Gin’s the thing at Scratch Distillery, where a sensory-focused class puts participants in the blender’s seat.
STORY BY MARGARETT WATERBURY • PHOTOS BY MATT MORNICK
We humans are visual animals. Ask us what we saw at the end of any given day, and the images pour through our minds: the faces of friends and families, the way the mountain looked at sunrise, the familiar contours of our web browser and email inbox. Ask us what we smelled? On an average day, once the coffeemaker pulls us out of bed, we’re just not paying that much attention.
It’s tempting to attribute our disorientation to the world of aroma and its twin sibling, flavor, to simple inferiority: Humans just aren’t good smellers, at least compared to other animals. But, it turns out, that little nugget of common knowledge may be a myth. Recent studies show that our sense of smell is more powerful than we think, rivaling rats and even dogs.
John McGann, a neuroscientist and professor at Rutgers University, reported in a recent paper that human beings can distinguish up to one trillion aromas, and we’re actually better than dogs at sensing certain smells, like those associated with ripe fruit. We’re just not very comfortable talking about, describing, and identifying specific aromas, because we don’t do it very often. Like anything, it’s a skill that benefits from a little exercise.
Ready to start putting your nose through its paces? Head north to Scratch Distillery in Edmonds, Washington, and sit down with distiller Kim Karrick for a day. “I joke that she has a dog’s sense of smell,” says her husband and business partner, Bryan. “Kim has a really incredible palate.”
It wasn’t always that way. Kim says that growing up in the Midwest didn’t expose her to a lot of different aromas and flavors as a child, but after moving to Chicago and then Washington State, she began to explore the world of smell and taste. When she started getting into wine, her palate training went into overdrive. “I couldn’t read enough,” says Kim. “I visited different wine regions worldwide and even had a couple of wine clubs, where we did all our tastings blind and paired with food.” At the winery where she worked, it was her job to nose each and every bottle of wine being poured at events to identify corked bottles, a term that refers to a common taint caused by natural corks that makes wine smell like musty cardboard.
Kim’s discovery of gin in the early 2010s represented a new olfactory frontier. On a work trip to London, She spent a free afternoon visiting distilleries and tasting gin, and fell in love with the juniper-laced spirit. “I was fascinated by its endlessness,” Kim says. “There are so many combinations.”
Gin is one of the world’s most diverse spirits. Most gins are made from a neutral base, often — but not always — commercially sourced, neutral grain spirit made on an industrial scale. All are infused to some degree with juniper berries, those small, dark-blue, pine-scented orbs that grow on juniper trees. Coriander is also a canonical gin flavor, and most also contain a combination of angelica root and orris root (iris root) to serve as a fixative that ensures the other flavors don’t evaporate over time into the ether.
Beyond that, the sky’s the limit. Other botanicals range from lush, floral notes like violet and rose, to savory herbs like rosemary and olives, to woodsy scents like cedar and sandalwood. Few spirits offer a more enticing playground for people’s surprisingly sensational sense of smell.
After falling down gin’s rabbit hole of possibilities, Kim and Bryan opened Scratch Distillery in 2015, setting up shop in a slice of a former Safeway grocery store transformed into a creative mixed-use space in downtown Edmonds. There, beneath those recognizably arched ceilings, Kim relies on her well-honed senses of smell and taste to create carefully balanced, aromatic, complex spirits from local ingredients — gin, of course, as well as vodka, whiskey, and — soon — brandy.
But that’s just part of the story at Scratch Distillery. In addition to all the traditional distillery trappings, like craft cocktails and tours of the production floor, Scratch offers another way for aspiring gin-makers to get involved: GINiology, a three-hour class designed to put participants in the blender’s seat to create their very own personalized gin.
That’s how, one Saturday evening, my husband and I found ourselves seated at Scratch Distilling’s U-shaped bar with 10 other gin lovers, sipping a gin and tonic while we listened to Kim explain the ground rules. We’d smell and taste more than 30 different botanicals, each individually vapor-infused into a potato vodka base. (Scratch makes all its vodkas and gin bases in-house and from scratch, using grains and potatoes grown in Washington. Hey, it’s right there in the name.) As we went, we’d pick out our favorites, choosing flavors we thought might jibe well together, and marking them down on a list in our preferred proportions. Then, Kim and her team would assemble our very own custom gin, right there in the distillery.
No sweat, I thought. I’ve tasted things professionally for years. This’ll be a cinch. I sampled my way through the different infusions, going heavy on the green herbs like mint, lemon geranium, and rose geranium, as well as earthier notes like bay laurel and licorice root. Then I added some peppercorns — pink, as well as black. Why not?
I should have known it was harder than it seemed, when Kim’s brow furrowed as she looked at my notes. “A little of this goes a long way,” she said, pointing to the rose geranium line. I scratched out my “2%” and wrote “1%,”, feeling like a dishonest elementary school student in charge of grading her own paper. “And I’d go heavier on the pink peppercorn,” Kim continued. “It’s such a great flavor, and you’ll need some heat to balance all those herbs.” 2% became 4%. Kim smiled. I felt reassured.
A delightful citrusy cocktail and the increasingly jovial company of the other GINiologists softened the suspenseful wait for my own bottle that evening. We swapped tips on favorite brands and peppered Kim and Bryan with questions, while they carefully measured out minute doses of botanical infusions into our bottles. Finally, the moment of truth arrived, and my personalized gin was placed in front of me.
Ordinarily, I’m a Beefeater or Tanqueray girl — I like a crisp, clean, juniper-forward gin, the kind of thing that goes great with a lemon twist and not much else. But everybody likes a change every now and then, so in my recipe, I’d gone out on a different limb. Now, I worried that my concoction would be too lush, too floral for my taste. It almost was, teetering on the edge between dew-covered garden and muddy Northwest raised-bed. But Kim was absolutely right: Those pink peppercorns saved the day. Slightly sweet, deeply perfumed, and just the right amount of spicy, they built a bridge between the earthy and herbal notes that brought everything together.
Later, Kim told me that my experience was a common one. “The challenge of the GINiology class is getting students to first just think of the flavors individually that they obviously like, and then helping them think about the bigger picture of combining those flavors,” she said. “So I can help make suggestions of flavors to go back and review because I think they would make a good blend or represent a category they may be missing for what they’re trying to accomplish.”
Or, of course, you can let Kim run the show. She says she finds that some people just don’t trust their own palates and would rather she make them a custom blend. “That’s OK!” she laughs. “They still have a lot of fun, and it takes the pressure off them.”
Tempting, but I’ll stick with my way — there’s no better way to learn than by making mistakes, and in the world of gin, even the occasional misstep produces some pretty delicious stuff. Plus, when it comes to training your palate, everything’s a learning experience. “Experimentation is the bottom line,” says Kim. “I never thought I would create so many different spirits, but it’s hard to tame the creativity.”
Scratch Distillery is located in Edmonds, Washington.
GINiology classes are held many Friday and Saturday evenings.
Margarett Waterbury is a food, drink, and travel writer based in Portland, Oregon. www.margarettwaterbury.com