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The Amazing Alchemy of Scratch & Sniff Whiskey

Have a wee snort.

Sometimes a great book starts with an author trying to answer a simple question. Like, say, “How did choosing the right booze to drink end up so complicated?”

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That’s what Master Sommelier Richard Betts asked himself a few years ago, when he realized how little Americans really knew about the wine they were quaffing. Betts felt that the industry’s treatment of vino as a luxury item had created a culture of steep price points and stuffy taste descriptions—both prohibitively obnoxious. Then he realized that all of us already come anatomically equipped with a tool to cut confusion and hone in on what we might like to sip.

It’s called a nose. After all, most of what humans perceive as taste is really built on scent. So Betts reverse-engineered different vintages, breaking each into three distinct odor components that telegraphed how they were made and would taste. That’s fruit type, soil (or terroir, if you’re fancy), and the type of barrel the wine was aged in. He also found some seriously like-minded collaborators to help: designer Crystal English Sacca, who has directed ad campaigns for the likes of Audi, Intel, and HBO, and illustrator Wendy MacNaughton, who draws for Lucky Peach among other magazines and is well known for her illustrated reporting books like Meanwhile in San Francisco.

The result: Their own book. When it debuted in 2013, the Essential Scratch & Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert rolled out with its own smelly buttons, including bacon and cat pee. This month, the trio are toasting the launch of a second book, The Essential Scratch & Sniff Guide to Becoming a Whiskey Know-It-All.

This time Betts breaks whiskey into its own olfactory components—grain, barrel type, and where it was aged. (A warehouse in Kentucky imparts different flavor than being near the ocean in Scotland.) The roadmap will lead you to one of 279 different choices, each arranged along a quality spectrum that goes from “mix” to “sip” and “savor.” “Your mood changes all the time, so our map is quite dynamic to how you are feeling,” says Betts, who calls this his “no ascots allowed” approach to ordering.

To that end, the book’s design winks constantly at the highfalutin subject it’s supposed to be covering. Like most kids books, there are thick, oversize pages with image-driven spreads that jump across the margin. These also have that toasty hue that weathered tomes seem to take on over time. MacNaughton says she tried to illustrate the ingredients and processes that Betts describes in a “lighthearted, playful, even whimsical” manner. And that’s a feat, considering one page is about the differences between pot and continuous-style distillation. (At one point, she went method, mixing different whiskeys into her paint.)

The one catch was making sure each beverage’s native scents were matched correctly at a factory overseas. Betts says that his samples of vanilla beans and extract were both confiscated by Chinese agriculture officials. Finally, someone dunked a shirt in the extract, let it dry, and shipped the garment separately to sneak it through.

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The team’s most useful achievement is a pull-out infographic for choosing your own libation. You, the aspiring drinker must start at the center of what looks like a maze of concentric circles with scent-related questions. Each time you answer one, you move outward into a different area of the puzzle, which asks you more about what sort of beverage you’re aromatically drawn to. It’s the sort of decision matrix that’s meant to be solved differently each time, depending on how adventurous you feel.

Or, as Betts puts it, still questioning: “Isn’t that the point, after all? To find your way to a glass that can make you smile?”

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About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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