Sensory analysis or tastings?


Episode “Sensory analysis or tastings?” is recorded in Italian, but here follows an interview summary in English.

What is the difference between sensory analysis and tastings? What is important when selecting assessors? What are the benefits for producers, marketers and consumers when use is made of sensory analysis? What are the most recurring errors when identifying aromas? What is a sensorialist? These topics and a lot more were discussed with our guest, Luigi Odello:

Oenologist, journalist, adjunct professor at Italian and foreign universities, founder of Odello Associati, president of the Centro Studi Assaggiatori and of the Istituto Internazionale Assaggiatori Caffè, managing director of Narratori del Gusto (Taste Storytellers), Istituto Eccellenze Italiane Certificate and Istituto Internazionale Chocolier, academic secretary of the International Academy of Sensory Analysis, member of the board of directors of Absis Consulting, Istituto Nazionale Espresso Italiano and Istituto Nazionale Grappa, coordinator of the Conferenza delle Accademie and of numerous scientific committees, director of L’Assaggio, Sensory News, Coffee Taster and Grappa News.

During his career he gained particular skills in sensory analysis and in the implementation of innovation in companies, dedicating particular insights to neuro-linguistic programming and transactional analysis. In the university field, he has spent over 300 hours a year of lessons and is supervisor or co-supervisor of over 100 degree theses and author of numerous publications.

He also wrote 51 books and collaborations with the most important magazines in the sector of sensory analysis. He is speaker at numerous conferences both in Italy and abroad.

Interview summary in English

How was your passion for sensory analysis born and why?

I am an oenologist and back in the years the oenological school was the only one that also offered courses in sensory analysis, which was then called tasting. It was normally held on Saturday mornings and when we guys went back home we were not exactly sober…

What is sensory analysis and what distinguishes it from tastings?

In Italy, in the 60’s and 70’s, there were few sensory analysis tests. There was a lot of tasting. Italy is certainly the country with the largest number of tasters. The distinction is simple: when we talk about sensory analysis we have to comply with metrological rules. So we have to validate the tests, which must be comprehensive, repeatable and reliable. Asking what is good to a consumer is completely different from asking the same question to a trained assessor.

In sensory analysis we always need a statistical treatment of the data in order to satisfy certain rules. In the field of tasting you don’t need all this. We have a large audience, from reviewers to critics, who basically make a sensory evaluation, but we cannot speak of sensory analysis. Psychological barriers have been created to enter the discipline of sensory analysis, however, in reality, sensory analysis is simply a description and evaluation of a product. It starts with the expression of what is perceived and comes to an evaluation, even quantitative, to profile or, more simply, to define how different one product is from another one. Sensory analysis evolved and, in Europe, we made great progress, even applying what are defined as “highly informative tests”. They are tests that alone give more or less the information that used to be provided by more tests. Another very interesting aspect is that, as a discipline, sensory analysis also progresses in uncovering correlations with chemical analysis, so we are also able to justify what is perceived. And at the same time, it opens the door to neuroscience, hence the possibility of taking data directly from the brain and transferring it to what the sensory judge reports through a human language. They are complementary techniques meant to give an exhaustive picture of the product.

We can add that the training of the tasters is also very important in distinguishing sensory analysis from tasting. Is this right?

Surely. The barriers I mentioned earlier are of two types: one is the slang barrier, for which a language must be learnt to evaluate a product. Certain terms for a normal consumer don’t mean anything, so this creates a barrier. So much so that today in sensory analysis and, in any case, when we have to develop a testing protocol, we always start from what people perceive. Therefore, we use the language they use and, in this way, what emerges is what ordinary people feel. Each culture has its own perceptive capacity and we need to bear that into account. Today we are also facing another problem: the generational change, from certain points of view, is faster. The experiences people have are completely different from what they used to be. Changing the generation also changes the language. If I describe the product in the language of sixty-year-olds, I am light years away from how 25-year-olds can describe it. For example, speaking of wines, but also of cigars, we can talk about the scent of sweaty horse, which would be due to a phenolic molecule present in both products. Many students tell me “I only saw sweaty horses on TV and clearly they did not stink”. So this discourse in sensory analysis must be kept in mind if we want to use it in communication. Tasters must be trained to be able to follow the slang, otherwise we are not understood.

Another barrier is in the statistics. We cannot think that everyone knows how to interpret statistical data elaboration. Americans are masters here, they use infographics that make the statistical concept more easily understandable. In sensory analysis we use the classic radar chart, but today we use others, like aroma wheels or trees, which are very intuitive.

Who can make a reliable judgment on the sensory quality of a product? Can you describe the role of the assessor, how s/he is recruited and trained?

We have to ask different questions to different types of judges. The only one who has the right to judge a product is the consumer. But, logically, the analyses made on consumers require a large population, a randomized sample, therefore not clustered a priori. This means not less than 1000 evaluations. Therefore we apply the next step, which implies trained assessors, who operate in an augmented reality. S/he is able, from the same reality that we submit to the consumer, to identify certain aspects, to quantify them, so we have a true picture of the products. This allows us to greatly reduce the experiments because I then just do a consumer test or I can identify certain consumer trends. For example, if we take a dessert and submit it to an Italian who says it is a sweet intensity 5, it is probable that Italians like it, that Americans find it not sweet enough, that Chinese find it too sweet. When we do this type of operations only using trained assessors, we can see if a product is in line with what the consumers like or not. It is a very important distinction.

Who do we choose to be trained assessors? We are talking about able-bodied people, this is also important: we have trained blind judges, they are fantastic, but their sensitivity is not representative. Basically, when taking able-bodied people, the most important thing is passion, because the desire and curiosity to enter a product’s world depends on them. Then, automatically, based on certain training courses, you can have an assessor who has a superior analytical capacity when compared to a consumer. The first thing in the training course is methodology, for instance what type of tests we perform and what the tests require. Then we move on to a slightly more specific part, which is psychophysiology, starting from the brain. The personality of an assessor is fundamental. When s/he changes the mental scheme, the perceptive ability also changes and s/he sees reality in a different way.

Another thing, as you said, is the fact of continuously training assessors. The best training an assessor can do is of two types: learning to keep senses and mind open, tasting everything and taking written notes, 4-5 words notes. It is useless to describe a cigar through the common characters of all cigars. But when we write, this has a double anchoring effect: first of all, the emotion that accompanied it is important. This is the anchoring of a certain perception to the brain. The second thing is that when we write, reread and focus on something, we have a visual anchor, which is increasingly important in today’s society. And so we can create a sample space, within which we can define the products. The sample space is important because our brain always goes by comparison to the closest experience we had. So, the concept of having a large sample space in a given product category means being able to better evaluate those products. For example, I am a Toscano smoker: had I never smoked other cigars, my sample space would be greatly reduced, even when I evaluate a Toscano cigar.

There are also other factors. Let’s think of the draw and how different is the amount of smoke we draw from a Toscano vs. a Caribbean cigar. In a compact Toscano, the amount of smoke is further reduced. If we applied the same drawing power in a Caribbean cigar that we apply on a Toscano, we would faint.

Being able to make correlations with chemical analyses is a fascinating thing.

There is also a big problem. When we talk about volatile substances, we talk gas chromatography. Many of the combustion compounds, especially sulfur compounds, in normal gas chromatography they are transformed. Therefore I never know what I started from, I never have a faithful analysis of the product. We found that environmental analysis detectors gave us the best results in identifying the compounds (nano, not even micro) that we can have in tobacco smoke. We succeeded in identifying sulfur compounds, for example, which are the real carriers of aroma.

I would also like to ask you about another issue. We can describe the sensory characteristics of each cigar leaf but, when we smoke the cigar, there is so much interaction among all the chemical compounds, that it is no longer possible to find each of the sensory characteristics that we find in the single leaves. What is your perspective on all the chemical interactions of all the leaves that make a cigar, and therefore on the poor predictivity of the leaf sensory characteristics that the consumer can then find in the cigar?

This is a sacrosanct truth, which has little consideration even by many sensorialists. I always use a metaphor: in the West world have an alphabet; if we type any letters on a keyboard, we will write something that does not make sense but, if we want, phonetically, it can make sense. In the Eastern alphabets, with ideograms, when a piece is missing, we cannot give it any sound. The same thing happens with molecules. Our brain creates engrams for itself. When two molecules are in association, they can easily lose their individual character and take on a new character which is completely different from the first. When we talk about molecules in burnt tobacco we have a thousand, perhaps today two thousand molecules. Our brain has the ability to read these molecules, but it reads them together, it doesn’t read them separately. In tobacco blends, there is very little character of the two or more compounds that originated it. Not only that, there are molecules that have the ability to inhibit others, so, if they are together, they will not be sensed individually, nor differently, but only one of the two will be sensed. These games drive us crazy, but they make sensory analysis incredibly interesting.

Machines can detect that a molecule is present in the matrix, but then one of the value of sensory analysis is to help consumers make choices that are meaningful to them. If it is not possible to let machines communicate in the consumer language, then the panel translates the chemical language into words accessible to consumers.

This is another great aspect of sensory analysis, the role of the mediator, it constitutes the narrative. We can tell what a product is like and, based on what is perceived, also why and how that particular stimulus is perceived in that product and not in another one.

With the help of artificial intelligence, we will be able to create models that will get close. We have done a research, which is in the process of being published, in collaboration with the Universita’ Cattolica (Milan). It was based on 100 coffees from around the world, they were evaluated by tasters, then we chemically profiled them and, through the use of statistics, we divided them into two groups. They were fairly well classified according to the hedonic value that the sensory assessors had given. But this is incredibly reductive information: a machine managed to tell me if a sample was good or not. At the level of production plants it is useful, but at the level of communication with the consumer it is not sufficient. I don’t think a consumer is very attracted by someone telling them that a machine said this product is good. Healthy, hygienic ok, but good… it’s better if a person says that.

Today, the issue is a bit delicate, also given the opinion that consumers have of big algorithms which guide consumers according to other humans’ biases. We can think of social media influencers too…

It needs more studying and to be taken with caution. In Italy, a beautiful book has been published: “How social media killed communication”. Everything we do today was unthinkable yesterday, this is progress. But also a progress that far exceeded expectations and also roles.  It becomes even more true when we think of sociality, which is a component that becomes more and more important. The web is fine but the pleasure of being in company while smoking a cigar cannot be matched. Consumer education is also important.

What is the experience of Centro Studi Assaggiatori in the sensory analysis of cigars?

The Centro Studi Assaggiatori has 5 branches of activity, one of them is research. Research suffers from funding everywhere. We are a private company, so we must first earn and then spend on research. The cigar is an expensive product. When we started with the cigar, 20 years ago, we started with a thesis with students who expressed interest. The first protocol we developed posed problems with the cigar. The first is that obviously we could not split a cigar, because the initial part of the smoke of a cigar is completely different from the final part. And we clearly can’t pass a cigar from mouth to mouth. An experimental protocol emerged.  Then we developed a whole series of evaluations, especially on national Toscano cigar, by profiling the different cigars, also applying evocation. Can a cigar transport us into a certain environment? Can we give a semiotic meaning to the smoking of a cigar? Can we understand if the producer of that cigar is innovative or traditional? We have found that cigars have a high ability to project people into environments and make them feel in a certain way. These aspects need to be evaluated. Producers can then use a specific type of packaging. And, as far as consumers are concerned, we go back to the narrative, whereby one claim or phrase is used rather than another one. Today we are able to do tests on complete cigars. We must bear in mind that not all assessors are smokers, so the field of acquisition of judges is restricted. Sensory analysis is used to describe any product that has an interaction with a sensory system, but this descriptive ability derives from a training that must be done.

We talked more about the benefits for the manufacturer, for the marketer. What benefits do you see for the consumer of those products created and marketed applying sensory analysis outputs?

The truth. I can be a sensorialist, but when I detach myself from the products I have knowledge for, I become a consumer. Guidance becomes fundamental: on the one hand it prevents me from making mistakes or reduces the chances of error, on the other hand it creates an awareness of what I am consuming. The problem of communication and marketing is in not using sensory analysis, therefore in communicating through invented narratives, in which a consumer does not find himself. An example: if I pick up a glass of wine and a sommelier tells me that in that wine there are notes of a Bulgarian rose grown on the right bank of the Danube, either I have the competence to understand that that rose is different from the one grown on the left bank and what the difference consists of, otherwise: if I am shy, I think I am an imbecile, or, if I am more rebellious, I say that it is nonsense and therefore I lose faith in whom marketed that product in that way. Sensory analysis gives me the opportunity to tell the consumer what s/he will perceive. When the consumer finds the truth, s/he gains trust in the brand, the product becomes a friend, s/he becomes more loyal and therefore is likely to follow the brand in new experiences. The more we become sensorialists, that means being intrigued and having the desire to create new experiences, the more we need innovation in what is proposed to us.

What are the descriptors that you used most in your work with the cigar?

We talk about a visual perception and then, during the act of smoking, about gustatory-tactile, followed by a retro-olfactory type of perception. The analysis of the unlit cigar is very interesting and concerns sight and smell. As far as the sense of smell goes, things can change a lot: when the cigar is off, certain notes are detected with many nuances. Then we can have an evocation of floral scents, of dried fruit, which today is proving to be appreciated by consumers, or spices. Another very intriguing factor are the hints of pastry. We have dozens of different shades that give pleasure if one manages to grasp them. If we have inattentive consumption, it is just smoking. If we have a careful and also informed consumer, we are on another planet, we are gourmands.

I have heard communicators at cigar manufacturers who describe in this way the process by which we perceive the scents/aromas of the cigar: let’s take cream for example. It is suggested that cream is not in the tobacco and that we just perceive cream by making associations with past memories and experiences with cream.
Associations are made thanks to memories, but based on what the sense of smell actually perceives in the tobacco. Is it correct to say this?

It’s correct. The confusion arises from the lack of classification of the descriptors. The descriptors are of three types:

  • objective – they respond to a physical quantity, e.g. when you smoke, your mouth dries due to the reaction of the smoke with the proteins contained in the saliva, this is why we pair the cigar with drinks
  • hedonic – “frankness” for example, the level of cleanliness on a certain aromatic tonality; it is not easy to identify and measure it, so it has been called hedonic; same thing on finesse, on elegance. When a descriptor cannot have sufficient collimation, it is either placed in the hedonic category or it is avoided
  • evocative – I get to position myself in a dress and place when I smoke and I recall an aroma because there is something in common between that aroma and what I experienced in the past.

Let’s take a molecule present in the smoke, methylfuran. I have never heard a taster who evaluates the concentration of methylfuran, a machine does, but the taster will refer more to the strength of the smoke. There are also certain molecules that, when the concentration varies, their aromatic tone varies: for example thiophene at low concentrations smells like honey (which is one of the cigar descriptors), if it rises in concentration it smells like onion. The complexity lies in finding the descriptors. This is why culture is important. In America, aroma wheels are used extensively, they have noble origins that have modified sensory analysis at a conceptual level. This means that we generate families, subfamilies, and specificities in the field of aromas. In the 70s there was a great evolution in sensory analysis, so we would not create a melting pot of all descriptors. Whether it’s an aroma wheel or an aroma tree, I have to design them according to the culture that will use the tool.

It is also difficult for tasters to follow the procedure that involves first letting the brain process its interpretation based on the olfactory and gustatory sensation and only then look in the aroma wheel or tree, is this right?

Surely. In fact, one of the great problems of the aroma wheel is that, although starting from a concept that is scientifically irrefutable, graphically it becomes a problem: how do you look on the left side when we Westerners are used to read from left to right? In fact, it is not used in sensory analysis, there are other ways in which we obtain the data and then we can make trees, identity cards, wheels, but that is data processing.


Listen to podcast episode 40, “Sensory analysis or tastings?” (Analisi sensoriale o degustazioni?) in Italian



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