For the thrill of it
Who better to collaborate with on the release of our Exp.01 chilli-infused spirit drink than a ‘Thrill Engineer’? Brendan Walker brings a heady mix of art and science to his work, from engineering the euphoric rush of a roller coaster ride to the psychotropic thrill of combining Scotch whisky and Scotch bonnet chilli peppers
When I was introduced to this chilli-infused liquid last year, it already had a whole life’s experience behind it: 10 years as a Scotch whisky-in-the-making, maturing in an oak cask, followed by several years of infusion with around 100 fresh red Scotch bonnet chillis. Who made the decision to add these chillies, and what were they hoping to achieve with this experiment? Whatever it was, it must’ve been important enough to surrender this whisky’s birthright to be called Scotch – like Edward deciding to abdicate the throne, in favour of marital happiness with Mrs Simpson.
After around 17 years of infusion, The Scotch Malt Whisky Society asked me to investigate. As a Thrill Engineer I spend my time examining and constructing emotional experiences. I’ve helped to design theme park rides such as Th13teen at Alton Towers, and interactive theatre lighting for venues such as the Barbican. I’ve worked across many industries that include computer games, films (horror in particular), TV, automotive, and of course food and beverage. My favourite experiment involved using a neurological monitor to reveal the effects of imbibing vintage port after fasting for 24 hours – that brain lit up like a Christmas tree!
AROUSAL AND PLEASURE
All of the above might seem diverse, but they broadly have a common structure: stuff is designed to happen to someone over time. Understanding the properties of that ‘stuff’, how it ‘happens’ to be experienced, and the resulting emotional effect is my job. It’s both an art and a science. To help understand what’s going on with whisky + chilli, let’s start with a ‘101 in designing emotions, the Thrill Engineer’s way’.
All emotions have two components: arousal and pleasure. Arousal is linked with the body’s release of adrenaline, which gets you excited and ready for action. Pleasure – which scientists call ‘valence: the hedonistic tone’ – is essentially whether you like something or not. Pleasure is linked to the body’s release of dopamine. Different levels of arousal and pleasure dictate which emotion we’re feeling at any time. With low pleasure and high arousal, you’ll feel afraid; with high pleasure and moderate arousal you’ll feel delighted, and so on.
Thrill itself is not an emotion. Thrill describes the rush experienced during positive changes in emotional state. You can engineer a thrilling moment if you can find a way to increase pleasure and arousal by a large amount over a short period of time. You can design a thrilling experience, for example a roller coaster ride, by choreographing different thrilling moments over longer periods of time. If you want to know more, you can read my booklet The Taxonomy of Thrill, which also contains a scientific formula for ‘the Walker Thrill Factor’.
In evolutionary terms, thrill rewards the persistence of life. Thrill provides a euphoric boost for doing things that are good, and for avoiding things that are bad. However, we’ve been outrunning evolution for the past few millennia, and we now have the capacity to trigger those mechanisms for thrill through things we create. What can I say – humans are inventive! So, let’s examine the liquid in question.
“When you consider the neurological effects of biochemistry things start to get pretty exciting. The methanol and aromatic higher alcohols found in whisky immediately trigger the release of dopamine”
PSYCHOTROPIC THRILL POTENTIAL
When you consider the neurological effects of biochemistry things start to get pretty exciting. The methanol and aromatic higher alcohols found in whisky immediately trigger the release of dopamine. This initial pleasure spike mechanism evolved to quickly affirm that the rotting fruit it came from was going to be a good source of sugar-rich energy (starvation avoided, survival secured – tick). These alcohols then go on to stimulate neurotransmitters that are responsible for dialling down brain activity. This is great for two reasons. They can relieve anxiety, causing an upwards trend towards a more positive emotional state, and they can also make us feel less inhibited, which makes us able to experience more. So it’s all good for whisky, what about chilli?
Chilli contains capsaicin. In high concentrations capsaicin is used in pepper sprays. It creates a burning sensation that the body responds to as heat.
This triggers the release of adrenaline, which activates the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for the fight or flight response). The body tries to flush out capsaicin via runny nose and eyes, and cope with the heat via sweating. Capsaicin will also trigger the release of endorphins for endurance, and dopamine to reward surviving such an ordeal.
In smaller amounts, capsaicin has a pleasurable, warming, peppery effect. This is why chilli ‘peppers’ became popular, and spread throughout European monasteries in the 17th century, where they were valued as a home-grown culinary alternative to rare and expensive peppercorns. None of this would come as a surprise to the Aztecs, who were already using chillis in both warfare and cooking, when discovered by adventuring conquistadores and their accompanying monks.
As ‘stuff’, a concoction of whisky + chilli has the most psychotropic thrilling potential. But there’s more…
A ROLLER COASTER OF TASTE
As a member of the SMWS you are probably more familiar than I am with the pleasurable effects that can be produced by experimenting with subtle variations in whisky’s constituent elements – the lactones, phenolic compounds, aldehydes, esters and many other organic compounds. I had a conversation with a micro-gastronomist during the ‘imbibing after fasting’ experiment mentioned earlier. We discussed the effects of such chemicals. I realised then that there’s a whole roller coaster of experience being played out on a micro scale, over milliseconds, right there on your tongue. This revelation led to several design proposals for on-the-tongue taste experiences to be paired with different roller coasters – still to be realised.
When I’m designing a roller coaster I’ll aim to thrill 95 per cent of visitors. This requires understanding what types of movements create pleasurable experiences for most people. Building a new ride costs tens of millions of pounds, so it can be an expensive mistake to try something new and get it just fractionally-wrong. This is why the evolution of roller coasters can seem glacially slow.
In contrast, whisky affords a certain amount of risk taking and experimentation, which should encourage a rapid evolution towards more thrilling liquid experiences.
Where better to start experimenting than by combining two components of known high quality – a Scotch-in-the-making plus fresh red chillis?
This is precisely what excited me when I was asked to investigate the results of this current experiment, and help to design the packaging to communicate what I discovered.
It’s not just the resulting liquid that I find amazing – with its smooth and sweet consistency, and initial peppery chilli kick that becomes commingled with the warming effects of the whisky to create an afterglow. My initial tasting made me say “wow!”, and then smile – a genuine mini-euphoric moment for any connoisseur of thrill.
But what’s most exciting, for me is the spirit of experimentation that captures my imagination. Exp.01 is an invitation to adventure with us into new territory. Try it in a cocktail (“whisky hot’n’sour anyone?”); splash it into a creamy sauce for haggis; or pipette a single drop onto your tongue after fasting for 24 hours, then feel your mind and body explode with excitement. Exp.01 provides you with a distilled ingredient packed with thrilling-potential.
It’s up to you to design your own experiment. And I highly recommend that you start with an initial sip before you start to imagine the possibilities.