Unmasking flavour

Could an unwanted and unwelcome accessory of life under Covid actually help to unlock a whisky’s aromas? That was the proposal put to us by Society founder Pip Hills, who discovered that a teaspoonful of whisky on a face mask provided the perfect medium for inspection and analysis, if not for actual drinking. Unfiltered asked Tasting Panel chair Kami Newton to put Pip’s proposition to the test, along with three masked Society members


Extraordinary, remarkable and inventive – three words that resonate with passion at the heart of the Society.

On occasion, such passion leads to a rethinking of convention and gives rise to something wonderful. While the humble face mask has become a mainstay in the wider society, with a shift in thinking, could it become a fascinating tool with which to question our relationship with flavour? We endeavoured to find out, with a one-of-a-kind (and very Society) experiment.

What may at first appear somewhat bonkers did in fact become a worthwhile investigation that provided remarkable insights. Above all, however, it presented yet another Society opportunity to push the boundaries and have fun with flavour, this time by transforming a disposable necessity into a thing of curiosity. An idea that was not instigated by myself, but instead was proposed by the original Society maverick, Pip Hills.

Pip’s initial concept was a remarkably simple ‘what if’ moment, with the success of early (non-clinical) trials being confirmed at home by our founder himself. As face masks have become an everyday accessory, what if we placed a few drops of whisky onto the mask before wearing it? Would the aromas change in any way? Or would a facemask function as the world’s cheapest gas chromatography machine? To find out we recruited the help of three Society members and keen sensory adventurers, Callum Reid, Dave Cook and Andy Grieve.

To add an additional layer of sensory tinkering, along with standard surgical face masks, I decided to pair a brightly coloured face mask with each dram. On the face of it (no pun intended), the idea may seem laughable, however, science indicates that colours can significantly affect our perception of flavour. As for the drams themselves, I selected a flight of five to represent distinct flavour profiles for Scotch that I broadly defined as fruity, grassy, sweet, spicy and smoky. So how would face masks and colours impact our own olfactory observations?


The process was simple – experience both the aroma and taste of each dram from the glass, before trying a few drops on the standard surgical face mask and comparing against one of the coloured face masks.

After sampling the first dram, The Vaults exclusive Cask No. 2.123: Fragrant, Fruity and Frolicsome, we applied a few drops to the surgical mask and donned the apparatus. With the first intake the nose filled with potent fumes and high esters as we sat in a surreal and silent order. We then repeated the process, but this time with the pink mask.

Callum observed: “I got a large whiff of raspberries from the glass, however, adding the surgical face mask seemed to dull that aroma. With the pink face mask it instantly heightened that fruity nose. I am convinced the coloured masks have been pre-flavoured!”

It was at this point that I too was somewhat taken aback. Unlike our three guests, I am well-versed in colour-influenced trickery, yet I had even fooled myself as I was now adamant that I could strongly smell roses.

With Cask No. 95.35: Herbal Titillation as the choice for the second dram, we compared the surgical face mask with a green mask. This time, the remarkably generous 66.3% abv seemed to engulf both the nose and eyes. Once the alcohol had lifted, the standard face covering accentuated biscuits and nut aromas that had been masked in the glass. With the green face mask, aromas once again changed. Now marzipan had evolved alongside childhood memories of plasticine.

“Rather than feeling it all the way up the nose, this one tingles in a really specific point,” said Andy. “This is more sensation than aroma, but it really reminds me of white flower oil, camphor and eucalyptus.”

Andy touched on an interesting point. Our individual interpretation of whisky aroma is always compared against our brain-library of past experiences, and therefore will be unique to each person. In Andy’s case, white flower oil was a familiar aroma to him while others may call it peppermint, for example. The third dram was a moment of awakening. The single grain whisky Cask No. G7.20: Grain Drain was a new experience for the guests.

“The Grain Drain had a big impact on me and was my all-out favourite of the night,” said Callum.

However, through the masks the moreish tones of butterscotch and popcorn had seemingly vanished, and while the yellow mask offered a more floral demeanour, going back to nosing directly from the glass was the preferred choice.


At this point it had become apparent that the dram-by-face-mask method was a peculiarly abstract process. Once the whisky had been applied to the mask, the experience was aroma alone. There was no peering into the glass, swilling the whisky to appreciate its legs of viscosity or admiring its individual take on the colour gold. Nor did we have the sensation of holding the glass in the hand, something that is easy to take for granted, yet is conspicuous when absent. All we had from the mask were abstract aromas that while being delightful and stimulating, were ‘missing’ key components.

We continued with Cask No. 41.110: Fruits and Spices, which while doing what is says on the tin, was elevated by the red face mask and caused much delight with the guests. “I could smell this one all day,” said Dave, through his red mask. “It just smells exactly how you expect whisky to smell.”

Finally, Cask No. 42.74: Flaming Sheep delivered some surprises when paired with the dark blue face mask.

“Wearing the blue coloured mask versus the plain one put me on a windswept beach on the west coast,” said Callum. “For a non-Islay whisky, it displayed very strong characteristics.”

Although dissecting a dram is a favourite pastime of many an enthusiast, our very non-scientific experiment had eloquently and unexpectedly highlighted one crucial concept. While it was evident that flavour is largely directed by aroma, whisky as we know, love and enjoy it, is the sum of all its parts.

To draw a comparison to the whisky-making process, as the raw ingredients of water, grain, yeast, oak and time all combine to create flavour, so too colours, textures, sounds, aromas and tastes combine to create our experience of flavour.