Can sound alter the smell and taste of your whisky?

We take part in Glenlivet’s sonic whisky tasting event to find out...

December 10, 2019 01:09 pm | Updated 01:09 pm IST

One of the participants at the sonic whisky tasting event

One of the participants at the sonic whisky tasting event

Ian Logan, perhaps, has the coolest job in the world.

Whisky tasting is one of the perks of Ian’s job, as a global ambassador for the French alcoholic beverages company, Pernod Ricard.

“I get to travel, talk and drink,” says the soft-spoken Scot with his typical accent, although he admits he has never been drunk on the job.

Having started in the whisky trade 32 years ago, first as a salesperson, and then working in different capacities before being named a global ambassador by Pernod Ricard 15 years ago, Logan considers himself “very young” in his line of work. Because, he says, he knows a few master distillers who are still going strong even at the age of 85. “You don’t see that in a lot of other professions,” he adds.

Making a sound difference

Never shy of jokes (to a question on whether it makes sense to have scotch on the rocks, he says, “Ice is the work of the devil”), Logan was in Chennai to represent The Glenlivet — one of the single malt scotch whisky brands owned by Pernod Ricard — and to conduct a sonic whisky tasting experience at the Westin hotel. The objective? To test whether different sounds could alter aromas you experience while tasting whiskies.

Ian Logan, global ambassador for Pernod Ricard

Ian Logan, global ambassador for Pernod Ricard

“It is a relatively new programme. We are lazy. We eat and drink with our eyes. I wanted to open people up to more senses and try and make them feel honest about what they are experiencing,” he says.

And here we thought whisky tasting was about the taste. “No. Smell is the thing that matters. On your palate, you have perhaps two or three thousand taste receptors. But there is a gland behind the bridge of your nose called the olfactory epithelium. It has a quarter of a million taste receptors there. Smell is such an emotional thing. It takes you back to childhood memories and it is the most evocative of all our senses. I’m trying to bend the rules a bit and take the experience of tasting towards sound, just to show how flexible it can be,” he adds.

Before us are three glasses of whisky — 12-year-old, 15-year-old and 18-year-old single malts. On the side is a spherical cue card to help assist newbies in placing the flavours and aromas they are about to experience. The experiment has three stages — you take a sip from a glass while listening to music via headsets. You are then asked to cleanse your palate with a sip of water.

A different piece of music plays through the headset next, and you take a fresh sip from the same glass. This process is repeated for all three glasses, with the second stage also involving a blindfold, which, Logan adds, is to help us focus more on the sense of smell.

Blend of aromas

While professionals like him, who boast decades of nosing and tasting experience, are more likely to spot different aromas, where does that leave rank amateurs?

“Tasting is just an opinion... there is never a right or wrong opinion. It is what you feel that matters. I sit in a panel of 18 members while tasting and we all feel the same flavour. But three or four of us might describe it in a different way. It is about building your own library of flavours,” he says.

As the music plays, we take a sip. There is a distinct fruity flavour, but it is difficult to place the fruit. We look to the cue card for help, and spot apple. It could be apple but there is also a bit of sourness. Could it be a pear? We look around the room, and the lost look is writ large on several other participants’ faces.

Logan asks everyone to describe their experience. One participant says he tasted a burnt oak. Ian nods. Another says, he thought it tasted creamy. Ian nods again. We all have a sip of the water, and repeat the drink, now listening to a different piece of music — a soothing tune. The same drink feels like it has a milder scent while nosing, when on the first occasion it was giving off a lot more heat.

Logan remarks that it feels weird to twist the focus of nosing and tasting by introducing the sound factor but, he adds, it is as much “a learning process” for us as it is for his employers.

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