In whisky tasting, many of us (whether bloggers, whisky aficionados or makers of the spirit) speak constantly about all the flavours that are hitting our palates or wafting up our nostrils. It is inherent in loving whisky – I think – to want to explore and decipher those various elements that emerge from the tasting glass, much like a chef will do when combining new ingredients and exploring different dishes.
But, during a recent tasting, I became more intrigued not just with what we taste and smell but how we taste and smell it and how the brain interprets those things. Whilst gathered with some members of the whisky fraternity here in London for Dominic Roskrow’s Wizards of Whisky judging at the Soho Whisky Club, fellow judge Pierre Thiebaut of Connosr said one of the whiskies reminded him of orange bubbles – it was something like fish roe but without the fishy taste. Dom then mentioned that he often sees whiskies in colours and will frequently say things like: “This whisky tastes purple.” Another judge – Ben Ellefsen from Master of Malt – went on to say he often sees shapes in his brain when trying whisky.
I was fascinated by this especially because I get none of these things happening when I’m trying a whisky for the first or fifth time. Instead, my perceptions of whiskies almost always based around sudden whooshes of images that immediately take me to a place or a moment. For instance, during the tasting, one whisky reminded me of a sunny, crisp day at a lake in Canada, while another instantly made me think of Halloween. At that point, I turned to Ben and asked: “Can I describe a whisky as smelling of Halloween?” In the past, I’ve had whiskies that “taste” like IKEA or a damp forest. All of these interpretations are fuelled by imagery – I don’t just “taste” or “smell” IKEA, I can see myself walking around there, following the directions of those little footsteps on the floors. These things are almost instant and very bright in my brain.
Since this discussion I’ve been reading about taste and smell (or, more scientifically, our gustatory and olfactory perceptions, which are responsible for transmitting what chemicals are bouncing about on our tongue or in our nose to our brain). I now know that our glossopharyngeal and facial nerves are also tied up in this transmission from our tongue to our brain for tastes. But I’ve yet to discover exactly why different human beings see varying things in their mind’s eye when they taste the same thing. I think I need to find a scientist to learn more, but it’s an interesting exploration to begin with.
Which leads me to my question: what do the rest of you experience when you taste and nose whisky? Is it colours, shapes, memories, moments, feelings or even musical scores? While many of you may have thought this post was to be an explanatory piece about the best ways to taste and nose those lovely drams, it is instead an exploratory post done out of curiosity. And I’d be most glad to hear from you so please post a comment or discuss on Twitter under the hashtag #whiskyandbrain – I bet we’d all find very random and varied perceptions and it’s a conversation that would, no doubt, be intriguing.