A Natural Nose for Whiskey

Research indicates that women generally have a better sense of smell than men, but it’s more than just biology that makes them better whiskey tasters
By Maggie Kimberl
When we think of science in the whiskey industry, often we are imagining the quality control lab which ensures all the grains are free from foreign materials and the pH of the mash is just right. Few people realise that there’s a whole area of scientific research exploring how we interpret the many flavours of whiskey when we taste it, and even fewer people realise that there’s strong evidence indicating women's biology makes us better whiskey tasters.

A study called Sexual Dimorphism in the Human Olfactory Bulb: Females Have More Neurons and Glial Cells than Males (Oliveira-Pinto et al, PLoS One, Nov 2014) sent to me by Susan Reigler, former lecturer and research associate in biology at Indiana University Southeast, and founding member of The Bourbon Women Association, states right in the title that women have more of the cells that translate olfactory sensations into information processed by our brains. This conclusion was later backed up by the publication of a meta-analysis (Sorokowski et al, Frontier Psychology, Feb 2019) that examined the results of a variety of studies with a total sample size of more than 37,000 people. The authors stated that the research seemed to confirm what they call the ‘common knowledge’ on female olfactory superiority, though they also emphasised that the extent of the differences was ‘notably small’.

“It doesn’t mean that all women have better olfactory sense than all men, since there are ‘supertasters’ of both sexes,” says Reigler. “But, in general, women do have a better sense of smell than men.” She explains that there are evolutionary reasons for this that boil down to mate choice and it seems that, completely unconsciously, women find men attractive based on how the men smell to them. As it turns out, the most attractive men to women are those whose immune systems are different from their own. According to Reigler, this has come about because the mixing of immune system genes strengthens the offspring’s immune systems, giving them an edge in fending off illness.

“And why are women so choosy?” asks Reigler. “Simple answer: eggs are expensive, sperm is cheap. In other words, a female’s genetic investment is costly. Mammal females, and especially primates, including humans, can only have so many offspring in a lifetime. So, in order for her genetic investment (i.e. children) to survive, she wants (again, unconsciously) the top-quality genes (including immune system genes) to be contributed by her mate.”

In short, women are wired to be better smellers and tasters for the sake of the continuation of the species, and this biological difference means we can detect more subtleties in a variety of substances – including whiskey. The Bourbon Women Association has polled members in a blind tasting and found that women prefer higher-proof, more flavourful whiskeys on average, though more scientific study of this area has yet to be done.

However, it’s not just these biological factors that predispose women to being better whiskey tasters than men. Anecdotally, women also tend to be better able to articulate their olfactory experiences, to categorise and name those sensory inputs in a way that is constructive and precise – a skill that is definitely an advantage in any role involving whiskey communication, production or sensory analysis. The reasons why this might be the case are not fully understood and could be impacted by culture as much as biology.

Scholarly work suggests that women may have an advantage because they can more precisely name and recall particular flavours and aromas. In Gender-specific Induction of Enhanced Sensitivity to Odors (Dalton, Doolittle & Breslin, Natural Neuroscience, 2002), the authors demonstrate that men and women acclimate at different rates to sensory inputs, but point out that differences are largely restricted to aspects of olfactory processing that require higher-level cognition, such as odour identification or odour memory. They go on to conclude that this, coupled with the fact that women develop olfactory sensitivity much quicker and to a higher degree than men, supports the anecdotal evidence that women have greater sensitivity to ambient odours. This research built upon previous work, including Odor Identification by Males and Females: Predictions vs. Performance (Cain, Chemical Senses, 1982), which demonstrated that the difference between men and women’s olfactory perceptions can be at least partially explained by the fact men took longer than women to generate the correct labels for their olfactory sensations.

In plain English, women are quicker on the recall of correct labels for their sensory memories and also adjust quicker to sensory inputs than men, which supports the anecdotal evidence that women are more descriptive in naming their sensory inputs. There are also questions as to whether language affects perceptions, but it’s likely that cultural experiences and availabilities of different flavours would come much more into play when talking specifically about whiskey. Thus, at least in general, we’re more descriptive about what we are smelling and tasting, and it is precisely this talent that has drawn many women to the whiskey industry.

Peggy Noe Stevens, founder of The Bourbon Women Association, was the first woman to become a master Bourbon taster in the Kentucky Bourbon industry. Her mentor, Lincoln Henderson, invested his time in her because he believed not only that women are more detailed and descriptive about tasting whiskey, but also because he and Stevens shared a common background as foodies.

“Becoming the world’s first female master Bourbon taster in my early days of working at the Woodford Reserve Distillery was something I could not have appreciated then as much as I do now,” says Stevens. “The incredible experience and training that Lincoln Henderson, Woodford’s master distiller at the time, gave to me was invaluable.”

Stevens was the visitor centre manager and assisted with tastings and barrel selections before Henderson suggested she might have a particular gift. “With our mutual appreciation for being culinary ‘foodies’ and spending hours in those tastings hearing him dissect flavours and trying to absorb his knowledge, I was fascinated with the flavours of Bourbon,” she continues. “We did barrel samples, worked in the lab, etc., but I believe what set me apart at the time was my culinary approach to tasting Bourbon.”

Lincoln and Noe would have long discussions about food flavours, which were stimulated by her having a broad culinary training and extensive experience working with chefs from all over during her time in the hotel industry. “My vocabulary was broad in the fact that I did not just describe Bourbon as caramel and vanilla,” says Noe. “Instead, it was crème brulee, mascarpone, dark brown sugar. This enlightened many drinkers, and I created the first culinary flavour wheel for that Bourbon.” Stevens’ work as a master taster opened the doors for many other women to fall into place in an industry naturally suited to our palates, and her founding of The Bourbon Women Association has given many women the encouragement and visibility they needed to take that first step. Since then, the industry has seen not only many more women master Bourbon tasters, but also women master blenders, master distillers, high-level mixologists, and more.

“When I was young, I spent a lot of time with my Mom in the kitchen cooking, canning, and trying to create recipes for the next local and state fair 4-H entry,” says Ashley Barnes, co-founder of The Spirits Group. “I knew early on that something was different, and I did not taste things like the rest of my family. I just figured I was picky to be honest.” Barnes started her career at Buffalo Trace, went on to work in the lab at Four Roses, and later started her own company with Monica Wolf, where the pair work with distilleries on blending, quality control, and more.

“I learned what I have heard referred to as ‘classically trained’ blending techniques from my peers at Buffalo Trace,” she continues, adding that master blender Drew Mayville was always willing to answer questions, talk through calculations and demonstrate how things should be done.

That kid in the kitchen who just thought that she was picky soon learned otherwise: “It became very clear that I could taste in more detail than others… the encouragement I got from my peers led me to start smelling and tasting any and everything I could that might pertain to whiskey. Tasting someone’s banana bread, writing down what I thought was in it and then asking for the recipe. I took advantage of every opportunity I could to expand my verbiage so that I could convey what I was tasting.”

However, the journey from biological truth to a career in the whiskey industry isn’t all that straightforward. According to Barnes, it takes time and exploration. “When I started at Four Roses, I learned that there were even more subtle differences in the Bourbons I was tasting,” says Barnes. “Really zeroing in on the different yeast codes and how that made each expression different and unique. I learned several blending techniques from Brent Elliot and Jim Rutledge while I was there. Again, there wasn’t ever a guide with steps A, then B, then C and now you can taste and blend. I suspect that this is typical of anyone in the industry who tastes for a living. There are basic truths that you will learn from senior peers and then it is on you to take that and run with it.”

These days, Barnes occupies such a position in the industry that she relies on her palate for her income by blending, detecting quality issues, and determining whether whiskey is mature enough to be bottled. This means she has to worry about coughs and colds more than others might, and schedules around her known seasonal allergies: “I always joke that it’s not a problem if I were to break my leg but a cold could knock me out for a week or so.”

In addition to the strict precautions she’s currently taking to safeguard herself from Covid-19, Barnes puts a lot more thought into her sense of smell and taste than the average person on a daily basis. For example, she only wears a light perfume or won’t wear any at all when tasting, but also takes precautions to ensure her palate is not adversely impacted by food or drink: “I have made changes over the years to ensure my palate is always ready… think of a professional athlete who uses nutrition and exercise to keep their body condition or what-have-you in tip top shape; I do things such as not drinking super-hot liquid. I love a great cup of hot coffee or tea; however, you will see me add an ice cube or wait until the cup is sufficiently cooled before taking a sip.”

Science tells us that women are better suited to jobs as tasters and blenders, but that’s only the beginning. It was these women’s passion, dedication, experience, intelligence and skill that transformed inherent ability into a keenly honed tool and propelled them to the highest levels of the industry. It took a few great women shattering that glass ceiling to open up the possibilities for all of us.