London is currently a hub of cocktail innovation with an army of bartenders constantly seeking to push and raise the bar. Molecular mixology, fine and inspiring garnishes and an array of homemade and small batch ingredients and spirits are all available at bars in 2012; indeed, it is an exciting time to be in the field. But what next? How about sound and cocktails? I headed on to 69 Colebrooke Row for a Sensory Masterclass to find out.
The Sensory Masterclass was a collaboration between the Drinks Factory, Condiment Junkie (soundscape artists) and Professor Charles Spence, who is Director of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the University of Oxford.
First of all, here are couple of quick definitions:
Soundscape – A recording or mixing of sounds used to create an immersive environment. For example, the sounds of the beach or of a forest walk.
Crossmodal Research – The study of the perception of an interaction that involves two or more of our five senses. For example, synesthesia, where you can hear a word and immediately associate a colour with it, or how something can taste “blue”.
After a brief introduction, we completed a couple of quizzes. We listened to six sounds and had to decide which were the sounds of hot liquids being poured and which were those of cold liquids; most people got all of these right. Things were trickier when it came to listening to four sounds and identifying whether they were designed to be sweet, sour, bitter or salty. This was far more difficult, with most people only correctly identifying sweet and bitter, although I think I only got one right!*
We then moved onto some drinks.
#1) The Rose
This was a simple cocktail, consisting of a rose-flavoured sugar cube in champagne that we drank whilst listening to sounds from a country garden. Half of the group were given a sheet with “Cocktail #1”, whilst the other half were provided with a full description of the cocktail, thus testing the power of suggestion. There were wind chimes in the soundscape, which were meant to evoke some of the sweeter characteristics of the drink.
#2) The “Blue” Drink
We were given this drink whilst keeping our eyes closed. We then had to taste it and shout out what colour we thought it would be. With some musky and tannin-like notes, it reminded me of red wine and therefore I suggested red-purple. One lady next to me said that she tasted Wasabi, so thought it was green.**
This turned out to be a reduced red wine, made using a rotovap, I think, and designed to taste blue. Unfortunately, I forgot to take a picture of this one.
#3) Woodland Martini – [Woodland Bitters, Gin, Dry Amontillado sherry]
Whilst wearing a pair of wireless headphones, we sipped the third drink whilst listening to one of three soundtracks; we were then able to switch between them, to see how, if at all, the different sounds affected the flavour.
The result was amazing: with the red channel (a low-pitched sound), the drink was unpalatably bitter, whilst with the green channel (a higher-pitched sound), the drink seemed sweeter; the blue channel (crunching wet leaves on an autumn day) made the drink seem colder. These were all my own personal observations, before any suggestion from the Professor.
The Professor went on to explain that, typically, people naturally associate bitterness with low frequencies and sweetness with high frequencies.
The Woodland Martini really illustrates the potential of combining sounds and drinks, but, in a social context, the headphones could be a bit intrusive. I discussed the use of sonic spotlight (highly directional speakers) as an alternative, which he has also been working with, as well as the potential of having the sounds come from the glass itself.
Why not check out the sounds here?
#4) Barbershop Fizz
The final drink of the session was a Gin-Collins-esque drink that used a variety of herbs and spices to evoke the fresh scent of a new haircut at a barbershop; the hints of pomades and moustache wax that are all familiar to me. There was also a slight hint of Dandelion & Burdock, which I believe came from the Birch.
Once again, we used our headphones to listen to a recording, this time of someone having their hair cut. This soundscape was produced by one of the sound artists using a pair of inverse headphone microphones during an actual haircut. The similarity was uncanny and the drink delicious.
This was an enjoyable session and an interesting insight into a developing project and research that is at the cutting edge of crossmodal drinks. As the ideas and techniques evolve, I think that the experience will become even more impressive and, with possible innovations in speaker technology, the application of these techniques in a bar*** could become a more unobtrusive reality with a true hint of alchemy in the experience.
* The Professor then explained that bitterness and sweetness tend to be the easiest for people to clearly identify, both in taste and in sound, with saltiness and sourness being more tricky.
** This raises the question of association adding another factor to the perception of colour and taste. I spoke to the Professor about this and he says that some research has been done getting the public to taste exotic fruits that have relatively unknown flavours in the UK, thus avoiding any association with known items.
*** There is a question as to whether this would ever be part of everyday serves in some cocktail bars, or whether it would be reserved to special sessions. Certainly, at the moment, a lot of background noise impacts how easily you can appreciate the sensations.