A friend of mine has type 1 diabetes, for which she injects a synthetic insulin called Humalog. When she does, there's a quick but very powerful aroma of... Band-Aids. It's weird. I never thought much of it, until the last time I had a peaty glass of scotch, a drink I've never particularly loved. As I took my first sip, I thought, as I always do, that it smelled like... the same Band-Aids. A quick poll of PopSci editors revealed that I wasn't alone in associating the smell of scotch with non-food: others thought of Sharpies, hospitals, and wood stain.
Why would scotch, a drink beloved by many for centuries, remind people of things that are so thoroughly not delicious? As it turns out, the resemblance is not at all a coincidence.
One of scotch's most recognizable flavors comes from a group of chemical compounds called phenols, a class of lightly acidic, naturally occurring (but often synthesized) compounds with the formula C6H5OH. Also known as carbolic acids, phenols are crystalline and white at room temperature, but dissolve very easily in water.
A sub-category of phenols called cresols--specifically ortho-cresol--is responsible for the flavor in scotch some would call medicinal. Cresols are very commonly used to dissolve other chemicals, which makes them very useful as disinfectants and deodorizers. The most famous? A little product called Lysol. (Interesting fact, from Wikipedia: "Lysol was also advertised as a disinfecting vaginal douche in mid-twentieth century America." Let's all be happy we've left those times behind.)
So how do they end up in scotch? They're naturally present in peat, a partially decayed plant product often consisting mostly of mosses. Scotland is basically covered with the stuff. But it's a lot more useful than the phrase "partially decayed plant product" sounds--if you compress it, you can squeeze out the water, which turns it into an incredibly efficient source of fuel for fires. And since Scotland has tons of it, and not very many trees, the country's namesake whisky relies on its very particular smoky fires.
Scotch is made by soaking barley in water for a couple days, which lets it "malt," or germinate for awhile before drying. The drying part is when the phenols enter the picture, since traditionally the malted barley was dried with, you guessed it, peat fires--a pretty unusual way to dry malt. That's why scotch has that trademark bitterness and other, otherwise similar whiskies (like bourbon and Irish whisky) do not. When we talk about "peatiness," we're really talking about the phenolic levels--they're highest in scotches from Islay, like Lagavulin and Laphroaig, up to 50 parts per million. The phenols are absorbed into the malted barley during the drying process (they basically get smoked), which is fermented and distilled, and, eventually, turned into a whiskey with a distinct phenolic tang.
You can also find cresols in Sharpie markers, where they (along with a few other industrial solvents) help the Sharpie ink to bleed properly into all kinds of surfaces. Cresol is also found in creosote, a fairly toxic wood preservative, and, as suspected, is an ingredient in many diabetes medications like Humalog and Lantus, where it's used as a preservative.
Another, similar kind of cresol, meta-cresol, is a common ingredient in antiseptics (though less now than they used to be--they're sort of extremely poisonous and tend to get abandoned as soon as we find anything as effective), and is such a distinctive, astringent odor that many people, upon smelling it, simply think "medicinal." It's a common aroma in hospitals and drugstores, and its antiseptic properties have made it a traditional ingredient in...dum dum dum...Band-Aids. So when you insist to a Scotch lover that their favorite drink just smells like a box of bandages, rest assured that scientifically, you are correct.
For more on scotch, check out our surprisingly well-populated tagpage of scotch science stories.
I like Scotch, good stuff. But for me after a couple of shots, taste and smell have left my senses. Oh as time goes on further my senses go too. lol
I get this exact same aroma and flavor from the majority of German and Belgian beers. For years I've only been describing these German beers with words like "lysol" and "bandaids."
I LOVE beer, particularly IPAs and pale ales, but I have never liked the lysol and band-aid flavor of German and Belgian beers.
Very interesting article! I would love to see a follow up regarding this aroma in German beers. Is it the same compounds?
Phenols are detectable at very low concentrations in beer (and other) beverages. The smoke, clove, and spicy character associated with some German and Belgian beers is one type of phenol. Band Aid, medicinal, and burnt plastic are other phenols closely related. It's considered a flaw to have those other tastes. They can come from poor process, or from infection, when making beer.
I am very sensitive to them and get instant headaches from small amounts. There are some good articles about the effects, and specifically, how to avoid them from spoiling your beer. Here's one (no affiliation).
Bandaid taste tends to come from chlorinated water, for instance. As a beer brewer, we spend time trying to develop the palate to recognize the certain flavors, and then avoid them next time! enjoy
Lagavulin is about the only whisky I like the taste of and it's always reminded me of tcp antiseptic or was it germolene from when I was a kid :-)
never thought that it tasted like bad aids since ive never ate them before LOL. oops! never mind i just noticed that it said "smelled". must be the scotch talking!!!
"You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes." -Morpheus
From a previous article from PoPSCi, it illustrated having a home science lab. So in reading this article, I felt the need to go to the local liquor store last night and buy some scotch and conduct some home science lab experiments.
While, I felt my experiments were successful last night, my hurting head this morning seems to indicate the opposite.
To the rest of you all, have a good day! ;)
A simple answer could have been that Band-aid contains scotch (or at least parts of it)