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Does the same whisky taste different in different surroundings?
Professor Charles Spence, from the department of experimental psychology at England's Oxford University has teamed up with The Singleton whisky distillery to find out. He has been carrying out a multi-sensory science experiment, exploring the senses and the taste of whisky in a bar known as "The Singleton Sensorium."
"We are looking for competing flavors and notes so you can draw people’s attention to those notes and their surroundings," says Spence. "So we have three rooms: grassy, woody and sweet."
The grassy room features a green light, real grass, foliage, the sounds of lawnmowers and sheep and the smell of the countryside, which evoke the nose of the whisky, says Spence. Participants have to taste the whisky and score it in each room in the sensorium.
"In a real environment, when I went from one bar to another, and I say 'I want that drink I had the other day', but it tastes different, why is that? I think it’s the environment."
"Everyone thinks I am just tasting the food or drink, I wouldn’t be fooled. But people are contradictory, and say this wouldn’t work on me. But they say this wine, it tastes great, I had it on holiday in the sun –- so they buy the wine which tasted great, and they open it on a cold winter night and it tastes horrible. We've all had a version of that experience," he says.
The sensorium's red room, which tests the taste of the whisky, is "all round, red, with lots of roundness and lots of tinkling notes from the ceiling," says Spence, which studies have found represent sweetness.
"Sweetness is about a taste, but also sweet smells like vanilla and caramel. The taste of The Singleton is described as dark berries and dried fruits."
Red lights in the room help set the tone for participants, who are asked to rate how much they like the whisky, and the room, on their scorecards.
Spence says the modern deconstructed food movement known as molecular gastronomy was "all about technology in the back of house, in the kitchen, you didn’t see it but tasted the results of it." He thinks in the next five to 10 years the focus will be on technology in restaurant dining rooms and bars, with more "things like directional soundscapes, and harnessing mobile technologies at the table."
In the woody room, tasters noted their perceptions while enjoying the whisky's finish, described as a "the lingering finish" which "reveals the specially chosen wood in which it matures."
The results of participants' sensory perception of whisky in different environments will help inform hosts in the future, says Spence. "Maybe people will use it in bars, or maybe it is in the home environment."
Spence says the sensorium experiment ties in with other work he is doing around embedding sound while dining or drinking.
"We are thinking about clever designs where you can link the music or a soundscape to food or drink and have it in responsive mode, so it plays in real time when put the fork to your lips or glass to mouth."
Three hundred people took part in the experiment, which is part of a wider scientific study titled "Tasting Notes: Assessing the effect of the multisensory atmosphere and ambiance on people’s perception of whisky." It is scheduled to be published this summer.