The multisensory experience of Scotch
Professor Charles Spence looks at how environmental and atmospheric sensory cues can help to accentuate the flavours you enjoy in whisky – from the sound of a fire, the creak of wood, the sound of a double bass, or even the texture of silk. Welcome to the world of ‘sensploration’
How does where we drink affect the experience of whisky? Is it possible to accentuate certain aspects of a whisky’s flavour profile simply by changing the multisensory atmosphere where we drink? These were the questions that my colleagues and I set out to address in the 2013 Singleton Sensorium.
The results of this multisensory experiential, experimental whisky-tasting event, and a number of others that followed in its footsteps, have highlighted just how profoundly what we see, what we smell, what we hear, and even what we feel can impact the experience of drinking a complex spirit such as whisky.
For the Singleton Sensorium, 500 members of the general public were invited into an old gunmaker’s studio in Soho, London over the course of three evenings. All those who turned up were given a glass of The Singleton whisky, a scorecard and a pencil. My colleagues and I then led groups of 10 or so people through each of three environments that we had pre-tested to bring out the grassiness on the nose of the Singleton, the sweet taste on the palate, or the textured aftertaste on the swallow. People were invited to rate the taste of the whisky in each of these three environments during a tasting experience lasting no more than 15-minutes.
Singleton whisky ‘sensploration’
Prof Charles Spence, photo by Sam Frost
Water table at Kitchen Theory, photo by John Scott Blackwell
Intriguingly, the results clearly demonstrated that even though the glass of whisky had not left people’s hands over the duration of the experience, what many of them said about the whisky nevertheless changed dramatically as a function of the environment in which they had tasted it.
In particular, the relevant attribute of the flavour (ie, grassiness, sweetness, or textured aftertaste) was accentuated by 10-15 per cent in each of the three environments.
Overall, those who took part in the Sensorium preferred the Singleton in the woody room, with wood on the walls and floor, and the sounds of a log fire, and any other woody sounds we could think of (think creaking wooden doors and the sound of the double bass).
Hence, sitting in front of a log fire, be it real or virtual (as in the whisky snug in the British Airways lounge at Glasgow airport) is likely to enhance the taste of your drink. I know of hospitality professionals who started serving whisky in their Lake District Michelin-starred restaurant from a wooden tray to try and capture a hint of the woody room where they had enjoyed their drink so much more.
Choose your music carefully to ‘sonically season your drink’
HIT THE RIGHT NOTES
In terms of what to listen to, to enhance the authenticity of the whisky-tasting experience, one might be tempted to think of some semantically-appropriate Scottish music.
However, my guess is that listening to the sound of bagpipes – while undoubtedly priming notions of the Highlands – will be unlikely to make your whisky taste any better. Rather, based on our latest research, I would suggest that you should go for the music that you like the best.
If it happens to have a Scottish theme all the better, but the research shows that what we think about what we listen to often transfers to influence what we think about what we are tasting. Note here also that music is also the easiest sensory attribute of the environment to change. In order to sonically season your drink, I would recommend some tinkling high pitch piano music to bring out sweetness, while low-pitched and brassy music tends to bring out bitterness. Bear in mind, though, that the louder the music, the harder you will likely find it to rate the alcohol content of your drink.
Chef Jozef Youssef, photo by Annemarie Sterian
Prof Charles Spence
Ambient scents can also be used to help augment the experience. For instance, pre-covid, my friend and colleague chef Jozef Youssef, of Kitchen Theory, had one course on his gastrophysics chef’s table menu in High Barnet called ‘A Taste of Chivas’.
He would spritz a little caramel or vanilla aroma into the air to emphasise the sweetness in the whisky, while a spritz of smoky bacon effectively accentuated the smoky notes in the drink instead. (Hence, my interest in the peat-scented incense pyramids that were delivered to me a couple of years ago. My guess, though, is that they wouldn’t do anything for those who do not like peaty whisky to begin with).
It would seem that our brains have a hard time separating which aromas originate from the drink and which come from the atmosphere in the environment in which we happen to be tasting a whisky.
When the same whisky was served to guests at Josef’s multisensory events in a rounded glass versus in an angular cut-glass, a number of the diners reported that the drink seemed to taste different, despite the fact that they intuited it probably came from the same bottle. Even rubbing different materials, be it satin/silk or sandpaper, changes the tasting experience for many, with the smoother materials tending to bring out sweeter notes in whisky and wine.
Although there is plenty more gastrophysics research to be done, my sense is that no matter what your preference in terms of flavour profile, there will be a combination of environmental and atmospheric sensory cues that will help to accentuate the flavours you enjoy, while also perhaps suppressing any that you may be rather less fond of. This the intriguing world of ‘sensploration’.
Charles Spence is a professor of Experimental Psychology and head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University