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.