In-Depth

How your senses can toy with your tastebuds

Or, is the music in that bar just too darn loud? It may be affecting your cocktail
What you see from the Jawbreaker, from Edinburgh's Lucky Liquor Co., might be a little different than what it tastes like.
What you see in the Jawbreaker, from The Lucky Liquor Co., might be a little different than how it tastes. (Photo: Lucky Liquor Co.)

“The pleasures of the table reside in the mind, not in the mouth.”
-- Charles Spence, Oxford University professor and gastrophysicist

This is the premise behind the field that studies how the five senses work together to perceive what we eat and drink. Gastrophysics says, for instance, that from the minute guests walk into a bar, their palates are being primed for the cocktail they haven’t even ordered yet through sensory cues they’re receiving from their surroundings.

The choice of music and the how loud it is. The amount of natural light flowing through the windows. The furnishings. Even how bottles are arranged on the backbar. All are sending cues to the brain to prep the palate. Taste is simply the final component of the overall sensory experience.

Through his research, Spence and his colleagues have found that nearly 90 percent of what we taste comes from outside of the glass. It’s gastronomy mixed with psychology. And many bars and restaurants are using these mind tricks to enhance hospitality and manipulate taste.

Before you call malarkey, consider a test Spence conducted with a few master sommeliers, wine experts who’ve obtained a coveted certification that only 236 people in the world hold. Spence gave his sommeliers two glasses of wine (one red, one white) and asked for their tasting notes. The sommeliers described the glass of red’s aroma, texture and taste as those of a red — only to find out it was a white wine with a drop of red food coloring added.

Spence’s test was not meant to make fools of the sommeliers but to lend credence to the theory that even people with highly tuned palates and the proper vernacular to describe flavors can have their sense of taste manipulated simply by changing the color.

Using heavier cutlery in restaurants has been found to give diners the impression the food is of higher quality. Hearing the loud crunch of a potato chip determines its freshness. You will drink more coffee when seated in bright light. Spence has performed shape experiments and determined tasters perceived foods and drinks served in squares as bitter and circles as sweet.

“Taste begins in the brain not on the tongue,” Ericka Duffy explains. “You’ve already developed an opinion based on the experiences outside of the glass.”

Duffy is a professional taster of coffee, tea, cognac and whisky and a sensory geek sidekick to Spence. She has spent her career curating sense-based experiences through the development of products such as perfumes and candles as well as through dinners, film projects and art installations. She interprets the experiences by mixing scent and sound with food and drink. These experiments serve as a creative outlet for Duffy as well as a vehicle to test Spence’s theories out on a captive audience.

Her day job is as one of the creative visionaries behind Bramble Bar, Lucky Liquor Co. and Last Word Saloon in Edinburgh, where she trains bartenders to use sensory techniques for creating cocktails and curating guest experiences. Duffy also develops drink menus in which everything from glassware shape and color to the color of the drink to the shape of the cocktail napkin — its color, too — are all carefully considered.

“Marketers from The Gap to Coca-Cola employ sensory marketing practices on consumers all the time using subconscious sensory cues,” Duffy says. “We use them in our bars to enhance hospitality and create flavor experiences.”

The Tropic Thunder, from Edinburgh's The Lucky Liquor Co. The Tropic Thunder, from Edinburgh's The Lucky Liquor Co. (Photo: The Lucky Liquor Co.)

Your senses of sound, touch, smell and vision are developed through past experiences, environment or inferences from other people, she adds, and help to interpret each taste you experience.

Working in the rarified realm of taste transformation may seem ultra geeky, but brands all over the world hire Duffy as a taster and a nose to help develop flavors and scent experiences. Her 15 years at Lush Cosmetics and her experience as a perfumer make her a prized commodity in food and beverage because the palate is developed not only by the tongue but by the nose.

“If you want to train your palate, you need to start with your nose. Go and smell the spices in your cabinet. What does cumin smell like or fennel or nutmeg? Write the words down in a notebook,” Duffy says. “You’ll begin to connect what you smell with the things you taste and develop your own vernacular.”

In a bit of reverse sensory psychology, Duffy and the team behind the bar at the Lucky Liquor Co. developed an anti-tiki menu. The menu consisted of drinks which contained typical tiki ingredients like Falernum, citrus, pineapple and orgeat but with little to no garnish. Drinks were served in traditional glassware. The menu was meant to break down the preconceived notions associated with tiki drinks as over-the-top and sweet.

By stripping the drinks down and eliminating the visual noise, guests could truly experience what ingredients like orgeat and Falernum lend to a tiki cocktail. There was even a clarified milk punch with 24 ingredients. It looked like a glass of water. She says guests loved the experience and walked away with a real appreciation for the skill it takes to build a tiki drink.

Currently, Duffy is helping to create experimental dinners and projects based on Spence’s latest sensory endeavor, the correlation between sound and taste. For instance, he has found that arrangements in C major give the taster the impression of sweetness while a B minor arrangement comes across as bitter.

Have you ever measured how loud the music is in a bar? Enhancing the sensory experiences of vision, smell and touch during loud, busy periods may alleviate the audio overload in order to bring taste back into balance with the other senses.

“I bring this up with bartenders all the time,” Duffy says. “If you spent time and effort barrel-aging a spirit to create an amazing cocktail for your guests and then turn around and present it with the wrong song or when the music is entirely too loud or in the wrong shaped glass, you may have just wasted your time.”

Gastrophysics and sensory marketing are nothing new but as consumers become more educated in food and drink, chefs and bartenders will need to adapt the way they think about presenting flavors.

“This is just my theory, but I believe guests will begin going to bars simply for the experience. What’s bespoke to this bar over that bar? Why does this bar appeal to one person and not the other,” Duffy asks. “As beverage professionals, we have the opportunity to create experiences for our guests beyond the cocktail. Those experiences ultimately affect how that cocktail will taste and is being received.”

Charles Spence’s book Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating, will be available June 20.

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