Edible Scents Make Flavorful Cocktails—And A Lasting Impression
We visited Alice & the Magician in Burlington, Vermont, where the Wisniewski brothers bottle superlative scents for cocktails and experiences
The aroma makers at Alice & the Magician want you to stop and think about scent—less conspicuous than sight, more nebulous than sound—and its often subtle yet crucial impact on our experience of the world. Aaron and Sam Wisniewski, the brother duo behind the company, operate a full-service flavor and fragrance house, designing everything from cocktail products to aromatic landscapes.
You know those scents that take you back? The detergent your grandmother used, your favorite candy from childhood or your hometown after it rains? Of all the senses, smell is the most strongly linked to memory and emotion. The Wisniewskis exercise its power by making aromatics based on their personal scent memories: one, called ‘Dirt Farmer,’ recalls working in their parents’ garden, ensconced in dirt and wet grass. Another recreates opening the door on a winter’s day to the smell of snow and ice; though it’s delivered from a bottle, the effect is unmistakable to anyone familiar with that experience. “It turns out cold has a smell,” Sam said.
Aaron, who creates the scents while Sam manages company operations, analytically smells the environment to discern each component, then extracts those from their sources and blends them together to replicate and bottle the aroma. Their office-lab in Burlington, Vermont is located in a refurbished industrial building that hosts a number of artists and creative businesses. Shelves lining the walls at the back of the space accommodate over a hundred small bottles containing elements for use in their concoctions. Near the front, a fully-stocked bar exhibits the most public-facing aspect of their business: a line of edible aromatics designed to enhance cocktails by augmenting an ingredient that is already present or adding something that is not. Guests can sample the aromas by sniffing them out of small glasses, as you would at a wine tasting (without the wine).
Alice & the Magician launched with a series of aromatic mists meant to be sprayed on a cocktail just before serving. Flavors range from straightforward (‘Citrus Blossom Harvest,’ ‘Perfect Ginger’) to experiential (‘Autumn Bonfire,’ ‘Hiking the Long Trail’). This year, Aaron and Sam unveiled a new product line called ‘Flavor Elixirs,’ which are delivered in drops of liquid rather than mist. But unlike cocktail bitters, the elixirs don’t add any taste or texture to a drink—the flavor is purely aromatic. One key to understanding the science behind what Alice & the Magician does is the distinction between taste and flavor. While five basic tastes (bitter, salty, sweet, sour and umami) can be perceived through the tongue, Aaron explained, “Scent accounts for 90% of flavor. You can taste five tastes but you can smell literally trillions of different things.”
These trillions of things fuel Aaron’s hyper-specific design process. The aromatic mists and flavor elixirs are geared toward the two different ways we perceive odors: the orthonasal, through the nose (mists), and the retronasal, at the back of the throat (elixirs). Aaron described the former as more emotional and ethereal, while the latter corresponds to the intense, lingering flavors we get from chewing gum, cilantro and parsley.
Since the company began operations in 2015, Aaron has created roughly 150 different mists and 50 elixirs. Ten mists and eight elixirs, plus some seasonal items, are available for purchase on Alice & the Magician’s website, and they often work directly with customers to supply or develop additional scents. To that end, Aaron and Sam have built close partnerships with local bartenders, co-branding cocktails at Burlington favorite Hen of the Wood and the recently opened Honey Road (whose chef is an alum of Oleana in Boston), among others. Upcoming collaborations elsewhere in the U.S. include The Park Cafe in Charleston, South Carolina and the Four Seasons in Miami. A custom traveling bar, which can be fitted to the back of a truck, allows the Wisniewskis to showcase scents and mix inventive drinks at events.
Aaron has been studying the science of aroma for a decade: where it comes from, how we experience it, how it contributes to flavor and how to source the best ingredients based on aroma and extract them in a way that keeps the molecules intact, as a fine perfumer would, without heat or moisture. He has worked as a chef, bartender, sommelier and mixologist (“I hate that word, but sometimes it communicates something much different from bartender,” he commented on the final label) and became interested in scent in culinary school after learning about flavor’s dependence on aroma. “That just blew my mind,” Aaron said. “We kind of take smell for granted: we don’t really think about it that much, we don’t even have a language for it.”
Alice & the Magician’s unique products rest on Aaron’s remarkable ability to consider a scent and break it down to its molecular components. “There’s no such smell as grapefruit; there’s no such smell as strawberry; there’s no such smell as cilantro; it’s actually dozens and dozens, sometimes hundreds and hundreds, of aromatic molecules that work together like a symphony orchestra to deliver that perfect balance of smells that create grapefruit in your mind. If you leave any of them out or out of balance, it’s going to taste off, or not so fresh, or downright disgusting. You change a few molecules from garlic and you get rotten eggs. It’s really delicate.”
To ensure that every molecule remains intact, Aaron uses a high-tech, confidential extraction method. “We didn’t invent it, by any means, but it’s relatively new technology and we repurposed it for this,” he explained. The atomizers fixed atop their aromatic bottles disperse scent molecules to travel at exact same rate and concentration as they would in nature, “So you’re not smelling something that is similar to orange or grapefruit, or similar to an herb, it’s chemically and functionally identical. Because your sense of smell is so directly linked to your memory and emotion, it registers as the true thing and not what we call ‘the Jolly Rancher effect.’ Watermelon Jolly Ranchers are delicious, but they have zero resemblance to actual watermelon, and we wanted the real thing every single time.”
Outside of the culinary world, Alice & the Magician has created scents for body care and cosmetic products and is in talks to start designing aromatic experiences for virtual reality. Because of aroma’s link to memory, the brothers are beginning to explore how scent might be used in therapies for individuals suffering from PTSD. They also offer their services in scent landscaping and scent branding for retail, offices and events. “You know when you walk by Abercrombie and it reeks? It’s like that, but the good version of that,” Aaron quipped.
In those instances, Aaron and Sam work with the client to develop a scent based on their needs—whether it be to set a mood or match a certain theme. As with the cocktail aromatics, their method is particular: to bring scent into a space, they use cold-air diffusion in strategic locations or hook directly into the venue’s HVAC system for the best effect. Plug-in air fresheners, for example, emit large molecules that don’t diffuse naturally; Alice & the Magician’s system produces small molecules that diffuse at the same rate as they would in nature.
Given that scent has been shown to influence mood and behavior on a subconscious level, it seems worthy of consideration for any retail or event space. “People spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on events and think about every single detail except scent,” from lighting to feng shui to the height of the ceilings, Aaron said. That’s where Alice & the Magician comes in, essentially unrivaled in the precision and presentation of their wares. “Scent makes a very serious and long-lasting impression.”
Lead Image: Alice & the Magician