How Do We Agree that a Smell, Smells Good?


The smell of pavement cooling just after a summer rain, the heavy fragrance of freshly cut grass, the warm waft of baking bread, the soft clean breeze of laundry drying on the line …

While these aromas are highly specific and even seasonal, they are some of the more commonly cited favorites we hear about and are even asked to custom-create by visitors to Alice & the Magician’s tasting bar.

In a world spanning numerous environmental landscapes, cultures and climates, how is it possible for more than two people to agree that something smells good or bad? Are specific scents pre-determined as "bad" in your system? Can a smell be universally liked?

Here's What We Know:

The olfactory system is directly linked to the memory-and-emotion part of the brain, suggesting that fragrance is a deeply powerful and intimate force. The human nose can detect over 1 trillion different smells and when you sniff an aroma for the first time, your brain automatically logs both your emotional state and physical experience as a reference point for when you re-encounter that scent later. 

For example, the musty odor of dirty motor oil, chassis grease, and brake dust might smell fantastic to Person A and terrible to Person B. The difference could be that Person A first experienced those aromas when spending positive time with dad tinkering around in his garage, while Person B only negatively experienced those same scents when sitting at the mechanic shop waiting for bad car news.

These positive or negative scent-triggers would suggest that aroma preference is learned, emotional and therefore, completely subjective.

And if you're wondering, YES, we have had clients custom-request that "old garage" scent at A&M.

On the Other Hand:

There is also evidence of a more scientific reason for the difference in scent-opinion.

MedicalExpress reports that no two people experience scent in the exact same way. The variation of a single amino acid on one gene can cause a person to experience a smell as "pleasant" while someone with another amino acid experiences it as "unpleasant." Researchers at Duke University compared people's scent receptors and found that there was about a 30% difference from person to person.

In fact, hating a particular scent (CILANTRO, for example) may actually be hard-wired into your genes.  A 2012 Study discovered a genetic link near the olfactory center of DNA in about 10 percent of people that creates a severe cilantro aversion. Some people experience the fresh herb in all it's green glory, while others experience a soapy, pungent aroma. So yes, it's possible that some aromatic preferences are pre-determined.

What We Can't Explain:

Despite variations in genetic code, olfactory receptors, or learned behavior there seems to be certain aromas that are almost (but not quite) universally appreciated.

According to one study, here's a list of the top 10 smells:

(clink on the links to see how A&M uses each top ingredient)

1. Lime (fruit)

2. Grapefruit (fruit)

3. Bergamot (fruit)

4. Orange (fruit)

5. Peppermint (herb)

6. Freesia (flower)

7. Amyl acetate (molecule that smells like apples and bananas)

8.  Cinnamon (spice)

9. Mimosa (flowering tree)

10. Fir (tree)

Lindsey Carter