Drinking through the nose

JEREMY LOADMAN
Last updated 13:08 22/01/2014
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Alcohol and music aren't a bad match. So much so that many of us are scrolling through our music libraries for precisely the right accompaniment to rip the cork out, unscrew, or crack open a favourite tipple.

It's common knowledge that certain drinks are best matched to some forms of music and types of atmosphere, but researchers are only now starting to ask how and why.

For Charles Spence, a Professor of experimental psychology at England's Oxford University, understanding this phenomenon lies in the way our senses interact.

He explains by way of an analogy involving a lime and a string instrument: "If I gave you a taste of lime, you might think of something green, but if I gave you the acidic taste of lime you might also pick a high-pitched note. Limes don't make a high-pitched sound but when we ask most people in these experiments at Oxford, people will pick the high-pitched sound and maybe a string instrument rather than a brass instrument," Spence says.

Late last year, he joined with the London Symphony Orchestra and a UK wine company to demonstrate the link between hearing and taste.

During the evening people were asked to pair the sound of a cello or flute with that of a light, fruity wine. Overwhelmingly, people matched the taste of the wine with the flute.

His research, however, goes well beyond the optimum pairing of refrains and refreshments. He is interested in understanding how the brain connects all the senses in order to discover ways of enriching the taste of food and drink.

"We are very interested in looking at these cross-sensory matches ... that certain bits of music will match what you are tasting and sort of direct your mind towards certain notes in food and drink," Spence says.

Spence is thinking not just of sound and taste, but the overall environment: lighting, temperature, sounds and aromas present (this is most important as scientists now believe that 80-95 per cent of what we commonly think of as flavour is actually derived through the nose) - even the feel of the chair, the weight of the glass and the colour of the plate.

"The environment in which we are has an impact on our experience of that which we are drinking and eating. We all think we're just tasting only that which is in the glass, but environmental cues are sending subtle messages to our brains," he says.

Unsurprisingly, Spence works closely with experimental chef Heston Blumenthal, who is famed for creating new dishes not in a kitchen but in a laboratory and regularly serves his creations with an olfactory primer.

If you're thinking this is more theatre or fanciful thinking than it is science, Spence cites a simple test as evidence - asking test subjects to compare the sweetness of the same drink coloured with either red or blue colouring. Typically, the blue drink needs to be made 10 per cent sweeter before they will be judged the same.

Spence also relates an experiment he carried out last year where he took people around differently decorated rooms, each with a glass of spirits in one hand and score card in the other.

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"We changed the environment room by room - we had one grassy room, one room with red lights and round frames and tinkling, high-pitched music and a woody-textured, smoky room.

"Even though they knew that the drink had literally not changed, their scores were 15-20 per cent different room by room," Spence says.

Executive Style's resident cocktail expert, Simon "Booze Hound" McGoram, is also the part-owner of a Bondi cocktail bar and confirms establishments closer to home are putting more thought into creating an environment that enhance the drinking experience.

McGoram notes the influence of London bar owner and "molecular mixologist" Tony Conigliaro, who like many trailblazing molecular gastronomists is exploring the neurological phenomena of "synethesia" to enhance the experience of his customers.

"Some might visit Conigliaro's bar and say 'this drink is amazing, it's the best tasting Whiskey Sour I've ever had'. But they don't realise that's because the music that's being played, the ambience that's been created, the type of vessel it's been served in, has all been researched beforehand," McGoram says.

If every customer in a bar orders a different drink, though, how is it possible to create the perfect ambience for everyone?

Spence has some thoughts: "There is one bar in London where they are installing hyper-directional loudspeakers; what was initially used by the American military to deafen Somali pirates.

"People at one table would hear one song and the people at the next table would hear another. There is a lot of fun to be had with the technology there."

- Sydney Morning Herald

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