If someone asked you if you could hear the difference between hot and cold water being poured into a vessel, you’d probably say no, right? Really, who would think is was possible to tell the temperature of a liquid just by listening to the sound of it played on tape? We nearly fell over when we got it right. Okay, we didn’t fare quite as well with some of the other weird and wonderful sensory tests in the recent Experimental Masterclass at 69 Colebrooke Row but our minds were quite literally blown by the way sound can affect the taste of your drinks…
To get the ball rolling we heard hot and cold liquids being poured into a paper, ceramic and glass cup and spookily, the majority of us worked out which was which. It turns out we instinctively know that hot liquid has a lower timbre while cooler fluids have a higher pitch. At least that’s what Charles Spence told us after we made our guesstimations as to which temperature we thought matched the sounds. And who were we to dispute his theory? With the number of initials after his name and a title that includes Director of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory & Sensory Marketing Consultant, he certainly knows what’s what. As do Condiment Junkie, the sonic branding and experiential sound design studio he teamed up with for our sensory experiments.
Professor Spence talked us through the tests while Russ Jones and Scott King from Condiment Junkie added the soundtracks to enhance or influence the taste of the four very specific cocktails we tasted during the afternoon. These were created and made by Zoe and Guillaume from the Drink Factory team, no strangers in pushing the boundaries where synaesthetic journeys are concerned themselves. The premise was to demonstrate that odours have octaves – which may sound a bit new age and hippy-dippy but consider this: G.W. Septimus Piesse, a French chemist expert in the art of perfumes had classified fragrances according to notes of the musical scale way back in the nineteenth century. And as fragrance can be divided into high, medium and low notes to produce olfactory melodies, it stands to reason that the same theory can be applied to cocktails.
After the success of the first experiment it was time to get tasting. We started with The Rose, a soft, subtle concoction made by adding a rose-flavoured sugar cube to champagne. For the purpose of this particular test, half the group were handed a sheet with the name and description of the cocktail, while the other half were given a sheet simply headed ‘Cocktail 1’. Each group was then asked to plot the level of sweetness of the drink on paper, documenting whether it got sweeter, drier or remained the same with each sip. All this while listening to a soundscape of an English country garden. There were indeed distinct differences in the taste throughout the journey and the weirdest thing was, the drink got sweeter when woodchimes were added into the audio. Just as Professor Spence expected.
Next we were given a drink and asked what colour we thought it was. To us it tasted warm and sweet, so we guessed an orangey-red hue but actually it was supposed to taste like blue. Blue? Now green or yellow we would have been fine with but blue proved a tougher nut to crack. We weren’t alone. Nobody got this but to be fair, most of the room went for purple which is pretty damned close. Particularly given that the drink was a reduction of Cote du Rhone and Shiraz…
Moving on, we donned a pair of snazzy headphones as the Woodland Martini was put under the spotlight. This was particularly interesting. Three tracks were piped through our ears, one low, one high-ish and another of someone treading through damp but crunchy autumnal leaves. We were told to sip the gin, Amontillado sherry and homemade woodland bitters concoction as we recorded how the sound affected the taste. We’ll be honest, we found it hard to concentrate at this point but the sound of the crunching leaves certainly enhanced the woody notes detected in the glass. But then again, that could easily have been the power of suggestion. No matter, it worked.
Lastly, again with headphones in place we experienced a sonic haircut. While the buzzing of razors, snip-snip-snip of the scissors and cheery whistle of the barber piped through our ears, we sipped on a Barbershop Fizz. With its red-and-white striped straws and slimline Collins glass, the drink instantly brought to mind one of those old-fashioned signs you used to find outside barbershops, this together with the pine-infused gin, birch and vanilla syrup, patchouli-infused mint, lime juice and soda water acted like a bracing tonic, cooling off the virtual nicks from the haircut we heard through the tape.
If you like your drinks straight down the line with no scientific chaser, give this sort of masterclass a wide berth but if you’re one of the growing band of people who want a bit of thinking with your drinking, we suggest checking in with the Colebrooke Row team, Condiment Junkie and Professor Charles Spence to see what they’re plotting next. We’ll definitely be signing up.