiber could add frontal olfactory top notes and push a simple drink deeper into super stimuli territory. Anyhow, I go to a grand wine tasting and two wines I’m familiar with exhibit an aroma 10x normal. Not the aroma of wormwood but one of the same olfactory-bitter category. I bet you could say the aroma would be below the recognition threshold normally. I probably tasted 30 other wines and nothing else was out of the ordinary. One of the two wines was an Anjou blanc and the other was a red “Cerasuolo” from Cos in Siciliy. The aroma I experienced was more akin to yarrow flower which is something I also have experience with, but not much relative to wormwood. I don’t know exactly how to categorize the illusion because, yes, I had significant reinforcement of a specific category but the aroma experienced in the wine was not exactly the same as wormwood. I remember Gordon Shepherd referencing a similar phenomenon in Neurogastronomy but I haven’t been able to revisit the text.

A related phenomenon happens with the aroma of dead mice. Over the years I have taken pest control at the restaurant into my own hands and developed the ability to smell a dead mouse in a trap at thresholds far below anyone else. I wonder whether all aromas have the same potential to change like this or if it is related to other phenomenons like long sensory after images which is in turn related to reward or warning systems. If the reality of an expert can be so unique it could have strange implications for spirits or wine blending. I’ve seen this hinted at in very advanced texts on whiskey making.

A most recent illusory experience came when drinking a very pale rosé that I’ve been spending a lot of time with. As I was drinking the wine, I observed a mixed bowl of nuts and raisins a co-worker was snacking on and the aroma of raisin entered the wine (the raisin itself was probably not significantly aromatic). It seems like you could never be confident enough to call out this illusion but raisin in wine for people like myself is inharmonic. Raisin is a flaw which symbolizes regret and missed opportunities. The unique category I have for raisin might have made the illusion more noticeable.

The mint gum illusion and the subtlety of the rosé-raisin illusion makes me wonder if there are parallels in wine and food interactions. Even without consuming the food, very aromatic elements from a dish perceived by frontal olfaction might be able to change contrast detection in a wine, or somehow change location from outside the head to inside the mouth juxtaposing the aroma with the wine. In the past I had categorized interactions like this as: wine pairing by “sillage” (a perfumer’s word for the scent trail). If these illusions could be better proven they could validate some recently popular ideas of pairing food & wine by similarity of aroma compounds. My suspicion is that the illusion is not generated all the time and a few instances have led sommeliers to over apply the model with no payoff.

Hopefully these illusions will help generate awareness of the phenomenon. They will either give people the confidence and a template for calling out the olfactory illusions they have experienced or inspire others to harness any illusions they can find in a beautiful context. This could be a new fun direction for modern cuisine to go.

Olfactory Phantoms and Illustrations of the Dynamics of Perception

The other day I got an interesting incoming link. Something I wrote was selected to be part of a hypothetical college curriculum. It is on a curriculum sharing website but I don’t think anyone is actually using it yet. Students in a sensory science class get to learn about illusion in the various senses and because there is not a lot written about olfactory illusion I was selected probably by default (default! woohoo!). I covered another phenomenon years ago I called the maraschino blackberry illusion where texture (haptic heft) dramatically changed the threshold of perception of an aroma. I think some bar programs are finally getting around to using it. I did it again in a beautiful context with fernet (and kirschwasser) aromatized cherries and I’m doing it yet again using the reflux de-aeration technique (to preserve the lemon juice) to perfectly place a sidecar inside a golden raspberry. The aroma and color were leached out of the golden raspberry so I’m basically just using its perfect body of cells as a vehicle to harness the influence of haptic heft on aroma.

We are slowly getting to the punchline but we need to cover a few more strange phenomenons.

Whoever selected the paper for the curriculum was interested in the “illusion” where wormwood hand sanitizers I made were used to train someone (myself) on an aroma. I found with the unique training I experienced similar aromas in certain wines (I found two wines: Cos Cerasuolo and an Anjou blanc) that were bizarrely amplified; like 10X amplification. Sometimes the same phenomenon exists with the aroma of dead mice and those in the pest control business that inadvertently end up with unique olfactory training can notice the aroma in a room when no one else can.

Wine pairings are part illusory and reading Gordon M. Sheperd’s Neurogastronomy confirmed some of my suspicions about wine and food interaction that I covered in an incomplete post called: contrast enhancement (in space and time) for food & wine interaction. The idea didn’t exactly catch on but I am right so I guess I’ll just give people a few more years to adopt it (mach bands! & nutritional preference comparisons!).

Now for the punchline: I’m setting out to explore how many of the aromas we “perceive” under certain circumstances are to varying degrees actually phantoms.  They are induced by incoming sensory stimulus (or by words which are symbols) but they are ultimately just recollections.  This is different than just making loose comparisons of incoming stimlui to known things, in what I’m describing you eventually generate whatever percentage of the known thing that doesn’t exist in the incoming stimuli.

Maybe we can start with the simplest olfactory phantom I’ve been able to generate and then build some background around it. To make the champagne bottle manifold I started a small plastic foundry. To develop the skills I needed to make the manifold part I started making reproductions of 19th century door knobs; giant lion heads and rococo stuff.  Some I cast in a translucent red plastic to generate some Joris Karl Huysmans style artifice and decadence. Anyhow, I had to drill this red plastic. Well, every time I did, I started to smell cherries. After a while I knew I was going to and I still did. The black plastic smelled of licorice.

Compounds called phthalates in the plastic have an aroma that notoriously converges with gustatory-sweetness. This form of sweetness coupled with the color is enough to trigger a phantom aroma and illustrate some of the dynamics of perception.

Perception is a tricky thing because all sorts of facets seamlessly join together. In the past I’ve talked obsessively about the sensory and symbolic world being glued together by the theory of cognitive dissonance and becoming the mechanism by which we acquire acquired tastes.  Perception involves the meeting of sensory inputs with recollections.  Improperly using recollections to complete incoming experience is the basis of many optical illusions.  So perception is going to be (by varying degrees) divided by fresh incoming sensory experiences and a sort of filling in the blanks via recollection. Most of the time recollection will correctly fill in the missing pieces.  Incentives exist to use completion to save resources.  Apparently it is more efficient than processing everything from scratch. Olfaction being the sense most closely tied to memory and thought to be particularly resource intensive might be subject to more completion by recollection than any other sense, though I’m only speculating (this whole post is a giant speculation).

As the distribution of perception slides around we may be subject to more or less illusory completion.  I’ve seen sensory science researchers hint at this distribution by outlining different perception strategies such as an active or a passive strategy.  An active strategy may tip the scales to processing new sensory data while a passive strategy may tip the scales towards completion by recollection.

The distribution could then be subject to other influences such as reward mechanisms.  Certain degrees of salt in our food, such as on a tomato, lowers the threshold of perception of an aroma.  The co-experience of the aroma and and salt may etch themselves in our mind so we can use those aromas to predict the presence of salt in the future, salt being something we need.  Sugar under certain circumstances has a similar effect, often referred to as “flavor enhancement”, that can lower the threshold of perception of an aroma.  Our rewards systems might jostle the distribution of perception any which way.  The sweetness in the plastic did not make me pay attention to an actual incoming aroma sensation but rather created one based on the influence of the color.  In my red plastic example the cherry aroma was more or less 100% generated by recollection but in many other cases aroma fragments that are being sense are being added to.

Many spirits researchers talk about pattern recognition or gestalts being important to distillates.  The famous spirits consultant Dr. Jim Swan has mentioned that when coming up with a new scotch whiskey blend it needs to have enough elements to be recognizable as a scotch whiskey (a gestalt) but then enough to set it apart.  The other big time spirits guru John R. Piggot in his amazing paper “Origins of Flavour in Whiskies and a Revised Flavour Wheel: a Review” starts by saying “Improved congener analyses have not yielded greater understanding of whisky flavour: a dynamic interaction between individuals and flavour components.”  The dynamic interaction mentioned by Piggot is another way of acknowledging the distribution of perception.  He then goes on to mention holistic patterns and gestalts as part of perceiving flavor. In memory, the cherry is a gestalt of sweetness and color, and aroma.  When only two of the three are present recollection may complete the third.

Piggot’s paper gets very dense in the chemistry but his introduction is very accessible and pretty amazing. He demonstrates an astounding understanding of neuroscience to go along with his second to none understanding of every reaction that generates every congener in every step of the whisky making process.  Piggot notes the interaction of the sensory and symbolic world but doesn’t exactly use the words I’ve adopted so it is probably best to quote him. According to Piggot, “In consumers, causality interactions (slaving effects) exist between perceptual and sensation levels, dictated by cues (Fig. 1): the human mind influences the brain.”  There is something vague about saying “the human mind influences the brain” but I’d like to think it parallels my language.  I do not agree with the way he uses the term “perception” because I think you can stumble into “which taste do you mean” territory.  When he says “perception” I think it could be better named “recollection” and perception instead is the sliding summation of incoming sensation and recollection. Sensory scientists have needed to get away from the term “taste” for flavor perception and maybe the same needs to be done to deconstruct perception and consciousness.

Robert Léauté in his 1989 James Guymon lecture very vaguely mentions fatty acid esters being “fixitives” for other aroma compounds.  His idea of a fixative might relate to the building of overlapping incomplete gestalts that recollection might complete in beautiful ways but we’ll touch upon that in a bit.

I should probably mention that infamous incident were a group of wine experts were served room temp white wine dyed red and nearly all were fooled into thinking they were drinking a proper red wine.  They described the aromas of the wine using object comparisons attributed to red wines and not whites. Well they were drinking a red-wine and if a degree of the distinct things we think we smell are phantoms, they were perceiving everything exactly as they should.  Their advanced library of recollections may have even made them more vulnerable than an amateur taster.

Another known phenomenon in wine trickery is simply tasting a wine after being baited with an aroma suggestion.  The suggested aromas can appear vividly.  I do not think this is widely studied or acknowledged because no one wants to be the victim of it.  We feel as though it shouldn’t happen so we never submit to curiosity and explore experiencing it.  A aroma suggestion isn’t a sensory input like gustatory-acidity or tannin. It starts that way but becomes a symbol or stand in for a value that triggers recollection. Some symbols thrown around in wine-speak, like goose berry, are not good bait because for many people the word is not a stand in for any recollection. To this day I’ve still never eaten a goose berry.

Robert Parker, who is famous for his wild tasting notes, might perceive the world with some unique distribution abnormally skewed towards recollection almost like a form of mild autism.  The gestalts he encounters make him hallucinate wildly. Every wine Parker encounters, which remains incomplete to the rest of us, he can complete apparently with great pleasure.  This might be a bit of a stretch because the language used by wine critics has no real responsibility to describing the wine. They just have to use harmonic language and typically more extraordinary language for more extraordinary and rare sensory values.  If we accept the fact that wine makes Parker hallucinate, to be honest I’d like to join him and learn his technique because illusion or not, it seems like fun.

To get back to spirits, most whiskey’s are colored with caramel to converge with their aromas.  Accepting that it is important to the quality of our hallucinations we should probably thank and recognize producers that do a good job of it.  An award could be given at the San Francisco spirits festival like “best dye job”.  I used to scoff at coloring but now I’m warming up to it.

A realm I had fun exploring the influence of color was with amaretto.  Everyone knows the darkly colored Disaronno brand and other darkly colored generics but I was really taken by a Portuguese almond (benzaldehyde) liqueur where the color was interpreted as a much lighter raw almond shade.  I was so taken by it I re-distilled my own version and left it uncolored so the aroma would diverge from the crystal clarity.  The results were captivating.  There was a dramatic divergence from expectation.  The crystal clarity and the light it captured made the aroma glow but it was just the Portuguese version re-distilled, re-cut, and re-sugared.  Benzaldehyde based liqueurs are so easy to distill the real artistry probably comes in when coloring them.

In cocktails we may sometimes experience perception dominated by recollection.  Many cocktails that are simultaneously tart and bitter come across as distinctly grapefruity though there is no grapefruit in them.  True these drinks, which often feature citrus juice, have a few aroma compounds in common with grapefruit, but the loose gestalt is enough to trigger a very distinct association even when the chemicals and all there various ratios do not remotely line up.

Now to go back to Robert Léauté, the idea of partially illusory aromas might explain the importance of very generic aroma compounds like ethyl acetate and acetaldehyde in spirits.  In large quantities these compounds are considered flaws, but sub threshold Léauté describes them as his “fixatives”.  Because these compounds are so abundant in fruits they may be an integral part of gestalts. Ethyl acetate could function like the sweet smelling phthalates found in the plastic and when coupled with one other sensation like a color we would have enough to hallucinate marasca cherries like Robert Parker.

Léauté, who is a master cognac distiller, explains that ethyl acetate and acetaldehyde, should be kept under the threshold of perception but distillates should be cut to get as close to that line as possible.  It might make sense in this case to rename the “threshold of perception” to “threshold of attention”.  We seem to be able to perceive astoundingly small quantities of things.  Our own nose is more sensitive than any analytic tool we’ve been able to build.  According to Gordon M. Sheperd our nose can differentiate aroma compounds by one carbon atom.  So maybe something is not detectable to our attentional spotlight but it is somehow still detectable enough that it can interact with other components synergistically and influence pattern recognition.  D.W. Clutton’s paper from 1978, The Flavour Constituents of Gin finds all sorts of compounds in gin that are sub threshold yet they are somehow very important to defining the character of the product.  Thresholds of perception may work very differently than is commonly thought.

Recollection may have some strange bearing on wine pairings.  In some pairings when food and wine “match” an aroma from the food can be reflected back into focus.  I had thought previously that a change in contrast detection was experienced and likened the phenomenon to the black art theater of the magician Omar Pasha.  An alternate explanation could possibly be that with the next experience (which is the wine after the food) a similar pattern confuses the mind and triggers recollection of the food.  Many of these types of pairings happen when the perceived acidity of the food and the wine match.

I don’t want to leave people thinking that everything we smell is an illusion.  We obviously need intense libraries of recollection to generate phantoms from.  It is probably safe to say that we mostly always are actively smelling when we think we are, but where is the dividing line and small details are we adding in to what were are really smelling? And if alcoholic beverages like wine and spirits remind us of so many things as seen in so many tasting notes, could they be the hub of olfactory illusion?

Do some people not taste wine well because they have no language to fragment and parse the experience or because they have no library of recollections to generate the illusions?

Bostonapothecary; A Retrospective

I’ve written quite a lot of posts over the years so I thought it might be time to make a top ten list of the coolest things that have happened at the bostonapothecary. If you look back at older posts the evolution of my ideas is quite apparent. I’ve kept the old posts up to show where I’ve been.

The content is definitely getting more neuroscience-y and more linguistic in nature. Some of the older posts focus on analytic techniques like hydrometry & refractometry, and distillation. I never really posted a lot of cocktail recipes here because this blog was just a counterpart to participating in egullet.

It might help first to show what people were most interested in (ranked by hits):

1. Dry rum & dry gin I like mine wet. This post started as a look at the acidity of spirits which I was never able to revisit. Countless people were referred to the post by search terms such as “pH of gin” or “acidity of gin”. I think people find the aroma of juniper to converge with gustatory-acidity and therefore wonder if there is non-volatile acid in the gin. These constant queries support my idea of categorizing aromas in terms of gustation. With this method juniper would be olfactory-acid.

2. Ice wine grenadine. This post really blew up after Dave Viola linked to it in the first comment of Jeffrey Morganthaler’s recipe for Grenadine. Morganthaler must get an astounding amount of hits if I get so many from him. It is a great recipe and you can do pretty astounding things with the technique. As widely read as the recipe was, I’ve never heard of a bar program actually using it. Slackers. It is bonkers ridiculous.

3. Vermouth: Its Production & Future. This is good stuff. When I started collecting all the sources in Maynard Amerine’s Annotated Bibliography of Vermouth many of the sources were from mid century wine & vines and unfortunately not yet indexed by google. I inter-library loaned them all, re-typed them, and made them more easily available. My bar program back at Dante was the first to make its own aromatized wines and now there are several hundred around the country. I re-typed several other articles from Wine & Vines such as Developing the Vermouth Formula, The Importance of Vermouth, Revolution in Vermouth, Vermouth… Some Practical Hints, and Gold Medal Sweet Vermouth. All of the study of vermouth helped me get into practical wine analysis such as using refractometers and hydrometers which really took my bar prep to a new level.

4. Deconstructing Campari. An astounding amount of people wonder if Campari has sugar. In many cases I suspect it is for the sake of calorie counting, but I also think many searchers have some sort of sensory curiosity. I was making versions of Campari where I dehydrated it and reconstituted the non-volatile fraction with another spirit to the same alcohol content. What I found is that volatile-olfactory-bitterness (lost when you dehydrate!) is astoundingly important to defining the character of Campari. My reconstituted versions lacked this aroma-of-bitterness until I redistilled those spirits with wormwood. I also went so far as to grow rock candy in bottles of Campari but they picked up no bitterness. What I have left to do now is cut Campari in half with a vacuum still and then precipitate the sugar out of Campari (such as how the rock candy grew) then rejoin the two halves. I can then reshape campari into lower sugar, higher alcohol styles of amaro like fernet, malort, or gammel dansk. I could even re-add the volume of subtracted sugar with a source of my choice such as a strawberry tree honey.

5. Deconstructing Sweet Vermouth. People wondered over to this post with a curiosity for how much sugar sweet vermouth had. My methods for revealing sugar content grew over the years making this post obsolete. Now I favor hydrometry and have found specific gravity tables to reach low enough alcohol contents to measure the aromatized wines. Unfortunately I suspect my margin of error is 30 g/L.

6. Chamberyzette. When curiosity for aromatized wines grew, curiosity for what the hell Chamberyzette is also grew. It is hard to believe that it is not imported. I was told once that their production is in a sad state and had degenerated into artificial flavors. I made replicas for a while by manipulating bianco vermouths but eventually M&R rose vermouth became imported and I fell in love with it.

7. Fenaroli’s Handbook of Flavor Ingredients. This guy is pretty wild. The book is a two volume tome on artificial flavors but has an extraordinary chapter on constructing amaros which shows that many of these super-consultant flavor chemists were interested and involved in the amaro trade. Fenaroli describes “special effects” and techniques of creating differentials of expectation and anticipation in amaros such as distilling a bitter principle then re-infusing that distillate with more of the bitter principle to end up with something like 2x olfactory-bitterness 1x gustatory-bitterness.

8. Bombardino! Dante’s aunt Anna turned me on to this Italian specialty. She said as a child she was too poor to afford cream so she would put tempered egg yolks in her coffee. My recipe got a little bit of an update with fluid gels are our future but it should probably be updated again since I’ve learned a lot more about it.

9. Sweet Potato “fly”. This is just awesome and the idea has taken my ginger beer to a new level. The sweet potato ginger beer post needs a bit of an update now that I’ve developed a new carbonation technique. I think I also need to re-evaluate how much spice I get from the ginger skins. The best results might come by heating the skins in ginger juice or going the all cayenne route. I juice my ginger while others only macerate. After I juice I probably need to make a tea from the separated skins to capture their piquancy. Those that just macerate with cut up ginger may get the piquancy but lack a lot of aroma from the juice.

10. Hand Made Creole Shrubb. Creole Shrubb is awesome and it has been a pleasure to watch it become more accessible over the years. Unfortunately for the Clements, I loved Creole Shrubb so much I started making my own. I took an exploration of orange liqueurs pretty far and even ended up reconstructing Joseph Konig’s curacao from 1879 and learned the secret of its sugar content (maximum of solubility!). My technique of assembly became really good and I think I could quickly make all the orange liqueurs at a very high quality level for my next bar program. We used only house-made orange liqueur for my last year at Dante which probably only added up to 50 liters.

11. Amer Picon Replica. There is a lot of interest in Amer Picon but I kind of gave up on it. I fell in love with Cynar and it was enough for me. In the end I suspected what everyone was missing was a focus on tonality of orange aroma and Picon’s was likely modified from an aromatic sugar source like malt. If you think about it, Picon & beer could only be relevant so long as it was cheaper than the Chimay it set out of emulate. This Belgium ale role model also reveals the secret of its aromas. I’ve learned a lot more about the aroma of grains recently so maybe I’ll pick it back up again. My flaked rye aromatized bourbon might warp into a sexy flaked rye aromatized triple-sec.

12. Reward System Theories. An astounding amount of people are searching for these terms but I don’t really know why. The ideas are gigantic and the implications are far reaching. I hope to take it further. I wish some people would comment!

13. Sweet Rebellion: a short theory of acquired tastes and an unsavory explanation of harmony. A growing amount of people are interested in acquired tastes. Acquired tastes are under appreciated and a theory of them will contribute answers to 100 million dollar questions. If through spreading acquired tastes we can cut empty calories from the American diet the results might be worth hundreds of millions in health care savings.

14. A theory of wine-food interaction. This is awesome stuff and I’m glad a lot of people have read it. It did unfortunately generate no real dialogue. I updated some ideas here in contrast enhancement (in space and time) for wine & food interaction. All the explanations we need to understand pairings are contained (but he makes to direct connections!) in Gordon M. Shephard’s Neurogastronomy.

15. Hercules: A liqueur interpretation or replica. Hercules is pretty cool. I revisited some of the bottles from this post recently after they slept for almost four years and wow were they extraordinary. All the interest Erik Ellestad has generated in the Savoy has generated a lot of interest in Hercules. It is wildly avante-garde in concept but so elegant as it goes down. I need to make this again and see if I can find any other notes I took pertaining to its construction.

Now here is my top picks for what people should be checking out.

1. Advanced Aroma Theory Basics. This is my crowning achievement and is an excerpt from my book on distillation. I explain the history of many of our metaphors. I cover their chemistry as well as their neuroscience (though that could be beefed up) and I give ideas for how many of them could be usefully elaborated. The language learned dramatically increases flavor literacy. Wild things happen with literacy’s fragmentation. Patterns emerge that can guide our creativity. Marshall Macluhan describes the gift of literacy as being able to act with out reacting. Many writers like Barb Stuckey are now thinking flavor literacy is important to controlling food cravings (detachment!). This new set of language is also the basis for understanding wine pairings. Other cool exercises in language are the Attentional Features Primer or Advanced Oversimplification Basics; The Ordinary and the Extraordinary.

2. Advanced Wine & Food Interaction. Here I start to explain all the contrast enhancement that happens in wine and food interaction. My first set of ideas started here and many got refined and validated by Gordon M. Shephard’s Neurogastronomy. The future of this lies in wrapping articulate language around the mach bands that are formed in a pairing (a mach band being the “line” over which contrast enhancement changes). Neurogastronomy explains what happens in the mind but we cannot make any practical use of it until we have a more advanced set of metaphors to unravel the synaesthetic experience of perceiving flavor. If olfactory-sweetness converges with gustatory-sweetness, language creates the awareness to differentiate the two. We cannot find patterns without language! Almost seven years ago back at Dante I started to create a new language for categorizing wine pairings and explaining all the reactions that happen. My first post ever was describing Maccheroncelli Primavera with Falanghina. I even explored cheese and vermouth pairings. I think I stopped with this interesting one. My goal now is to revisit all the holy grail pairings from WTDWWYD with a few friends and describe all the reactions in terms of mach bands. Very expensive. I need some sort of grant money to take it where it needs to go.

3. Measure carbonation with a kitchen scale. This is very big because handling carbonation well has been so elusive for beverage programs. I’ve tried everything (one bar in Vegas adopted this bottle carbonation technique) and I’ve spent thousands. I even described the limitations of bottling under pressure. I’ve even gone so far as to build a plastic foundry to produce my own equipment. After much work I can report carbonation is solved. My new product is a Champagne bottle manifold with Cornelius quick disconnects. The dissolved gas added to the liquid is simply measured on a kitchen scale that can handle a tenth of a gram. The dissolved gas has a weight and that weight is easy to measure (7g/L for highly carbonated sodas). You can even estimate if you want. I just acquired an Ohaus kitchen scale that can do 4 kilos by a tenth of a gram ($200) so now I can precisely measure the gas I add to Champagne magnums! I can even apply gorgeous counter pressure to sparkling wines. I can even add extra gas to beers! My product will soon be on sale for $100 then all you will need is a gas tank, regulator, and a nice kitchen scale. Solved, done, boom, and you serve out of gorgeous Champange bottles! Once they absorb enough gas you take off the manifold and put on a bottle cap (size 29mm). This could cost a bar $500 to do it right (tank, regulator, a few manifolds, scale, bottle-capper) but if you are smart you can take your new skill set and switch over your ISI whippers in the kitchen to cheaper tank gas using these new high end quick disconnects. That $500 will melt away quickly in saved cartridges. Performance will also go up! This will all be covered in my next post. If your restaurant says they can’t afford it buy your own fucking equipment! When you prove its a good idea, maybe they’ll pay you back. More to come!

4. Sweet Rebellion: A Short Theory of Acquired Tastes and an Unsavory Explanation of Harmony. This was pretty cool. It is unfortunately an ignored field of study. It went a little further in Culinary Aestheticism: A Tale of Two Harmonies where I attempt to explain how the symbolic world manipulates the harmonic bounds of the sensory world and vice versa. This stuff is critical to taking the empty calories out of our diets and adding new food sources to our diets such as they’ve been doing at Noma in Copenhagen. If we as a society would do something with these ideas we might shave billions off our health care budget. An entire country of black coffee drinkers? I could slash diabetes by 20%. MacArthur foundation help a brother out? I need to somehow finance an experimental gastronomy programs to learn more about this stuff.

5. Using simple hydrometry to find the sugar content of commercial liqueurs. This took many false starts and a winding path. Hopefully I made amends for bad refractometer advice I gave Eric Seed years ago. My first method for accurately revealing sugar contents had me sacrificing large sample sizes which was really expensive. This technique can be a really useful tool for bars making their own nano scale products or commercial producers trying make locally sourced and produced clones of commercial products. The chart can also help find patterns and almost quantify acquired tastes into numbers and ratios. Every bar should own a hydrometer.

6. Advanced Superstimuli Basics. I thought it was particularly cool to compare cocktails to super normal stimuli. The two guys that discovered the concept won the nobel prize! Understanding them can help us make more therapeutic drinks. An understanding founded in the culinary arts can also help us recognize them in other aspects of our lives where they are often dangerous. Nature published a paper on Flavor Networks and Food Pairings which got tons of attention but they never made any connections to the superstimuli phenomenon that is the motive of all our creative linkage. I’d love to get a hold of their data and computational expertise. I suspect a better understanding of all these things will help us take on more food sources as the pressure for sustainability grows.

7. Advanced Kegging Basics. This was the beginning of cocktails on tap and it turned into a phenomenon. I hear that almost every new bar in SF has a cocktail on tap program. Apparently the two or three people I influence are astoundingly influential. One of the first times it got put to the test was when I made cocktails for 400 with my crazy boss. Much of it started with a method of faking wine on tap to prove that there was a market and consumers wouldn’t be scared of it. Wine was simply taken out of bottles and put into kegs. Fake it till you make it! With the kegs you can also do stuff like pressure filtration. Worlds largest whip cream canister! I also suspect you can use kegs and some sort of cavitation technique to de-gas large volumes of liquids that other people have used centrifuges to do (you blast it with nitrogen to force the oxygen and CO2 out of solution. I think it works similarly to the process of pressure casting plastic or bronze). And all the equipment is really affordable!

8. Basket Pressed Pineapple Juice. This was wildly successful and yet again I don’t think any bar programs have picked up on it. I acquired a small (five gallon) home cider maker’s press and tried to see what besides apples could go in it. Pineapples were the most extraordinary because people have such a hard time juicing them. Strawberries were beautiful (either freeze/thaw them or soak them in hot water to loosen the pectin). The press will allow your prep to scale up dramatically. I started accumulating gallons of juice from the peak of various seasons in my freezer to unleash later on the thirsty hoards. The press was only about $400 compared to the $1000 of a large capacity centrifugal juicer that can’t even handle all the fruits as well (they also aerate the juice killing its lifespan).

9. Nano-distillation. In the end I wrote an entire yet to be published book about exploring beverage distillation on the smallest scale possible. A few of the first recipes such as the Absinthe and the Genever made from malta goya appeared on the blog before I stopped posting recipes for the sake of the book. The recipes have evolved over the years and the additional recipes from the book are wildly fun. I’m trying to have a friend look at the book before I send it to the publisher. I’m hoping it can become a classic and pulled together huge amounts of information about distillation that have never been seen under one roof.

10. Home made orange liqueur. A project to make a terroir driven orange liqueur for the bar years ago got really out of hand and wow did I learn a lot of things. Things started back here with Newman’s own Creole Shrubb but gradually got more sophisticated. There were various deconstructions of Cointreau and eventually I even re-created Joseph Konig’s curacao from 1879. These ideas are really useful to new distilleries and to bars. The recipes work astoundingly well and can be a solution to numerous problems.

11. Instant aging, Fernet 151, and DIY Barrel Proof Overholt. I almost forgot this technique. They were wildly fun. 69 Colbrook in London linked to the instant aging with vacuum reduction technique though I’m not sure if anyone actually used it. Later on I discovered you can use an Excalibur food dehydrator instead of a costly vacuum reduction setup. Everything is elaborated further in my distillation book so things got neglected on the blog. I saw tons of incoming links from egullet where the technique was discussed but no testimonial of people trying it. One of the favorite uses was on Kuchan’s peach brandy. Un-aged it tastes like bubble gum and is gross. Fake age it with some bourbon and it is move you to tears beautiful.

12. Advanced Nut Milk Basics. This was a cool one and I know there are quite a few centrifuges out there in operation, but I don’t think anyone else but Dave Arnold’s crew is taking nut milks too seriously. Over on egullet I posted a string of cocktails featuring nut milks, orgeats, and decadent nut milk heavy creams (concentrate the fat!)

Thanks for checking things out! don’t worry there is more to come.

Contrast Enhancement (In Space and Time) For Food & Wine Interaction

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This is a follow up to a theory of wine-food interaction which a fair amount of people managed to read. In that post I attempted to explain wine and food interaction in terms of nutritional preference comparisons which change our construction of reality (like salting a tomato!) as well as strange changes in contrast detection similar to those that occur in black art theater. Recently, I’ve come across a great explanation of what I called “black art contrast pairings”.To explain the phenomenon I have to quote a large passage of Gordon M. Sheperd’s excellent new book, Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why It Matters.

Ordinarily it might not be appropriate to republish an entire passage from a book, but Shepherd explains the phenomenon more articulately than I can paraphrase.

From Gordon M. Shepherd’s Neurogastronomy

Contrast Enhancement in Space and Time (Forming a Sensory Image p. 61)

“This effect had actually been described in humans by a German physicist named Ernst Mach in the nineteenth century. He had noticed that when we view a light-dark border, such as a sharp boundary between two walls with different illumination, the contrast is enhanced by a lighter band on the light side and a darker band on the dark side. These came to be called Mach Bands. You can see them yourself if you look for them. (The bibliography provides a site for you to look them up on the Internet.)

Hartline showed that Mach bands are present even in the primitive eye of Limulus (**horseshoe crab). He further showed the mechanism that produces them: lateral inhibitory connections between the receptor cells.  Through these connections, the strongly excited cells at the border more strongly inhibit the weakly stimulated cells, and the weakly stimulated cells more weakly inhibit the strongly excited cells. The mechanism is called lateral inhibition. The effect is called contrast enhancement, because the difference between the light and dark areas is enhanced at their boundary. In a general sense, contrast enhancement also is a kind of feature extraction, the enhanced response to specific spatial features in a visual scene.

This is contrast enhancement in space. Hartline’s laboratory also showed that there is contrast enhancement in time. When there is an abrupt step increase in illumination, a single cell responds with a large increase in impulse firing, which rapidly declines to a steady level somewhat higher than before. The overshoot in impulse frequency is called the phasic response, in contrast to the tonic response. It shows that the nervous system is sensitive primarily to a change in the environment rather than to an unchanging steady input. This contrast enhancement in time is the counterpart to contrast enhancement in space. After the initial increase in stimulation, lateral, as well as self-inhibition comes on to counterbalance the higher level of steady stimulation.”

There you have it. Wine pairings feature contrast enhancement over time. This does not explain what I felt was the result of nutritional preference comparisons, but I await or will search for that answer as well!

Feel free to notice the “think spatially” motto which has lived atop my blog for the last several years now. It should probably be changed to “you smell spatially” or something to that effect which is a big theme to Neurogastronomy. For the last several years I’ve been trying to describe flavor experiences with the language of space & attention.

So now what do we do with this new found information? Flavor is so multi-dimensional that now if we try and explain reactive pairings we may have to explain what resides on each side of the Mach Band created. In the last post I made on wine-food interaction I picked out all the holy grail pairings from What to Drink With What You Eat. I failed to explain them articulately but I should probably try again and consider the Mach Band concept.

If you anyone wants to help, feel free to lend a hand!

Another idea to consider when thinking of wine pairings is the technique of unsharp masking that is used in photography. In unsharp masking, when we overlap an image with a blurred or unsharp version of itself, changes in contrast detection happen. Following wine with food could create a similar effect to adding an unsharp mask which might explain phenomenons of contrast enhancement and feature extraction that characterize wine and food interaction. This all may be possible due to the spatial nature by which we perceive aroma.

Shepherd spends a lot of time explaining the spatial perception of aroma, but he doesn’t ever try to connect the concept with a simple enough analogy. I think what he is trying to get at is best expressed by the work of the 19th century perfumer, Septimus Piesse, who developed an Odophone which arranges aromas in tandem with musical notes on a scale. Piesse’s work is remarkably intuitive. The photo I’m linking to has been known to change lives and inspire career choices.

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strange olfactory phenomena: adventures in contrast detection

The other day I went to the Ruby Wines annual wine tasting at the Harvard club.  It is a great event and one of my favorites for the big annuals that our distributors put on.  I was only able to taste about 30 wines before I had to leave for work.

Two of the wines I tasted had the strange, potent, distinct, and lovely aroma of bitter field flowers.  For a more specific object comparison I’d say Yarrow flowers.

This was strange to me because I’ve a tasted a lot of wine in my day and never come across this expression with this much intensity.  One wine was a dry white Anjou Chenin Blanc that I was unfamiliar with while the other was the latest vintage of Cos’ Cersuolo from Sicily which I’ve had numerous times.  I asked the always awesome Brad Groper of Domaine Select who was pouring the wine if there was anything unusual about the vintage and he said no and that they’ve been keeping a good average.

Here’s the kicker. I’ve been using my wormwood aromatized hand sanitizer that I developed as an aroma teaching tool.  In the last month I’ve had repeated exposure to the aroma over the course of my shifts at work.  The aroma I experienced disproportionately in the two wines was not Wormwood, but very close two it.  Wormwood and Yarrow both could be said as having a connection to the same gustatory division (bitterness) and if you created an imaginary spatial scale they would lay very close to each other.  Could repeated exposure to the experimental hand sanitizer have changed contrast detection for me in wines?

Way back when, I wrote a post that tried to outline the difference between my banana and your banana and how we experience and construct reality.  I was partially inspired by Leonard Koren’s fantastic book Which “Aesthetics” Do You Mean: Ten Definitions.  My theory was that acquired tastes and differences in metabolized dissonance may lead us to believe that each of us constructs reality when eating very differently.  I thought we all could compare intensities of stimuli similarly enough, but simply we just could not agree on enjoying them (valence).  Maybe my bizarre experience here shows how repeated exposure to a stimulus can significantly effect contrast detection.  If you need a primer on tricks that exploit changes in contrast detection check out Omar Pasha’s Black Art Theatre.  I hypothesized a while ago that a change in contrast detection similar to what was experienced in black art theater is a large part of how reactive wine pairings work where contrast detection changes and after images react with current stimuli.  It was just a blog post and I didn’t get to fully explore the ideas because I don’t deal with pairings at work anymore, but an astounding amount of people checked out the post.  No one seems to have adopted the theory yet… (…to be too far ahead of your time like Van Gogh!)

Well to use all these ideas in a beautiful context, when I get recruited to work at a lux, progressive, budget-less, overachieving dining establishment, I’m going to mail people bottles of experimental hand sanitizer with their reservations.  When they expose themselves the aroma (who doesn’t use hand sanitizer?) we can proceed to do a tasting of wines from our catalog that enjoy marked changes in contrast detection.  This will demonstrate the highly subjective nature of our construction of “reality”.  The great Nabakov referred to reality as the one work that should always be in quotes!

Astute readers will be comparing this strange olfactory phenomenon to Francois Chartier’s Taste Buds and Molecules: The Art & Science of Food, Wine, and Flavor.  He seems to have a new edition of the book which makes the content seem less about food & wine interaction and more about flavor theory in general.  Chartier posited the idea that reactive wine pairings were the product of matching aroma molecules in the food & wine.  I was not too keen on his idea.  But in this strange case we are probably also matching molecules from the conditioned stimulus with the wine.  The big difference is the amount of time and repetition.  Could pairings as Chartier envisioned become effected by this same type of contrast detection change or could they be more likely governed by others such as in my Nutritional Preference Theory?  We need more minds on this puzzle!


A text that explains the nitty-gritty of changes in olfactory contrast detect is Gordon M. Shepard’s Neurogastronomy which is astoundingly cool and I wrote a little bit about it here.

For those collecting olfactory illusions, another that I’ve come across lately was experienced when drilling colored pieces of plastic.  Molecules in the plastic are very similar to sucrose and somehow elicit a sensation of olfactory-sweetness (an illusion in its own right), but when combined with the color, drilling the cherry-red plastic can make you think you are smelling cherries.  The black plastic can be like licorice.  This leads me to believe that many object comparisons we make when tasting wine come from experiencing very general gestalts that trigger very specific memories.  A ghost arises from the memories and covers the very general gestalt that is hard to un-summon. Color and olfactory-sweetness end up being enough to summon a very vivid phantom aroma of cherry. Perception ends up being the fusion of our real sensory experience with our past recollections.  And the distribution of the two influences varies greatly and to some degree can be wielded.


I have been pondering the world of experts who might have unique thresholds of perception for aromas they are trained in.  A realm where unique contrast detection abilities might develop is food spoilage.  Kitchen workers who handle large amounts of food might train themselves on spoilage aromas and be able to detect them when a non-cook cannot.  This is a very valuable skill for obvious reasons and it seems as though it would be useful to know more about it.  Maybe kitchens should intentionally spoil small amounts of food and then train their line cooks on the aromas? That way they can spot them at lower thresholds in the future.

A Theory of Wine-food Interaction

These idea were more recently explored again here.

Unraveling the nature of wine pairings is tricky stuff. I’m sort of out of the game these days because I do not work with a tasting menu anymore (or even a changing menu for that matter). When this blog started I had posted quite a few accounts of pairing wines with certain dishes. We did quite a lot of tasting menus back at Dante and I was fortunate to do a lot of eating and drinking of them.

At various times in the past I’ve mentioned some ideas that governed the mechanics of food and wine interaction such as sensory after images (they are harnessed for many magic tricks) and the change in contrast detection exploited by “black art” theater.

I’ve also discussed reward systems (read this article first) that govern the construction of our reality when perceiving food. For example, sweetness can suppress the perception of bitterness when experienced at the same time. Bitterness is seen by the body as a negative and is therefore harmonically dissonant (a taste for bitterness can be acquired, of course and my theory is that the acquiring of something so attentional is related to anxiety). If you tasted Campari before it was sweetened you would probably spit it out, but after Campari is sweetened by the producer, the perception of bitterness changes markedly. Our body’s reward system recognizes that though bitter, Campari is also redeemingly sweet and therefore nutritious which is why it constructs reality in way that makes the bitterness less dissonant.

At times, food & beverage interactions seem like black art theater (watch the video linked above) where comparisons between flavor divisions result in changes in contrast detection among other divisions (harmonically or inharmonically) while at other times interactions seems like they are governed by nutritional preference or warnings.

It might be possible to classify reactive pairings in two ways: nutritional preference pairings and “black art” contrast pairings. It is useful to revisit Dorneburg and Pages’ amazing text on wine pairing What To Drink With What You Eat and consider these two divisions.

Why does a dessert wine always have to be sweeter than a dessert? When pairing dessert wines with sweet foods, we want nutritional preference to go to the dessert wine, therefore it needs to be slightly sweeter. If the wine is not as sweet, reality will be constructed to show preference for the food and the dessert wine will be presented by the mind as thinner and stripped away of its richness.

“With a simple apple dessert like apple pie, Sauternes is a soft and sweet accompaniment. But if you serve the same apple pie with caramel sauce, it makes the wine taste flat.” -Madeline Triffon  from What To Drink With What You Eat a.k.a. “WTDWWYE”

Madeline’s results may be because the caramel sauce is sweeter than the wine and our reward system favors it over the Sauternes.

“Having birthday cake or wedding cake with a brut Champagne toast is horrifying! If the dessert is sweeter than the wine, it makes the wine taste drier. My favorite all-purpose sweet wine is Moscato d’Asti.” -Madeline Triffon from WTDWWYE

Let us consider another scenario: port can come after bitter chocolate, but black espresso which is also bitter like the chocolate cannot come after port. Nutritional preference will dictate how reality is constructed and the second stimulus will either be flattered and harmonically enhanced or ridiculed by the mind. When black espresso is consumed after something sweet and more nutritious, the bitterness is dramatically emphasized in our construction of reality.

Our body warns us of all sorts of things with its construction of reality, but why? Some seem so innocent.

Why does increasing temperature lower the threshold of perception of alcohol making it more apparent in hot drinks?

Why does lowering temperature such as chilling a red wine, lower the threshold of perception of tannin? The same happens when intensely oaked whiskeys are chilled. What are we being warned about?

Pairings related to black art style changes in contrast detection might not work the same as pairings related to nutritional preference (I’m rethinking this because nutritional preference seems to always linger).

The black on black of black art contrast pairings is typically the greatest attentional feature common to both the food and the beverage. In the case of wine and food that feature is typically acidity while in the case of dark chocolate and espresso that feature is bitterness. Scanning through WTDWWYE, most all the highest regarded pairings are related to matching acidity. When the major attentional feature is matched, contrast detection between other features is augmented and they are “elevated” to quote commonly used pairing language. In best case scenarios, an aroma from the food is “brought back into focus” and seemingly superimposed over the wine. Typically foods that do this have a significant sensory after image which may prove related to nutritional value.

**** I will analyze these when i get around to it.

holy grail pairings to ponder from WTDWWYE:

almonds : manzanilla sherry

asparagus : sauvignon blanc

ribs : zinfandel the sauce on ribs often has sugar, but the illusion of sweetness in the aroma of the zinfandel might be enough to create nutritional preference in the wine.

biscotti : vin santo the wine is sweeter than the biscotti which tips nutrional preference in its favor.  the aromas are also not too disparate which might influence the reaction.

cassoulet : tannic red wine pairing tannin and fat could be less a pairing that happens in the mind due to nutritional preference and more of a pairing that actually happens on the tongue as is the classic explanation.  within the mind though,  the tannins could end and provide relief from the cloying sensory afterimage of the fat.  i’ll have to ponder this one next time i find a really tannic wine.

caviar : champagne

ceviche : sauvignon blanc

charcuterie : beaujolais

fresh goat cheese : sancerre this pairing features an acid/acid comparison which induces a change in contrast detection similar to black art.

muenster cheese : gewurztraminer (esp. low-acid fruity)

roquefort blue cheese : sauternes

stilton british cow’s milk blue : barley wine

chocolate : banyul’s or port

choucroute (sauerkraut) : alsatian reisling or german kabinett

clams : muscadet

corn : chardonnay, buttery oaky california

crab : riesling, esp. german kabinett or spatlese crab is often referred to in language as “sweet” and often dressed up in very nutritious butter, so a reisling like a sweet spatleses might be needed to induce a simple nutritional preference pairing.

foie gras : sauternes this could be a simple nutritional preference pairing where the reward for sweetness trumps the reward for fat.  the reward for the sauterns could only be slightly greater than that of the fatty foie gras making the experiences not feel particularly distant.

olives : sherry, esp. fino, manzanilla or amontillado the most prominent attentional feature of both could either be acidity if the olives are fermented or olfactory umami created by the esterifcation of fatty acids.  upon fermenting olives take on an aroma like sausages and sherry is known for its “rancio” character.

oysters : chablis the most prominent attentional feature of both can be acidity if minionette or lemon juice are added to the oysters resulting of a change in contrast detection in the aroma of the wine.  the chablis may also get associated with the lingering salinity (after image?) and therefore enhanced by our reward system.

salt? p. 164

Does any of this conform to anybody else’s experiences?



Advanced Aroma Theory Basics

[This post is an excerpt from a yet to be completed text on avant garde beverage distillation.]


Nature is a temple where living pillars

Let escape sometimes confused words;
Man traverses it through forests of symbols
That observe him with familiar glances.

Methods of evaluating and classifying aromas are invaluable to the distiller. Many distillers work in teams to sculpt aroma during the product development stage or to maintain consistency across batches once production has begun. Articulate communication is paramount to achieving either objective but unfortunately not many guides exist in the literature. Some scientists, notably Gordon Shephard the author of Neurogastronomy, have made great strides in understanding aroma perception but for the most part it is still beyond the reach of science and needs to first be teased out by the suspicions and empathy of artists. Many of the ideas here have been shaped & formed through countless conversations with the great brewers, bartenders , distillers, and wine makers of the world.

Identifying and quantifying aroma constituents in terms of molecules using advanced technology such as chromatography is a seductive idea, but it is impractical to all but the largest scale producers who typically only use the data to troubleshoot off-aromas and maintain consistency as production scales up rather than explore the patterns of pleasure. The literature on spirits analysis often states that efforts to reveal every chemical constituent of a beverage has produced little in the way of our understanding of aroma perception. The amazing power of the human nose leaves little incentive to apply high-tech analytic tools to the creative process. With practice and a framework of language as guidance, great empathy for evaluating aroma can be developed. Rendering a sensory experience in language, which essentially requires a transfer between frames of mind, may improve and refine the schemas we use for contrast detection when parsing aromas. This all means that talking about aroma will make your nose work better, faster.

Chemical analysis has limitations for categorizing aromas that are not well articulated in the literature. A fairly new idea that is only slowly gaining traction is that aroma perception is subject to significant amounts of illusion generated by its unique ties to memory. Chemical analysis, so far, makes no recognition of illusion or connection to co-experience and recollection.

Representing a sensation like an aroma with words can be a daunting challenge and many of the great distillers and spirit blenders of the world are not good at it. Many of these professionals feel (think non-linguistically) but cannot say, which unfortunately limits their ability to teach and solve certain types of problems.

One of the great problems with evaluating and categorizing aroma arises from our difficulty in separating the symbolic world from the sensory world. Though they often seem glued together, each has its own harmony and disharmony. Each also has the ability to influence the harmony of the other which is part of the mechanism by which we acquire acquired tastes. Prudish drinkers have been known to enjoy challenging sensory acquired tastes under the powerful symbolic influence of nationalism. Cultural rifts have also been narrowed by recognition of shared sensory values.

The aroma of Bourbon whiskey can be described as traditional, American, and grandfatherly which are all symbolic descriptors, but Bourbon can also be described as oaky, sweet, and round which all attempt responsibility for addressing Bourbon’s sensory side. The vocabulary of the highly subjective symbolic side is laden with rhetoric and therefore important to the marketer, while the vocabulary of the sensory side strives for objectivity and close representation of the sensory experience making it central to the concerns of the distiller. Beauty is the composite of both symbolic and sensory values, but to fully express it and put beauty to work, we need to understand the dividing line.

It could be argued that symbolic bias is shown in the word choices of the average person when trying to describe an aroma. More time is spent wielding rhetoric to sell aromas than objectively represent them. We are more comfortable labeling an aroma (or aroma set) as masculine or feminine than we are at describing the shape of the sensory tensions that exist within it. The ease by which symbolism is found in aromas somewhat obscures the raw sensory experience. Aromas mark and retrieve memories and therefore inspire us to be poetic in our word choices despite how subjective and personal the language. We forget our word choices are often based on inside jokes.

The idea of an aroma fault in a spirit is also symbolic. Aromas categorized as faults in spirits are only done so because besides typically being ordinary as opposed to extraordinary, they represent regrets, missed opportunities, and what could have been. Sometimes though, one imbibers’s fault is another’s feature especially if that latter drinker doesn’t know what could have been.

No word(s) can ever be an exact or universal stand-in for an experience, but some can be closer than others. It is useful to explore the origins of commonly used attempts at objectivity so we can expand upon them. When Bourbon is compared to oak, it is an actual object comparison. Object comparisons are very common but lack a lot of precision and assume familiarity with the compared experience. Unfortunately, few have ever had oak in singular form and the single word does not address all possible oak expressions (honey from oak trees is a great way to become familiar with the oak aroma).

Sometimes strings of object comparisons are used such as “oak, vanilla” or “raspberry, cherry”, but the comma is often the wrong logical operator to relate the descriptors. The experience may feel more like the unknown space between the two known values and a symbol that implies between-ness might be more appropriate. The comma as a logical operator has been known to throw many people off and can even make them question their ability to parse the experience. Strings of obscure object comparisons separated by commas can even be used as a means of cementing authority and professional critics are often accused of employing such tactics.

The supreme elaboration of the object comparison is the aroma wheel, which was developed to create standardized terms for wine tasting. The wheel begins in the center with generalized grouped comparisons such as “herbaceous / vegetative” and expands outwards into more specific sub-divisions like “dried” before ending at definitive comparison such as “hay” or “tea”. The aroma wheel is a useful teaching tool for tasters, and its creators share the opinion with the author that turning a sensory experience into language can help build the schemas we use to parse experiences and detect contrast, thus increasing enjoyment. The wheel unfortunately has the limitations of object comparison and is not tremendously useful in identifying patterns of attentional tension that can be beneficial to the creative process of building aromas.

The language we select to represent an aroma is constantly challenged by our attraction to grotesque (think of a mermaid) between-ness. The unknown tonal values between the aromas of raspberry and cherry are more prized than either known value alone. Between values are more attentional and draw us back to examining them, making them more memorable themselves as well as more likely to reinforce retention of paired experiences. They are a super normal stimulus. We crave the unique and extraordinary rather than the ordinary, obvious, or plebian. We put to use the extraordinary in aroma, such as a fine wine for a special dinner, as a tool that preserves the memories of the rest of the evening.

Like long echoes that intermingle from afar
In a dark and profound unity,
Vast like the night and like the light,
The perfumes, the colors and the sounds respond.

Beyond object comparisons, aromas can also be described in terms of the other senses. Cross-modal (a mode being one of the senses) comparisons, also called grounded metaphors, may seem unnecessarily more complicated than object comparison, but they do come to us naturally as proven by Lakoff & Johnson and when elaborated can take an understanding of aroma to the next level as one works with the sought after extraordinary and un-namable.

Describing the experience of one sense in terms of another may seem far-fetched, but when examining language applied to the other senses, the technique is very common. Vision is often described in terms of thermoception with warm and cool color analogies. Sound has been described in terms of color using the chromatic scale (*Piesse has a lovely chart). These analogies imply sensory linkages and evidence of them has been found in synesthetes.

Synesthesia is a condition where involuntarily stimulating one sensory modality produces an impression in another as well. However rare the condition, there is an astounding variety of types of synesthesia with reported cases of nearly every type of sensory linkage from seeing sounds (sensory-sensory) to smelling words (sensory-symbol). Synesthetes with sensory-symbol linkage may expose a neurological basis for our difficulties separating the symbolic and sensory worlds. Synesthesia implies that not everybody has the sensory linkage exhibited, but some researchers are starting to believe that olfactory-gustatory synesthesia is a learned type common to everybody. Aroma therefore can very effectively be described in terms of gustation and is seen by the author as the most useful method of categorizing aroma.

There are perfumes fresh like the skin of infants
Sweet like oboes, green like prairies,
—And others corrupted, rich and triumphant

When a Bourbon, which contains no significant sugar, is described as sweet, a cross-modal comparison has been made between olfaction and a gustatory division. Olfactory-sweetness is easy to identify and many people describe wines fermented to dryness, but having fruity aromas, as being “sweet”. We have evolutionary incentives to learn how to anticipate nutrition sources. The ability to predict food sources using our noses helps one to expend less energy while seeking out nourishment. Olfaction has evolved to anticipate gustation which in turn is a reliable determiner of nutritional value.

We can be seen somewhat arbitrarily as having twenty-one years of olfaction consistently anticipating gustation. When we start consuming alcohol at twenty-one, we enter a highly abstracted world where that sweet-smelling and sweet-tasting grape juice has now been converted to dry wine which often still smells the same. Fermentation and distillation are methods by which olfaction can be made to diverge from gustation. Divergence, as anyone who has consumed alcohol knows, can be highly attentional, memorable, and if done right, pleasurable.

The commonly accepted analogy of sweet smells can be expanded. Just like gustatory-sweetness, olfaction can converge with any of the other gustatory divisions. After olfactory-sweetness, the olfactory-umami may be the easiest division to identify (umami is sometimes also called the fatty-acid taste). The other gustatory divisions are not as easy to separate by empathy and it is hard to say whether the aroma of juniper is olfactory-acid or olfactory bitter. Indeterminate non-sweet divisions can usefully be called olfactory-dryness.

In distillates, the olfactory-umami can easily be found in muscat-based brandies like Pisco, agave-based spirits like Tequila, and Rums, especially those made from fresh sugarcane juice. The term “funky” has often been applied to an umami quality in spirits as well as the older term “hogo” which was often used in descriptions of early rums. The olfactory-umami, like everything else, has a spectrum with the darker or heavier end often being described by the Spanish word “rancio” and commonly applied to red wines and sherry.

Umami is not a widely recognized gustatory division, but understanding the olfactory-umami may help explain the gustatory phenomenon. Fatty acids, besides being found in meat, are also found in non-animal sources such as grapes, sugar cane, and agave. The heat of atmospheric distillation provides an opportunity for esterification where fatty acids react with alcohols to produce distinct volatile aroma compounds. Fermentation produces similar aroma compounds as does other processes like Maillard reactions (which also happen during beverage distillation) and reactions related to enzyme activity. The organic chemistry unfortunately can get intricate very quickly and so can the neuroscience but basically we smell the aroma compounds and because prior experiences has already linked the volatile fatty acids and their even more volatile esters, olfaction alone produces the illusion of tasting the umami. This idea of smelling the umami is not widely recognized or even widely studied, but the idea that we evolve to expend as little energy as possible when searching for nutrition makes it probable. Sensory linkages can make us better adapted for survival.

The gustatory patterns of pleasure are widely known. We enjoy attentional tension such as the bitter-sweet, salty-sweet, umami-sweet and “sour” (acid-sweet). The same patterns exist once olfaction is categorized in terms of gustation. Olfactory-sweetness contrasted with olfactory-dryness forms the basis of most culinary aroma creative linkage patterns.

When Bourbon is described as round, olfaction is being compared to the haptic sense which is our sense of touch. Haptic aroma analogies go back at least as far as the ancient Greeks. According to the Greek philosopher Democritus, “Sweet” things are “round and large in their atoms,” while “the astringently sour is that which is large in its atoms but rough, angular and not spherical.” Saltiness is caused by “isosceles atoms” while bitterness is “spherical, smooth, scalene and small.” Bourbon is often described as round relative to the more angular rye whiskey. Empathy tells us Green Chartreuse is nearly all angles and therefore its aromas may be from the spectrum of olfactory-acid.

Neuroscientist Roberty Cytowic’s book on synesthesia, “The Man Who Tasted Shapes”, describes a synesthete with permanent haptic linkages to his flavor perception. He experiences food similar to Democritus’ analogy, but on non-voluntary terms. Quinine to Cytowic’s subject, “felt like polished wood because it was so smooth.” Angostura Bitters was “an organic sphere”, “with tendrils”, “the shape feels like a living thing, see, which is why I say ‘organic’. It’s round but irregular, like a ball of dough.”

We see the terms “flinty minerality” or “wet cobble stone” used all the time as descriptors for wine aroma and take for granted their origins. Many wine analogies may be cross-modal haptic references similar to Democritus early explanation of flavor or Cytowic’s synesthete. Stone has a texture and we find that texture an analogy for the aromas found within the wine. We know the sensation of “minerality” is the product of volatile aroma rather than non-volatile dissolved minerals because the “minerality” in question carries over into distillates.

The word “acrid” may be also rooted in a comparison to the haptic sense. Acrid is often used to describe the sharpest most angular aromas such as acetic acid, ammonia, or bleach. The word saw more common usage in the 18th and 19th centuries and was used to describe sharp but less extreme aromas like ginger, galangal, and cumin. The sensation of the word said aloud has a striking correspondence to the shape of aromas described as “acrid”. The phonetics of our word choices is not always arbitrary and even infants have been found to match nonsense sounds to shapes consistently with adults. Aromas referred to as acrid with the current usage of the word are most often always flaws and end up in the distillates of stressed and often oxidized fermentations.

The aroma of some distillates like those in the palm sugar based rum, Batavia Arrack, defy most attempts at object comparison. Their extraordinary foreignness cannot even clearly anticipate a gustatory sensation, but somehow a shape often comes to mind and the aroma feels like an elegant expression of what could be called “acrid”.

One of the most complete cross-modal systems of categorizing aroma comes from the mid 19th century French perfumer G. W. Septimus Piesse. Piesse compared olfaction to the auditory sense and in his seminal book The Art of Perfumery, he constructed elaborate charts that compare common perfume aromas to musical scales. The resultant order of the charts is startlingly intuitive and Piesse found that constructing aroma sets guided by the rules of common acoustic harmony also resulted in olfactory harmony. The acoustic metaphor “bass note” still lingers in common usage to describe aromas like vanilla or heliotrope and more than likely has its origins in Piesse’s odophone. Literary symbolists, surrealists, and futurists were later influenced by the analogies of the odophone and applications of the idea can be seen in the mouth-organ played by the main character Jean Des Esseintes of Joris-Karl Huysmans’ novel Against Nature or similarly of the scent-organ featured in the dystopian future of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

The mind is known to create enduring sensory after-images in every sensory modality, but notably olfaction which perfumers often refer to as sillage (an after-image is a sensation that endures after the stimulus has been removed). Piesse was so bold and thorough in exploring his ideas as to hypothesize that with these after images, the mind could neutralize “pestilential” or “ammoniacal” aromas with “acidic” aromas. The result would seem like the real chemical reaction of ammonia and acetic acid where their acrid aromas disappear but be constructed solely by the mind. Aromas such as that of juniper, cedar, the herbs of Provence, etc. are known to have antiseptic, purifying and hygienic olfactory symbolism, but also they seem to converge with the olfactory-acid. Each of these purifying aromas are also deeply rooted in aromatizing meat and fish which as they mature and spoil produce “pestilential” aromas. The interaction of sensory after images in the mind may also be the basis for reactive wine and food pairings. [Later with the help of Neurogastronomy I learned about contrast enhancement in space and time for wine and food interaction.] More than one hundred and fifty years after Piesse’s ideas were first published, little is still known about the subject.

The language of color is also useful in categorizing aromas. Green and Yellow as prefixes for the Chartreuses are chosen to converge with the respective spectrums of aromas contained within. Wines have been known to have their colors abstracted naturally and unnaturally to better converge with their aromas. Barrel-aged spirits are often colored with caramel to have closer tonal sympathies with their aromas because the barrel, if second fill, does not always contribute as much color as one would think. Other distillates embrace the divergence of aroma from their crystal clarity. Blue Curaçao is an example of deliberate divergence of color for the sake of expressing emotion via defiance of expectation and anticipation.

To represent aromas with language, it might be helpful to think of aroma sets (which quickly spill into the flavor concept). Gin is an aroma set derived from the distillation of numerous ingredients. Bourbon can also be seen as an aroma set and we can use multiple words to express its numerous components. The idea of a set is a useful framework to help explain the attentional tension between aromas and help reveal the prized patterns of pleasure.

Aroma sets can feel like they have intervals and overtones of aroma. Overtones are essentially intervals that are so close together that we cannot easily parse them. The combined aroma of orange and apricot produces an overtone that is impossible to separate, but too often we deny that realization because we know the inputs and misuse the comma as a logical operator. Orange and anise (or just about anything and anise) will produce a distinct interval. Intervals of aroma create a sensation of depth in the olfactory experience which can be a great source of pleasure. If orange, apricot, and anise, which can all be categorized as olfactory-sweet, are rendered in an imaginary spatial scale, both orange and apricot would appear close together while anise would appear distant.

Olfactory-sweetness is the easiest to manipulate in terms of creating overtones, but the same can be done for every olfactory-gustatory division. Many of the common gin botanicals such as angelica are selected to tonally modify juniper, producing an overtone that strives to be extraordinary.

Many pleasurable aroma pairings rely on creating attentional tension between different olfactory divisions. We often contrast the olfactory-sweet with the olfactory-bitter such as with the aromas of melon & smoke or blackberry & smoke. Both of these combinations will be felt to have the same shape to their tension but will seem to have different distances from each other influencing our ability to find them harmonic. The aroma set of melon & smoke is a more distant interval than blackberry and smoke. Smoke may seem a challenging harmony for melon (in the absence of another salient attentional attribute like texture) because of their distance, but other aromas sometimes are not especially harmonic with blackberry because they become overshadowed. Blackberry can be seen as relatively more dense than melon. Vanilla is typically the most dense aroma and has a large propensity to overshadow other members of an aroma set.

It is important to remember that there is no such thing as dissonance (dis-harmony). Aromas cannot not go together. It is not fair to say that one does not like something so much as one does not like something yet and tonight might not be the night to start. The idea of infinite possible harmonies was first championed in music. The avante-garde composer Arnold Schoenberg famously expressed the idea as there is “no such thing as dissonance, but rather a further removed consonance that has yet to be absorbed.” A look at musical history reveals that society has metabolized a massive amount of acoustic dissonance since the beginning of the 20th century. Adages such as “what grows together, goes together” may use the positive symbolic value of being from the same area to influence the perception of the sensory harmony in question. Flavor perception as a sensory system seems comparably atrophied and our harmonic values vary markedly person to person. Acquired tastes are immensely important to the spirits industry and yet are little understood or acknowledged.

One of the great tests for aroma vocabulary (or integrated as flavor vocabulary) is trying to describe vermouth. Most explanations of vermouth describe the origins and process of production and then end with a “you’ll known it when you see it” clause about the sensory values. Vermouth lies somewhere between wine and spirit because they are made from wine bases as well as aromatized with botanicals and fortified with distillates. When the common use tasting jargon of the wine and spirit realms are challenged to scale, they mostly fail. In defense of the jargon, many criticize vermouth for being too complex. Vermouth may have more moving parts than any other product in all of the culinary world.

If cross-modal metaphors are employed, the aroma set within vermouth can be described as an overtone of olfactory-sweetness evenly competing for attention with intervals of olfactory-dryness. The round, olfactory-sweet side features an extraordinary overtone lying in the space between the brighter muscat and the darker orange as well as a subtle interval of anise. A translucence that does not overshadow characterizes the tonality of the olfactory-sweet side. The olfactory-dry side is felt to have the shape of a terrace and in dry vermouth lies in-and-around the herbs de Provence while in sweet vermouth in-and-around cinnamon and the other mildly acrid darker spices. The gustatory-sweetness of sweet vermouth lies at a point that when diluted 2:1, spirit to vermouth, gustation seems relatively innocuous and an attentional path is flattened to perceiving aroma. The very low gustatory-sweetness of dry vermouth is such that the product can have comparable gustatory tension to dry, white table wine when constructed from a wine base (eventually fortified) that accepts low alcohol and high acid as a compromise for stable, fruity, olfactory-sweet aromas (“stable” implies aroma compounds that don’t break down and age so quickly). All vermouth is fortified with alcohol to the minimum of stability to impose as little sensory distraction from aroma as possible.

Expanded cross-modal metaphors for describing aromas may seem silly. The hyphenated descriptors may sound cumbersome and not fit for standard conversation, but there is room for more than the standard conversation. Specialized descriptors are useful for the back rooms where spirit professionals are working to sculpt aroma, not sell it. Applying language to an experience helps build the schemas we use to parse and detect contrast. Not everyone is born into a family of distillers. Those new to the art need to develop their skills quickly. The emphasis in wine culture on turning wine into words benefits the growing skills of the taster. The same can be true for the aspiring distiller.

Understanding the dividing line between the symbolism of an experience, or essentially what it stands in for, and the sensory experience is immensely valuable. At some point in time distillers need to explore how something smells and tastes blindly, in the raw. Ingenuity in the aroma field requires aesthetic detachment. Detachment (from symbolism) can bring about sustainability by helping us make use of the new, the forgotten, or the byproduct. Often these aroma sources are symbolically bankrupt. Once made harmonic on sensory level, positive symbolic value can be re-attached and the entire experience made whole again. Reflect on any spirit you love, and its beauty you will see, is the composite of both its real-sensory and purely abstract-symbolic values.

That have the expanse of infinite things,

Like ambergris, musk, balsam and incense,
Which sing the ecstasies of the mind and senses.

-Charles Baudelaire