I close my eyes against the sharp, almost buzzing green light that bounces off of every wall in my line of sight. The sound of a lawnmower hums in the background while birds tweet at random intervals. The air smells of late April when the sun’s finding its first dashes of warmth and the countryside is aflutter with activity. I find it soothing, find it tapping into a time of year that was a favourite of my childhood. In my hand, a glass of whisky drifts its perfumes up to my senses. And what do I smell?
According to Oxford University’s Professor Charles Spence, the grassy notes of the whisky should be enhanced in that moment. You see, the room’s setting was all a part of a recent experiment in London called the Singleton Sensorium conducted between Professor Spence, the folks behind Condiment Junkie and The Singleton whisky to find out if different colours, smells and noises can affect how we perceive whisky. Visitors to the Sensorium were asked to rate how much they enjoyed the same whisky in three different rooms as part of a study the team are putting together to be published in September called: ‘Tasting notes: Assessing the effect of multi sensory atmosphere and ambiance on people’s perception of whisky’
Professor Spence specialises in the arena of the senses in his role as head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory in Oxford University’s department of experimental psychology. He examines how various elements in our surroundings that affect the senses can be changed to create a different individual experience. In this case, how a room filled with green, beige or red light, and related sounds, sights or smells can influence what people draw from their whisky.
While others have researched this area, Professor Spence told me the experiments for this study done in the lab and at the Singleton Sensorium event pushed things forward a notch.
“People are playing with a smell or just the lighting in a winery, but no one is really putting all of those things together and that’s really our interest, the multi-sensory aspect, how the senses combine and how hopefully if you get elements telling you the same message in a congruent manner you might get a much bigger impact than if you would if you just change one element,” he explained when I spoke to him recently.
During my tour around the Sensorium I found I agreed with many of the expected results. In the green room, the whisky smelled almost clean and crisp rather than having The Singleton’s normal more chocolate and woody notes, while in the red room (which was filled with oozing red light, round bulbous jars filled with plump berries and round furniture all of which makes the brain think of sweetness) the grassiness of the whisky dissipated and the sweetness was enhanced – I rated grassy as ‘4’ and sweetness as ‘7’ in the red room on the ratings card each person was handed out.
In the initial study results – which took the ratings results from more than 400 visitors to the Sensorium – people’s experiences were said to have been enhanced by up to 20% towards the expected outcome in certain rooms.
My only quandary was around the fact that I found if I stayed in each room long enough, my senses managed to become accustomed to their surroundings and the whisky began to taste more ‘normal’ so I questioned whether this would work on a long-term basis. I also was confused by the fact that some people had ice in their whisky and others didn’t, which I – and others – was sure would alter people’s experience of the whisky.
Professor Spence said that he would have liked to have more precision practices within the space but recognised that as it was also a consumer event it couldn’t be so tightly controlled.
“I would have given people a new glass in each room so you really didn’t know what was in the glass and I would have had it that people went to rooms in a different order each day but we recognised we needed to preserve the story-telling order,” he explained.
To combat any flaws which could skew the final results, Professor Spence and his team are also doing extensive tests in the controlled lab at Oxford University to compare with those at the Sensorium. Thus far, he said he is seeing similar feedback from each environment.
And while the drink may have been subdued with ice, he added the main focus is on seeing how much people’s reactions changed towards the whisky when going from one room to another.
Going forward, Professor Spence said he is keen to continue experiments of this nature with whisky.
“Whisky is complex like wine in terms of what’s going on in the nose and in the mouth texturally but it’s also a consistent product and I’m thinking now there are a whole world of experiments you could do on spirits modeled around what has been done with wines. There are so many customs and beliefs around whisky that are ripe for investigation and there has been virtually nothing published on it so everything’s wide open,” he concluded.