Posted on Monday 13 October 2008 by Bethan

Decanter Magazine recently took a sommelier (Mathieu Gaignon, the Connaught Hotel), a perfumier (Linda Pilkington, owner of boutique perfume house Ormonde Jayne) and a tea buyer (JING’s Edward Eisler) and analysed their sense of smell, asking them to nose aromatherapy oils, teas, wines and perfumes. Edward Eisler came out ahead of the field, scoring 11.5 points, in comparison to Mathieu Gaignon’s 9 points and Linda Pilkington’s 7 points.

This is particularly interesting given Edward’s unique approach to aromas: “Eisler admits he makes no effort to train himself to pick out different aromas or analyse the various layers of flavour in the teas he tastes. ‘It’s not what my job is all about,’ he says. ‘Instead I look to define what the tea is and where it comes from, then I look at what’s happened in the processing, which is where faults often occur. What you are looking for is a real clarity of flavour – which isn’t to say all the flavours need to be strong, they just have to present themselves clearly and in a distinctive way.’ Although Eisler was an inexperienced wine taster (hampered by the fact that he’s allergic to the stuff), he found the nosing exercise to be an interesting one. ‘Wine has an enormous amount to offer from an aromatic perspective,’ he says, ‘and I found I was looking for descriptors of the aromas far more than I do with tea. As for the perfume, I’m just not that into it.”

The article concluded:

“The first thing to note is that all three of our experts found the nosing an exhausting test, both of their ability to detect aromas and their capacity to describe them. Much to their surprise – most of the time – they succeeded in correctly analysing the samples, sometimes precisely, sometimes in
broad brushstrokes. You might expect the complex layers of a perfume would pose a challenge to those inexperienced in unravelling its composition, but sommelier Mathieu Gaignon said he found analysing them easier than performing the same exercise with the teas. His descriptions of both came close to those of the makers, but he nudged ahead in points on the teas, scoring the same as his wine analysis.

Tea expert Edward Eisler may say he’s ‘just not that into perfume’, but he managed to find a way to define their overall aromas with an excellent degree of proficiency – a perfect score, just as with the teas. He also scored the highest with the aromatherapy oils and Nez du Vin samples. He didn’t have quite such an easy ride with the wines – not surprising given that he’s allergic to them so could only nose the samples, without tasting them.

Perfumer Linda Pilkington’s descriptions of the wines were also off-base, although she found nosing them ‘an interesting experience’. Like Gaignon, she felt that the aromas of the teas were hardest to capture and describe, due to their subtlety, but again, she managed to analyse them with a greater degree of proficiency than she had expected.

It’s difficult to draw any firm conclusions from an experiment on such a small scale (particularly since we haven’t tested someone whose job isn’t in the wine, tea or perfume industries) but it seems clear that those people who have taken the time to hone their sense of smell are more sensitive than the average person to aromatic complexities, even when it comes to aromas outside the scope of their particular experience.

It’s probable that a sommelier who decided to learn about the complexities of tea or a perfumier who wanted to delve into the world of wine would find that they could pick up the necessary analytical and descriptive skills with a relative degree of ease.”