Why Do Cloves Smell Good?

The sweet, spicy aroma of cloves has enticed people for centuries. Their rich fragrance provides a distinctive flavor to foods and beverages, from chai tea to holiday hams. But why do cloves smell so pleasantly pungent and invigorating?

Cloves come from the flower buds of the Syzygium aromaticum tree, native to the Maluku Islands of Indonesia. Since ancient times, cloves have been prized as a spice, medicine, and perfume ingredient. The essential oils found in cloves contain powerful aromatic compounds that stimulate our senses.

This article explores the unique chemical makeup of cloves and how their fragrant volatile oils interact with our noses. We’ll uncover why cloves smell sweet yet spicy, their antimicrobial effects, cultural associations, and more. By the end, you’ll have a deeper appreciation for the richness clove aroma adds to cuisine and life’s special occasions.

Chemical Composition

The distinctive aroma of cloves comes from its volatile compounds, primarily eugenol, beta-caryophyllene, and eugenyl acetate (Haro-González, 2021). Eugenol makes up at least 50% of clove essential oil and is mainly responsible for its odor and flavor (Haro-González, 2021). Beta-caryophyllene and eugenyl acetate are also abundant in clove oil at 10-40% combined (Haro-González, 2021). Additional minor volatile compounds contribute to the overall scent.

Eugenol has a spicy, warm, and slightly sweet aroma that activates olfactory receptors in our noses (Haro-González, 2021). Beta-caryophyllene has a woody, peppery scent, while eugenyl acetate smells sweet and floral (Haro-González, 2021). The specific ratios and interactions between these major scent molecules produce the unique and pleasant smell we associate with cloves.

Olfactory Receptors

The sense of smell begins when odor molecules bind to specialized nerve cells called olfactory receptors, which are located in a small patch of tissue high up in the nose known as the olfactory epithelium. Humans have about 400 different types of olfactory receptors, each one capable of detecting a different aroma molecule based on its shape and chemical properties.

The unique spicy aroma of cloves comes from aromatic compounds like eugenol, eugenol acetate, and beta-caryophyllene. These chemicals have a molecular structure that fits perfectly with certain olfactory receptors in our noses, like a lock and key. When they bind, it sends signals to the brain that are interpreted as the pleasant, familiar smell of cloves.

Pleasant Associations

The distinctive aroma of cloves is often tied to feelings of comfort and coziness. This is because cloves are commonly used in holiday foods and sweets, especially around Christmas. As a result, the scent of cloves can trigger strong memories and emotions related to holidays, family gatherings, and childhood.[1]

cloves trigger holiday memories and emotions in the brain.

Studies have shown that smells are strongly linked to memory and emotion in the brain. The olfactory bulb has direct connections to the amygdala and hippocampus, which are associated with memory and emotion.[2] When we smell cloves, it can unconsciously bring back memories of baking Christmas cookies with family or sipping warm mulled cider on a cold night. This “Proustian effect” explains why cloves and other nostalgic scents feel so comforting and pleasant.

Beyond concrete memories, the sweet spiciness of cloves simply smells like the holidays to many people. The aroma elicits feelings of happiness, nostalgia, and coziness. This may be partly cultural, as cloves have been used in holiday foods in Europe and North America for centuries.[3] Their pleasant associations continue today and help explain why cloves smell so good.

Antioxidant Properties

Eugenol, the main chemical component of cloves, has been shown to have antioxidant effects in multiple studies. One study published in the Journal of Food Biochemistry found that eugenol exhibited high antioxidant activity and was effective at preventing lipid oxidation in oils and emulsions (Bezerra et al., 2017). Antioxidants prevent oxidation and free radical damage, which can lead to food spoilage. This antioxidant activity helps explain why cloves maintain freshness and have a pleasant aroma.

In the human nose, the antioxidant properties of eugenol may also contribute to the perception of a fresh, clean scent. Antioxidants are often associated with freshness, as they prevent rancidity and deterioration. By limiting oxidation and neutralizing free radicals, the eugenol in cloves may create olfactory sensations of newness and vibrancy.

Antimicrobial Effects

Cloves contain compounds like eugenol, eugenol acetate, and caryophyllene that have been shown to have potent antibacterial and antifungal properties [1]. These compounds are able to disrupt the membranes of bacterial and fungal cells, preventing them from functioning properly. Research has found that clove essential oil is effective against common bacteria like E. coli and S. aureus as well as fungi like Candida [2].

We often associate the clean, antiseptic properties of cloves with freshness, health, and purity. Smelling cloves may trigger pleasant thoughts of clean kitchens, hospitals, or dental offices. Their antimicrobial effects likely contribute to our positive response to their aroma.

Rarity Value

Cloves are grown in only a few select places around the world, including Indonesia, Madagascar, Tanzania, and Sri Lanka.[1] This makes cloves relatively rare globally. According to an industry report, Indonesia and Madagascar produce about 80% of the world’s clove supply.[2] The limited regions capable of growing cloves commercially gives them an exotic, uncommon quality.

Scents that are rare or hard to obtain often seem more intriguing and desirable to humans. When something is uncommon, it feels more special. This rarity factor contributes to the pleasant aroma of cloves, as their distinctive scent is not widely experienced in nature. The unique spicy-sweet smell delights our senses precisely because cloves themselves are uncommon.


Cloves have been highly valued as a spice and essential oil for centuries. The oil from cloves contains the compound eugenol, which gives cloves their distinctive aroma and flavor. Eugenol has antiseptic and analgesic properties, making clove oil useful in dental care and as an ingredient in mouthwash and toothpaste. Clove bud oil is also popular in aromatherapy and can be used to help relieve pain and as an antioxidant.

In cooking, ground cloves are used to flavor meats, curries, marinades, and baked goods. Whole cloves can be used to infuse flavor into hams and oranges. Cloves are also an important ingredient in spices like garam masala and Chinese five-spice powder.

The fragrance industry has long used clove essential oil in perfumes, soaps, cosmetics, and incense. Clove cigarettes were once popular for their aromatic smell before being banned due to health concerns. Overall, cloves remain highly valued worldwide as both a versatile spice and as an essential oil.


[1] https://www.quora.com/What-are-the-uses-for-clove-oil

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YAHeiVB5zT8

Cultural Associations

Cloves have long held cultural significance and symbolic meaning in some societies. According to the McCormick Science Institute, cloves are seen as a symbol of love and romance in some Asian cultures due to their strong, sweet aroma.[1] TheWorld History Encyclopedia notes that in ancient China, cloves were seen as having aphrodisiac properties and were “believed to be imbued with sensuality.”[2]

Due to their rarity and the fact that they were imported from distant islands in the Pacific, cloves were also seen as precious, exotic, and expensive in ancient and medieval European cultures. They were among the most valuable spices during the spice trade era. The unique scent and flavor of cloves led them to be prized for their uniqueness and associated with elite status in some societies.


In summary, there are several key reasons why cloves smell good:

Cloves contain eugenol, an aromatic compound that activates olfactory receptors in humans, producing a pleasant, spicy scent. The scent triggers positive memories and associations, as cloves are commonly used in baked goods, perfumes, and essential oils.

Cloves also contain antioxidants that provide health benefits, contributing to their positive perception. Their antimicrobial properties add to their unique and appealing aroma.

Throughout history and across cultures, cloves have been prized for their warm, sweet, and spicy fragrance. Though exotic and rare in earlier eras, they continue to be valued in perfumes, potpourri, and aromatherapy today.

With their complex blend of aromatic compounds and range of sensory effects, it’s no wonder cloves have such an enduring, beloved scent that smells good to so many.

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