Spruce up your sensory skills with this aromatic woods set

Introducing…my custom made Aromatic Woods Set! This is a kit of 36 aromatic woods enclosed in glass vials, to be used as a scent reference. Read on for the history behind it.

Photo by Katie Gilmer Pon

I had the good fortune to grow up in a family business that sells all kinds of hardwoods. This gave me great access to raw materials for school projects — the medieval catapult made of Spanish cedar, the Woods of Colombia poster board.

This family business also means I have a resource to indulge my sensory science curiosities. When I was working at TCHO, a chocolate maker in San Francisco, the sensory panel (the team of staff, including me, that would taste all cocoa bean samples) was committed to improving our flavor and aroma memory, with the goal of maintaining scoring consistency from sample to sample and taster to taster.

Chocolate has over 500 aromatic compounds and these greatly inform the tasting experience. One of our favorite activities was to look to other industries for what we called sensory cross-references — finding chocolate’s aromas and flavors in other diverse products. Coffee was a natural fit, and we went to cuppings together at Bay Area coffee roasters. We tasted different varieties of malt from a local brewer’s supply shop. We even tasted salts from Portland salt importer, The Meadow. On the aroma reference side, we looked to perfume and its diverse array of scents.

At this point, I screened the database of woods that exists in my dad’s head and nowhere else. Input: woods that have distinctive aromas. Output: 36 different woods that we deemed “Aromatic Woods”. We cut small pieces, put them in airtight vials, labeled them with their scientific names, and Dad made a beautiful box to hold them. Behold!

Photo by Katie Gilmer Pon

My initial idea for the set was as a sensory reference for lab use. Anyone doing sensory work in wine, whiskey, coffee, chocolate, tea, or other complex products could use this set to develop their sensory memory. Perfumers would find it useful as many perfumery oils are derived from wood. I had friends recommend other uses too — one had an idea for aromatic jewelry. Wear a wooden bracelet with a calming scent on stressful work days. I’m sure there are other uses too.

Regarding the woods selected, we included some of the species that are commonly known as aromatic. Cedar, pine, fir, camphor, and rosewood figure prominently. Why did we pick 36 woods? The number is mostly arbitrary in this case and we might adjust it in future iterations, but it was initially a nod to Le Nez du Cafe, the kit of 36 common aromas found in coffee. I was trained on the Nez du Cafe when I went through Q Grader (coffee taster) training, and found it useful as a scent memorizing tool.

Here are a few of the aromatic woods contained in the set:

  • Spanish Cedar (Cedrela odorata): A scent familiar to cigar aficionados, used to make humidors. Strong spicy cedar scent.
  • Camphor (Cinnamomum camphorum): Medicinal scent. Camphor oil is the ingredient in Vicks VapoRub and Tiger Balm that give them their characteristic smell.
  • Brazilian Rosewood (Dalbergia nigra): Light floral, rose-like scent.
  • Hawaiian Sandalwood (Santalum ellipticum): Musky, floral, incense.
  • Raspberry Jam Wood (Acacia acuminata): This Australian wood smells like its name. Surprisingly so.
Photo by Katie Gilmer Pon

My next research project is to identify the chemical compounds holed up in the cellulose walls of these woods. I want to be able to correlate the aromatic compounds in woods with compounds found in coffee, cocoa, wine, and other things. I haven’t been able to find a reference for this yet though. I know terpenes and esters play a strong role here, but I need more information to be able to produce a guide to my aromatic woods set. Please leave a comment if you have any advice. I’ll write a follow-up post when I have enough information to map out some products that share common aromatic compounds with these woods.

Would you be interesting in purchasing an aromatic woods set? Please let me know!