How does your environment alter what you choose to drink, without you even knowing it? This is what happened when sensory experts from the University of London’s Centre for the Study of the Senses gave MoM a taste of sonic seasoning (try saying that five times fast…).
We tend to view our senses – touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste – as separate entities, don’t we? We think that what you touch, for example, can’t possibly have much influence on what you taste.
Turns out we aren’t giving biology enough credit, as we discovered throughout the course of an evening hosted by Silent Pool in partnership with British philosopher Barry Smith, director of the at the Institute of Advanced Studies at University of London and co-director for the Centre for the Study of the Senses (rather cleverly shortened to CesSes).
“The context we’re in when we drink affects how we experience a Gin and Tonic or a Martini for example,” Smith explains as he addresses a packed room at London-based audio equipment manufacturer, Cambridge Audio.
“Quite often you say, ‘I’m in the mood for a Negroni’. Something about your surroundings is creating the anticipation of what you’re going to drink. So, it can go the other way around. We can craft the environment to give you the right experience for drinking that perfect Gin and Tonic.”
To illustrate his point (this was, after all, a very scientific endeavour), Smith played three sounds clips and encouraged his students to sip away at their drink. The first was howling wind, the second rain, and the third, a crickets-in-the-background-on-a-hot-day type of noise.
“What I’m really interested to know is whether it tastes slightly different when you’re drinking it under those three conditions,” he says. “Most people we tested say the first is terrible. Quite a lot of people like the rain, they say it’s refreshing and adds to the fresh flavours. The favourite is always summer.”
The question is: why? Intrigued (and thirsty), we headed to a workshop hosted by Smith along with his friend and colleague, Dr James Win, to learn about the relationship between our senses, and how these independent channels of perception relate to one another.
We’re handed two glasses: one containing a Gin and Tonic, the other a mixture of gin and lime, and asked to listen to two sounds: the first is a lively, bright piece of classical music, the second is a piano piece played at the bassier end of the keys.
“Try and think which piece of music best fits the taste,” Win instructs. “And when we talk about best fit, I don’t mean in terms of matching the mood or your associations or your memories. Try to extract the flavour and the tone that you’re listening to.”
We sip. We listen. We sip some more. And though by the end we don’t necessarily agree on which piece fitted the drink best, everyone in the room felt that one did, and the other didn’t. So, what’s going on?
“The idea is this: You focus your attention on different aspects of the taste according to what you’re hearing,” explains Win. “If you like sour things, the association between the sharpness of the music and the sour notes brings your attention to that flavour profile. The more rounded piece of music distracts your attention from the sourness and makes the drink perhaps more balanced.”
So your brain subconsciously draws your attention to certain flavours depending on what, exactly, you’re listening to. Interesting. Smith says it’s down to “the tempo, the pitch, the dynamics of the music, the flavours and how the liquid travels across the mouth”. This means you don’t necessarily have the like the piece of music to enjoy the pairing of the music and the drink.
Oh, and what sound giveth, sound can also taketh away. “Sound can have a destructive effect on taste, we know this very well,” says Smith. “When you’re [in a bar] and it’s absolutely pounding, try this: take a little sip, put your drink down, and put your fingers in your ears. The intensity of the flavour will come through.”
This explains why everything tastes dull and boring on planes. White noise at 89 decibels and above diminishes your brain’s ability to experience salt, sweet and sour by about 10%, Smith adds. The answer? Noise cancelling headphones.
“The other thing you can do is drink something that’s immune to the effect, for example tomato juice,” he continues. “Tomato juice has lots of umami and and umami is immune to the effect of noise in your ears.”
While we were mulling this information over, a tray of Martinis arrived. We were instructed to sip the drink while touching two fabrics – silk and velcro – and pay attention to texture of the Martini in our mouths for each. The silk, we agreed, made the Martini taste smooth and creamy. The velcro made it a little bitter. Safe to say, minds were blown.
“When we start eating as babies, you pick food up with your hands,” explains Win. “The idea is that the texture of the food you’re eating primes your brain to expect it to taste a certain way. This is why the Martini tastes different depending on what you’re touching.”
Don’t just take our word for it, though, you can try the experiments out for yourself. We’ve popped Silent Pool’s winter cocktail recipes below for you to shake up at home in the name of research.
Silent Pool Gin Alexander
Ingredients: 50ml Silent Pool in, 25ml Mozart Dry Chocolate Spirit, 50ml single cream, 15ml gomme syrup.
Method: Shake all ingredients together with cubed ice and double strain into a chilled coupette glass.
Garnish: Grated nutmeg and chocolate.
Ingredients: 50ml Silent Pool Gin, 25ml mulled wine cordial.
Method: Stir all ingredients together with cubed ice and double strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
Garnish: Redcurrants, icing sugar, tinsel.
Silent Pool Gin Hot Toddy Twist
Ingredients: 25ml Silent Pool Gin, 125ml cloudy apple juice, 20ml spiced syrup, half a thumbnail of butter.
Method: Add all ingredients to a pan and heat to drinking temperature and whisk to serve, or use a domestic milk frother.
Silent Pool Gin Berry Blend
Method: Shake all ingredients together and strain into a chilled rocks glass that has been rinsed with Kummel.
Garnish: Flamed lemon zest