In conversation with Shelia Burties

In conversation with Shelia Burties

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

People | 16 Jun 2000 | Issue 10 | By Charles MacLean

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CM Can everyone nose?
SB Physiologically we are all the same, and whatever stimulates our senses is the same. But just as with sight or hearing, the senses of taste and smell vary from person to person: you may see the colour orange and smell the fruit, but I have no way of knowing that you are seeing and smelling the same as me.
CM How do you tell when someone has a faulty nose?
SB This is called anosmia or odour blindness. You can tell if you
are anosmic when everyone else says, “What a delicious smell” in the garden or the kitchen, but you can’t smell anything. Actually, complete anosmia is uncommon, but many people have gaps in their sense spectrum. We call this “specific anosmia”. In whisky, it is most commonly found in relation to phenols, quite a few people can’t smell smoke, which is curious, since it is a basic survival scent.
CM What about describing smells?
SB Language is crucial to the communication of what you smell, but verbal descriptions depend upon the individual’s
experience, character, vocabulary, ability and willingness to articulate, and so on. When assessing people in the industry, I think the most important stage is the conversation before the actual tests start. I want to find out how open the person is to smells, how aware of them, how
interested in them. The same with taste. Do they enjoy food? Do they cook? I want to know how enthusiastic they are about the subject, and how quickly they are prepared to respond. Spontaneity is important. It indicates self-confidence, and it is not a good thing to be ponderous about flavour assessment.
CM What makes a good nose?
SB In my view the best noses are those who are enthusiastic about what they are doing. They want to appreciate and enjoy to the full, although this is mitigated by the job they do: a stillman, for example, uses his nose for different purposes. Good noses strive to describe their experience. This requires flexibility of thinking, quick thinking, imagination, and a good memory. The association of one sensory experience with another is important here.
CM Who are the best noses you have encountered?
SB They come from all levels of the business (although some
members of staff are more taciturn). I remember being picked up by a driver, on my way to select assessors at Tamdhu Distillery. He was fascinated by the idea, so I asked him if he would like to do the test. He turned out to have real talent, and was later selected for the nosing panel – and noses for the distillery to this day. Women are often good noses. They tend to be more enthusiastic, less uptight in their use of language. And they are often more interested in cooking. In the past whisky companies were reluctant to employ them as noses,
but this has changed. The most rewarding thing about my job was training people who then went on to use their noses to the full. That, and when the results of one of our nosings were confirmed and justified by chemical analysis.
CM What is your favourite whisky?
SB I have lots of favourites, and their enjoyment depends upon
the context in which I am drinking, where I am, who I am with, what I am doing etc. A good malt does not disappoint: its place of origin must be immediately recognisable; its aroma and flavour must be appropriate (with no off-notes, no unpleasant tastes); its texture and mouth-feel must be right. Above all, for me, it must not be boring.
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