The Flavour of Emotion

Whisky is a joy, an excitement and a passion. It is a bold statement of character, stimulating our senses and evoking vivid, colourful memories and emotions.

I struggle to find that same diversity and complexity of flavour anywhere else, and love it or loathe it, a dram demands our attention and sparks a reaction.

The excitement of peeling the foil from a new bottle and the gratifying squeak-squeek of the cork as it is twisted free. Pouring the amber liquid into the glass we have a special occasion packed with anticipation and suspense. We proceed, admiring its rich colour, studying its perfumed bouquet and savouring the complex and thought provoking flavours. Having a dram is an occasion that goes far beyond how we commonly express the experience in terms of colour, aroma and taste. Consider for one moment the other contributing factors that define our perception of flavour.

Our senses do not work in isolation but instead join as a cohesive unit to define what we experience as flavour. Tasting a whisky whilst standing on the shore on Islay, admiring the morphing colours of a burning sunset with the fresh aroma of the salt sea on the breeze will encourage a very different experience to enjoying that same dram in a hot, bustling and lively Edinburgh whisky bar on a Saturday evening. The two contrary scenes evoke a different emotional response simply by picturing them in our minds. In the world of whisky tastings and sensory analysis we pursue an isolation of the senses in an attempt to give an unbiased and accurate evaluation of the liquid in the glass. The colour, the nose and the palate are all carefully considered on an individual basis but despite the best efforts our interpretations are influenced by many sneaky little inputs which have nestled within our brains throughout the day.

A large amount of our sense of flavour is predetermined by the visual information we receive which is supported by a growing amount of scientific research. Morrot, Brochet and Dubourdieu (2001) reported that a group of oenologists selected aromas associated with red wine to describe white wines that had been artificially coloured red. If we admire the dark mahogany colour of a whisky we automatically begin to generate expectations about its flavour even before a whiff has passed the nose. I am on occasion asked why Islay whiskies with such intense and powerful character are often so light in colour, it contradicts our expected associations of colour with flavour. It’s examples like these that highlight the intrinsic links between vision and flavour and how much we predetermine simply by what we see.

Similar associations have been demonstrated with sound. North (2012) published a fascinating study demonstrating how participants rated the same wine as tasting more ‘powerful and heavy’ when listening to Carmina Burana by Carl Orff and more ‘zingy and refreshing’ when listening to Just can't get Enough by Nouvelle Vague.

The sights and sounds around us all play their constant role in influencing our mood, emotions and also flavour. Have you ever wondered why you really enjoy a certain venue? Perhaps it’s just the general ambience; perhaps you cannot quite put your finger on it at all. Every sensory input our brains receive will play its role in the final experience of flavour, whether they are conscious or subconscious ones.

Everything from the weather, our surroundings, sounds, textures, conversations, they all affect flavour and therefore how we enjoy whisky. As well as being influenced by all of these external factors, flavour itself is a multisensory sensation rather than a singular sense. Have you ever wondered why your sense of taste takes a vacation whenever you have a cold? This is because the majority of what we think of as taste is actually aroma circulating up to our olfactory receptors behind the nose. The tongue has commonly been credited with only being able to detect 5 different tastes: salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami. However scientists are now proposing that the tongue can distinguish between 20 different tastes, this is however remarkably basic when compared to the complexity of the nose. Sensations the tongue actually detects combined with aromas stimulating the nose will give us flavour, along with one other very important sensation, texture.

Texture is just as important in whisky as any other element. Not chill-filtering the whisky retains all of those lovely oils which are so important to mouth feel. Whiskies can express a myriad of textures from prickly and viscous to waxy and even dusty, and anything in between. Texture goes far beyond the dram however and plays its role in influencing flavour through the feel of the whisky bottle, the surfaces around us and importantly the clothes we wear. The mere thought of a texture can give people a strong emotional response instantly, such as thinking of oysters for example. Some people love the soft and silky texture whilst others feel repelled by the small slimy molluscs.

Take a look at the picture below of the lovely apples andimagine what the apple would feel like to hold, the texture of its surface being a combination of slightly rough with smooth and waxy. When you bite into the apple is it crunchy, juicy and slightly sharp? Texture plays such an important role that by simply imagining it it can alter our mood and responses.

Whisky tasting is a multi-sensory gathering of information that is dependent on all of the sensory attributes being right and is far less straightforward than simply smelling and tasting. The way in which our brains process the inputs can sometimes cause one type of sense to automatically stimulate another sense, something called synaesthesia. Examples would be if you associate certain colours with numbers or imagine the days of the week as different shapes. With whisky we experience this often, describing aromas as light or prickly for example, two adjectives which in fact describe weight and texture instead of aroma.

In the wine world a growing number of highly respected professionals are conducting tastings in accordance with the lunar orbit in the belief that the flavour of the wine is influenced by the changing phases of the moon. Biodynamics is a system of agriculture that works with the moon’s orbit to improve plant health and has become very popular amongst winemakers to improve flavour. The idea that grape quality is dependent on it being a fruit, flower, leaf or root day (relating to phases of the moon) is open to debate but a growing number of professionals are now advocating that for best flavour the actual consumption of wine should be harmonised with the lunar orbit. Have you ever experienced the same drink tasting different the next time you tried it? The moon is powerful enough to control the tides so perhaps it could have some influence over flavour, either by subtly changing the drink or by having an influence over our own bodies. The concept of the moon affecting our mood and behaviour is commonly referenced and by influencing our mood it is consequently having its part to play in the flavour affair.

The distillation of all of this information boils down to the fact that it is up to you to choose how you optimise your whisky tasting adventure and who can tell you otherwise. Experimenting with sounds, colours, shapes and textures is a fun and stimulating way to enhance your experience and therefore knowledge. It is your choice to decide the best setting, occasion and manner in which to enjoy that fine nectar so take into consideration all of your senses the next time you release the stopper from a bottle and pour yourself a well-deserved dram.

Time to Taste

Sitting down with a dram of Scotch, glass of wine, yummy meal or indeed all three is a sensory pleasure which we hold in high esteem, and rightly so too. However in our busy-bee realities do we really give the flavour process the time and attention it deserves and are our lifestyles helping to shape the nature of flavour itself?

As a child our house seemed to revolve around its reactor core, our coal fired Aga. For heat, cooking and drying, the Aga played a vital and dependable role, as long as the wind blew from the right direction that is. Occasionally my mum would be more akin to an engine driver, stoking the flames and adding more fuel to the little furnace. Cooking was the gentle and slow process of coaxing out the flavours, tenderly encouraging them to take their first steps into the world and mingle with others in their own time.

Today I feel that slowly developed flavours are becoming as rare a joy as commuting aboard a steam train. With no time to waste we need flavour on the go and need a diary planner to fully appreciate the processes in the kitchen. It is no surprise then in our busy worlds that convenience has become king. We need flavour and we need it now. Simply add monosodium glutamate, high fructose corn syrup, salt and more sugar and we have our sensory satisfaction sorted for the next few hours. If the sound of all that sugar opposes your programme we can just pack it with aspartame instead, and not to mention all of the stabilizers, preservatives and colouring agents. There’s a great game I like to play in the supermarket, its called find the cheddar without artificial colourings. Try it sometime.

Scotch whisky has been an interesting example of manipulative trends also. The legally permitted ingredients for malt Scotch whisky are barley, water and yeast plus E150 or caramel colouring, which is often produced from corn syrups, glucose syrup or sucrose itself. Although going out of fashion amongst discerners of a fine dram, the colouring used in Coca-Cola has played an interesting role by tapping into our association of dark colours with rich and developed flavours. Anyone remember Coke Tab Clear, Coca-Cola's answer to the clear cola movement of the early 1990's. It was no surprise that it was a short lived trend. The natural colour of whisky comes entirely from wood during a steady process of aging so E150 has provided a way of short-cutting that process, at least where it’s tint is concerned anyway.

It has long been generally accepted that when it comes to whisky, as with all of us, we do not get older but simply get better. Drinkers of the dram have begun to appreciate how this is not an absolute rule, partly through appreciating some superb young whiskies and also some extremely disappointing old ones. In particular when it comes to those peaty, smoky and medicinal nasal eviction orders from Islay, they are at their most intense at a young age. The rise in popularity of these fabulous sensory adventures has been quite astounding since the late 1990’s and has propelled the image of those distilleries to superstar status. The degree of that phenolic smoky-peatiness within the whisky has been pushed higher and higher, doubling, tripling and venturing beyond what was thought possible and indeed necessary. A few years ago Bruichladdich distilled a spirit from barley that had been peated 6 times higher than what had been considered ‘extremely peaty’ previously.

Following this trend we also see a quest for whiskies matured in casks previously seasoned with Sherry, those dark mahogany or rich orange drams that play with our preconceptions of taste. The cask in this instance giving qualities of intense rich fruit cake and spice, occasionally becoming so ‘Sherried’ that it’s like chewing on a Davenport desk. The whisky worlds answer to those new-American oak monsters that were once the height of Australian winemaking. Another trend that has now gone by-the-by but brings us neatly on to the combination of whisky with wine. Think of a type of cask and there has been a whisky matured in it, be that Burgundy, rum, port, Sassicaia, Chateau Y’quem and even Tobasco. Again it’s a quest for flavour and fulfilment beyond the known world, like some trepid adventurers on the U.S.S. Enterprise.

The acceptance that age is not necessarily an indicator of flavour quality is being pushed in a new direction now with the growing emergence of NAS or non-age statement whiskies. These mystery drams do not carry any information regarding the age of the spirit. As long as it has spent at least three years and a day in an oak cask in Scotland it’s good enough for Scotch. NAS whiskies fill the void created by a global boom in Scotch and are being utilised by some distilleries to sell premium priced whisky at a not so premium age. The new school is all about the flavour and not the age, so we are told. Is this another indicator of our busy lives as we demand flavour on tap, well in three years and a day anyway? If time and aging no longer carry significance amongst consumers then what is there to hide by not placing an age statement on the bottle in the first place? As more of the big players spin the premium priced wheel of ‘guess the time in cask’, we should focus more on education as opposed to the misrepresentation of maturation, if like they say the age statement no longer matters.

America has been far more creative with their whiskey tinkering. Limited by choice of wood, American whiskey has seen a surge in alternative flavour additives such as honey, chocolate, fruit, hops and botanicals to name but a few. Such flavour enhancing processes for Scotch get a big waggly finger from the whisky police, more commonly referred to as the Edinburgh based Scotch Whisky Association. Although oak is by far the most important element to the character of Scotch, it is amusing that it is not even listed as an ingredient along with whatever the cask had previously contained.

Marrying and mellowing the flavours within wood is a slow process of maturation that can only be expedited by a relatively small margin on a commercial scale. That sense of time and patience is one of the most endearing qualities to any flavour assembly but is it being replaced by a need for hard hitting, taste explosions that fit within our schedules? The price to be paid by reducing time and increasing yield is more often than not a loss in quality. We can see this at work through whisky maturation, wine production and also fruit, vegetable and animal farming.

In a consumerist world we are taught to constantly seek out new flavours and to expect variety. With our limited time to really appreciate the nuances of life, are trends being driven by both sides towards readily available flavour bombs and in turn constructing a tolerance for sweetness, salt, wood and even peat. Creating the time to contemplate, enjoy and above all share our sensory experiences is one of the most rewarding tools in our box of humanity. By taking no texture, aroma or taste for granted we can open up an exciting world of everyday experiences and enjoy the subtleties that come by simply slowing things down.