What Dublin born George Dodd knows about the nose is staggering. To celebrate World Smell Day on the 16 June Janice Hopper sniffs out his story
George Dodd runs the enticingly titled Aroma Academy in Aberdeen. He lives in a croft in Wester Ross on the west coast of Scotland and creates his scents in a lab in Inverness, so he’s quite a difficult man to track down.
His latest project, the Aroma Academy, has tapped into the passion and enthusiasm from beer, wine, gin and rum drinkers to understand the scents of their poison. His specially designed ‘Aroma Training Kits’, containing 24 vials of scents pertinent to each drink, are described as a cornerstone in ‘Your Route to Expertise’. The newly launched ‘Aroma Games’ pit participants against each other in rounds of Blind Nosing, Aroma Matching and Aroma Profiling - a novel idea for those who wish to recognise their ‘caramel’ over their ‘malty’, ‘buttery’, ‘ethereal’ and ‘decay’ scents. But how did George know that he wanted to follow his nose? He was born into it.
“My mother gave birth in our tiny house downwind of the Guinness brewery in Dublin. I’m fascinated by the topic of early smell stimulation and I believe that an individual’s sense of smell develops particularly well if the nose is exposed to scent at a young age. People don’t realise that the sense of the smell is like a muscle. Use it or lose it.”
Aged fourteen George was an unusual teenager because he had his own perfume lab at home. His father was plumber, his mother a housewife, but George confesses to always being interested in the world of smell.
“I’d been supplied free materials by an Irish cosmetics company who I think were heartened by a young boy taking an interest. I went to school at a time and in a place where I knew kids with no shoes, very much a working class background, so my hobby was a bit unusual. Being good at rugby I was popular at school but admittedly I kept quiet about my lab.” In 1961 George studied chemistry at Trinity College Dublin in order to understand what scents were made of. “Due to my background I wasn’t used to buying books, only borrowing them so I memorised everything. Ireland has an inspirational oral tradition so perhaps I tapped into that. The problem came that in exams I knew too much, I wanted to write too much in the time allowed.” When George graduated in 1965 he moved to Oxford to complete a doctorate on enzymes (in relation to the sense of smell) but continued to experiment in the world of perfume.“It became clear to me then that I have a distinct dichotomy between my head and my heart. My head wished to understand the building blocks of scent - the chemistry, molecules and enzymes - my heart wished to create beautiful scents like an artist.”
After graduation George spent three years working in Unilever’s research division exploring the philosophy and science of perfume.
“Unilever wished to look into the future, envisage how the world of scents would work in thirty years; time, pre-empting trends, a world of research and development.”
From there George progressed to founding one of the world’s biggest research groups exploring the psychology of smell at the University of Warwick. “Back then nobody knew how the sense of smell worked in relation to thoughts and feelings, it didn’t exist as a field before. In one experiment we stressed people out (as much as was allowable) and gave one half of the group (Group A) access to special smelly molecules without their knowledge.
“When we set the group simple tasks and midway released the smelly molecules Group A’s performance rapidly deteriorated as the odours brought back stressful memories.”
Another discovery, this time with potential global impact, was the invention of Electronic Nose Technology which gives machines the ability to measure scent. “Electronic noses could be used in distilling whisky to measure aroma but they could also be used in healthcare. It’s feasible that in the future patients will be diagnosed from breath analysis rather than lengthy blood samples. It’s a game changer.” The power of smell is so strong, in our memories, associations and flavour preferences, but everyone’s sense of smell is unique. We live in our own smell universe which is a mix of individual genetic inheritance and cultural influences. George had strong experiences of this at the Highland Psychiatric Group at Craig Dunain Hospital in Inverness where he worked for ten years.
“I gave very ill patients a full blown perfumery course and it was unexpectedly beneficial. One young woman who hadn’t spoken for five years was blind smelling. At one point she rose to her feet and spoke solidly for twenty minutes, something had triggered her. The scent was ‘horses in a stable’. Everyone was gobsmacked. Years later I was making a bespoke perfume for a woman and she was inhaling scents. After breathing in one particular aroma she started weeping gently. I’d given her a natural plant musk which reminded her of a quiet Saturday afternoon, ironing a shirt for her fourteen year old son. This brought back a powerful scent memory and great happiness.”
Smell is also connected with human attraction and George is an expert on the sexy world of pheromones, but he was surprised to discover it helped him invent a fish attractor.
“I read the book ‘Women and Salmon’ which asked why women are more successful fly fishers than men. Can they read the water, are they more patient or did it have something to do with them tying the fly with their hands and leave a scent? I did trials on the River Ness and Moy using a dummy formulation and a real pheromone one. We caught 70 fish with the dummy and 140 with the pheromone.” George’s fish attractor is still used by animal feed companies today. It wasn’t surprising that George abandoned fish to dedicate time to his real passion - perfume. In 2000 he established a Perfume Studio in the remote area of Mellon Charles in Wester Ross, creating a 5* visitor attraction. Down a single track road surrounded by moorland, sheep and bracken it became a destination with sweeping views, a cafe, perfume shop and his workshop where visitors could watch the magic happen.
“I was successful. In the area around Loch Ewe distinguished people often escape for a quiet life, so I created personal perfumes for the rich and famous and signed many confidentiality clauses.”
Here George made natural perfumes inspired by the land around him with names like Wind Song Highland Perfume, Glenbogle The Laird’s Cologne and Highland Myrtle Rose Perfume. He advocates using natural products rather than artificial ingredients which are commonplace across the world of perfumery, and he hopes to establish a perfume academy in Aberdeen.
“The flag of home is green and I seem to have a strong predilection for green scent notes so I’ll try to add the scent of freshly cut grass which injects freshness and energy.”
The Aroma Academy is George’s current project. Working with brands such as Bombay Sapphire and Diageo, it’s selling aroma recognition skills to the drinks industry and drinks enthusiasts, and they’re making it fun.
But when George finishes his day’s work does anything stir him as much as the world of smell?
“Actually, I quite like ballroom dancing.” Well, nobody saw that coming.
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