Our guide on the finer points of cannabis aroma, the components to assess, and how it all leads into wider bud appreciation should have you tasting your stash like a connoisseur in no time.



Smell, aroma, bouquet, and fragrance are words often invoked when discussing cannabis. Truly, apart from visual appreciation, smell is the primary component used to ascertain cannabis quality.

Smell is an ephemeral sense, so discussing it is difficult. Like music, it has many distinct classes and groups, and appeals to many people in different ways. Also like music, smell is layered and nuanced, so it isn’t surprising that the language for talking about smell is similar to that of music. Smell has notes and can be grouped similarly into chords and progressions.

Sense of smell and sense of taste are intimately entwined, so much so that losing the sense of smell also has the side effect of losing much of the sense of taste. This is actually a chronic condition that can cause depression and affect quality of life significantly.


Smell, like hearing and sight, is directly connected to the brain by a major nerve. A small patch of tissue with olfactory sensory neurons resides high in the nose. Smell is part of the chemosensory system or the chemical senses.

To give an example, as volatile molecules evaporate from a flower and are inhaled through the nose, they are detected by the olfactory neurons. The message transmitted to the brain is interpreted as smell. In the case of cannabis, these molecules are mostly terpenes and phenols.


Have you ever noticed that lifting a freshly squeezed bud, dry or wet, to your nose has an immediate and strong smell? Then, a bit later, the smell takes on a slightly different variation, and changes yet again when you detect the smell on your top lip fifteen minutes later?

These are called top, middle, and base aromas.

Terpenes and phenols are volatile aromatic compounds. When exposed to the air, they evaporate, a process which is perceived by us as smell. But the layers and nuances of smell precludes us from saying that a bud smells like one particular thing.

A strain will certainly have an overall characteristic and identifying aroma; Skunks and Cheeses, for example, have a particularly idiosyncratic smell. But the components of those bouquets are always a trace of this, a hint of that, and a smattering of something else—a particular progression of singularly identifiable notes that combine to make up the complex bouquets of the cannabis plant.


The first impression of a smell is known as the top chords. The molecules that form the terpenes of these combined top notes are the most volatile in the entire bouquet. They evaporate and disperse quickly, and the trained nose can identify the individual notes that make up the initial impression.

Top Chords Cannabis


Limonene: The primary terpene responsible for the smell of citrus, limonene is extremely volatile and appears in many strains as hints of lemon or orange, lime or grapefruit—even to the point of being positively astringent and nose-tingling. Think lemon impressions of Hazes and orange suggestions in Lemon Haze. Limonene is used in many cleaning products, and is so volatile that in bulk it is a dangerous fire hazard.

Geraniol: This terpene that gives geraniums their smell, and is a component of rose fragrance, is also a top note. It is one to evaporate quickly and mingle to form the first impression. The sweet floral tones in many strains are composed of geraniol. Unsurprisingly, this terpene is used substantially in perfumery.

Linalool: The terpene that gives lavender its distinctive smell and sedative properties, linalool also contributes to the floral first impressions of cannabis flowers. Linalool has a long history as a respected natural relaxant.


The terpenes that form middle notes evaporate more slowly and do not boil off as quickly as top notes; they also have a longer life once airborne, and are perceived for longer. Middle notes combine to form the predominant scent chord that lingers on the olfactory nerves after the top notes have left their first impression.

Middle Chords Cannabis


α-Terpineol: This terpene is what gives pine oil its distinctive smell. As a middle note, it will remain longer and go on to form the main body of the scent. α-Terpineol has countless uses outside of making cannabis smell fantastic.

β-Caryophyllene: The terpene that gives pepper its spicy and distinctive smell, it also provides a large part of the scents of oregano, basil, and rosemary. Many strains carry this sinus-tingling terpene, and it is partly responsible for actual physical sensations in the nose when sampling some strains.

α-Terpinene: The fragrance of marjoram is due to the predominance of this terpene. It is also a component of the pleasantly earthy and herbaceous notes that cannabis can display. It lingers longer than most, and can combine with other terpenes to provide the longer-lasting body of a scent.


Bottom chords are arranged from notes that evaporate the slowest and linger the longest. They are the fragrances on your top lip, and the aroma you keep going back to your fingers to sniff even hours after coming into contact with any weed. Over a long curing period, they will be the predominant smells coming from the storage jar until a nugget is broken up and the whole bouquet is fresh once more.

Bottom Chords Cannabis


Eugenol: A long-lasting terpene responsible for the aroma of cloves. Once the astringency of eugenol disperses, the scent can last for many days before it is an echo.

Gingerol: One of the phenols that gives ginger its sweet and spicy aroma. Slow to evaporate and long-lasting, gingerol, like eugenol, can last for days before truly fading.

Trans-nerolidol: This is the terpene that gives jasmine its nuanced floral aroma with hints of rose, apple, and fruity citrus. The aroma from jasmine can last so long it is put in satchels in clothes drawers to subtly fragrance clothes for months.


It is quite right to describe a cannabis flower like this:

Agitating a ripe and sticky flower produces a pungently layered top chord. The top notes of sour citrus and sweet florals tingle the nose and assault the senses. As the top chord fades, the middle chord is sensed more; memories of warm afternoons in pine forests linger and can even be smelled in the air. Later on, there are distinct whiffs of gentle flowers and dried ginger on your fingers and clothes as the bottom notes make themselves more dominant.

Like music, learning the language of smell takes time and experience. Smells are remembered just as much as any other mental input, and over time, a reference library of aromas ideal for identification in cannabis can be accumulated. So over time, it is possible to identify the separate fragrances in each chord as they progress through their stages of volatility.


Now we have smell covered, let's look at the wider art of appreciating cannabis, and the things to look for.

The look, pungency, and potency of cannabis can vary substantially from strain to strain. Assessing quality prior to consumption is primarily done by look and by smell. There are the occasional cheeky caveats whose features aren’t always a true indication of potency. Who out there hasn’t blazed up some average-smelling, schwaggy-looking buds only to be blown away by the cryptically surprising potency?

THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids have a neutral smell, and it is the associated aromatic volatiles that give cannabis its fragrant characteristics. Terpenes modify the effects of cannabinoids in ways that are only now being studied by science.

Many terpenes have recognised effects on the brain and body, and when combined with cannabinoids, go a long way to making strains vary from one to the next. Two strains with the exact same THC level can have substantially different effects on mind, body, and soul, depending on which volatiles are along for the ride.

With all things being equal, such as correct maturation before harvest and proper curing and storing, there is no “one rule” that distinguishes good cannabis, only guidelines.

Nothing beats the accumulation of knowledge over time to really give the connoisseur confidence in strain selection. That being said, the world of contemporary cannabis is unlikely to dish up poor-quality weed, but it will dish up an incredible and mouth-watering variety.



When comparing cannabis, it is best to have a level playing field. Consume it in your favourite manner every time, whether it’s vaping, spliffs, bongs, pipes, or blunts. Blunts will add tobacco flavours, but if this is what you are used to, then the variety in cannabis is still obvious.

Be sure to have a clean palate before commencing any trials; an aromatic meal beforehand can linger in the mouth and nose and distort any assessment. For instance, after a ripping curry, the flavours can linger for hours and will certainly alter the smells and flavours of weed. Sipping clean, cool water cleanses the palate prior to smelling and tasting—give it a try next time you toke a spliff. The flavour of the smoke that follows a sip is much more noticeable and nuanced.


The physical appearance of a bud can reveal several characteristics before it is consumed. Smelling weed and noting initial observations are intimately connected as it is quite impossible to NOT smell weed. Cannabis is notoriously stinky—and who can resist that intoxicating perfume anyway!?

Visual inspection can give insight into species, whether it be sativa, indica, or dominance in either direction, maturity, and whether the bud is indoor or outdoor-grown. Things to take into account when examining a nice bud will include:

The look:

- Colours of hairs, calyxes, and resin
- Glossy or matte, compact or loose, old or fresh

The feel:

- Hard or forgiving, sticky or dry, dense or airy, heavy or light

The smell:

As discussed above, there will be the overall first impression that forms the characteristic smell of the strain. Then, there are the three stages of aromas that will vary from strain to strain. Although difficult to describe, they will stay with you forever and be recalled when assessing weed in the future.


The potency and effects of weed are in no way universal, and are entirely down to personal preference and individual biology. What gets one person soaring might couchlock someone else. It is simply the nature of the beast.

Things to consider when evaluating a yummy bud include psychotropic and physical effects, flavours, and mouth/throat feel. Aspects of the evaluation process should include:

The type of high:

- Cerebral, physical, near-psychedelic, nootropic, relaxing, narcotic, motivating, creative, contemplative, languorous, etc.

Duration and effects in stages:

- How long the initial effect lasts and how long it takes to reach a peak—is there a head rush or a smooth onset?
- The quantity it takes to get the full effect
- What secondary effects occur over time—does it wear off cleanly or leave you sleepy?

Tolerance range:

With some strains, there is a limit to how much can be used before effects stop being pronounced. Similarly, some strains will decline in effectiveness over time when used daily, while others have the same effects no matter how many times they are used.

Medicinal effects:

When using cannabis for therapeutic benefit, the patient needs to be honest with themselves and pay attention to their body. Is the selected strain having the desired outcome for the condition being treated? If not, other strains will need to be trialled until the ideal characteristics are found.

Mouth and throat-feel:

- Is it smooth on the palate and throat upon inhale and exhale? Is it harsh or does it burn?
- Can big lungfuls be taken without coughing, or is it lots of little tokes?


First and foremost, enjoy yourself—cannabis is a marvellous plant. It is a social lubricant, creative stimulant, spiritual sacrament, and medicine of renown. Intimate knowledge of its many characteristics will lead to a greater appreciation of the unique scents and flavours of this long-revered plant.

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