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The Best Way to Smell a Smell Is to Smell Yourself

According to a sommelier, your body odor is the best baseline in understanding scent

My sense of smell is probably the sense I think about the least. Seeing, hearing and touching all feel most essential to my lived experience, and I’m constantly bound to the whims of my tastebuds. But smelling always seems passive. It’s something that’s happening to me, not something I’m actively pursuing — unless I’m at the Yankee Candle flagship store smelling every candle until I induce a migraine. 

That said, smell is far more important than I give it credit for. I wouldn’t be able to enjoy my sense of taste without it. Maybe the problem, though, is simply that I don’t understand how best to use my sense of scent. Maybe I’m just not appreciating it enough. 

So how do I learn to really… smell a smell?

While it might seem like a job centered on taste, a sommelier’s sense of smell and ability to analyze scent is absolutely essential to the job. In fact, you can’t even become a sommelier without undergoing extensive testing in which you must analyze the qualities of a wine partially based on scent. To be a somm, then, you’ve gotta have a keen sense of smell. But according to Florida-based sommelier Adam Sageser, the best way to smell a smell is to have a “less is more” mentality.

“I have two major thoughts on how to smell,” he tells me. “First, short, successive sniffs are far more useful than long drags. Secondly, the longer you attempt to smell something, the harder it gets to pick things out. So, you have to learn to analyze what you’re smelling pretty quickly or try and reset your nose so it’s like you’re smelling things for the first time.” 

For a newbie, the latter choice is easiest. “The best way to reset your nose is to smell something strong and familiar that will wipe out what you were trying to smell, then go back to the thing you want to smell. Perfume stores and other places that trade in scent will often put out jars of coffee beans for this reason,” says Sageser. “But if you aren’t in a place where people will look aghast at you, sniff yourself. There is no more familiar scent.” 

Thus, the secret to really smelling a smell is just to smell yourself first. With our own body odor as a baseline, we’re better equipped to keep on smelling and learn from the experience. Of course, you could just whip open a tin of coffee or keep some other notable scent on hand for reference, but your own body will always be there if you need it. I think that’s kind of nice.