Good vibrations: How music changes the way you experience whisky

Good vibrations: How music changes the way you experience whisky

Scientific studies have proved that auditory stimulation, particularly music, impacts our other senses – and whisky communicators are putting this fact to creative use

Whisky & Culture | 28 Apr 2023 | Issue 190 | By Felipe Schrieberg

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Dave Broom only needed 15 minutes to host one of the most impressive tastings I’ve ever attended. The award-winning author and whisky writer kicked the experience off by having his audience, from the 2019 edition of The Whisky Show in London, don wireless headphones. Then he handed us notecards with words such as ‘salty’, ‘sweet’, ‘bitter’, ‘metallic’, and ‘mineral’ before serving us a dram of Talisker Storm.

As we tasted the whisky, he played a variety of musical soundscapes into the headsets. As he played each track, we silently held up the cards we felt most appropriate to express the aromas and flavours we were experiencing from the whisky. Despite the fact that we were all drinking the same liquid throughout the tasting, with every track he played we each held up different cards as the aromas and flavours we were sensing in the whisky radically changed as a result of the sounds we were hearing.

It is no secret that sound – and music, specifically – can shift the way in which people perceive the world around them. However, over the past 10 years there have been ever more experiments and events that drill down on the relationship between music and whisky and its effect and impact on drinkers’ enjoyment of both. The combination not only opens up new experiences for keen drinkers thrilled at finding new ways to enjoy whisky, but also creates fresh opportunities, both creative and commercial, for brands and producers.

Scotch whisky expert and author Dave Broom has incorporated sounds and music into his whisky tastings

An initial foray into this cross-current was led by Oxford professor Dr Charles Spence. An expert on crossmodality and perception, he helped lead a ground-breaking 2013 tasting with 441 guests. In collaboration with The Singleton, he and his colleagues created three differently themed rooms, each with its own custom soundscape – which changed guests’ perceptions of the aroma and flavour of the identical whisky tasted in all three rooms.

In 2016, Spence explored the combination of music and whisky more specifically when jazz tracks and curated whiskies from Glenrothes were served to guests at a London jazz club, while their observations were recorded for analysis.

Inspired by Spence’s research, Broom has gone further, hosting many pioneering tastings combining music and whisky – although his goal is to create special visceral moments with whisky for consumers rather than for the purpose of an academic study.

‘The way I try to explain it is that everyone is synaesthesic in some way,” he says. “All our senses are relaying information to our brain all the time, so there’s always interaction between them. Colour is a fascinating example. If you go into a restaurant with red walls, the food will tend to taste spicier. The shape of crockery or bottles – all that can relay information into the brain about the way it might taste.”

Through the many tastings he has conducted around the world, Broom has reached a fascinating conclusion: though the experience of tasting whisky and listening to music is entirely subjective, his guests’ noses and tastebuds respond quite similarly to his musical whisky experiments across countries and cultures.

For example, he finds that higher-pitched sounds such as bells bring out sweetness. Slow and legato (smooth) melodies do the same. Brass instruments elicit bitter and sour notes. Low-pitched sounds emphasise umami (savoury notes). Dissonant sounds bring out sourness while simultaneously enhancing acidity.

To Broom, music not only serves as a universal trigger for people to discover and highlight flavour, but it also increases their ability to relate to fellow tasters or drinkers through the whisky. Especially as they become familiar with whisky, audiences are far more engaged via the music angle than through a more ‘orthodox’ tasting, where a brand ambassador often dictates what is meant to be smelled and tasted in the glass. Instead, music helps guide and enrich a shared experience.

Broom loves that this approach accelerates audience engagement: “You get people talking a lot faster and the discussions are a lot more interesting.”

He also finds that using music helps transcend language barriers when hosting tastings for non-English-speaking audiences, helping to create an interactive experience avoiding the clumsiness and delays that often come with using a translator.

Broom turns music into a facilitator for creating a shared language of whisky aromas and flavours. However, music can also be a powerful tool for whisky-based education and entertainment – that is something I explore professionally as one half of the blues duo The Rhythm and Booze Project. During the performances of our show Two Guys, Three Drams, we use what we call ‘sequences’ to holistically combine music and whisky for our audience.

The Rhythm and Booze Project, Paul Archibald (left) and Felipe Schrieberg

For example, while our guests sip on a Scotch, we perform a cover of the John Lee Hooker classic ‘One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer’, but we constantly interrupt the song to squabble between ourselves and explain the differences between the three. In another sequence, our guests take a sip of heavily peated whisky, hold it on the palate, and on our instruction swallow the moment we start playing a particularly raucous song. The combination of smoke and aural punch is potent.

The award for grandest spectacle combining music and whisky has to go to Navigate The Blood, an opera featuring original music composed by Scottish indie band Admiral Fallow. Telling the story of a family that owns a small whisky distillery, it was performed almost exclusively in actual whisky distilleries around Scotland, as well as a limited number of other venues in 2018.

By incorporating whisky into a live performance, new audiences that might not typically be interested in whisky are introduced in a unique way, while whisky fans are provided with a new platform to appreciate it.

Drinks writer, presenter and musician Neil Ridley takes a different approach in his work combining music and whisky. He is more interested in recording a ‘whisky soundtrack’. His past projects include tastings pairing songs and artists with specific whiskies, and using a vintage recording booth to record a folk singer and then print a vinyl of the session over the course of a whisky tasting (including applause from the audience in the recording).

His next undertaking sees him join forces with producer Dean Honer to record the sounds of the Glen Scotia distillery. Using the best available microphones, Honer and Ridley used ‘found sounds’ to create a distillery soundscape covering the full production process that will be featured in a tasting during the upcoming Campbeltown Malts Festival.

Ridley describes whisky distilleries as a paradise for sound geeks. “I became obsessed when I started visiting distilleries – the high-pitched frequency of the still room and low rumbles when the mash tuns are operating, or when casks are rolling by,” he said. “I think it’s brilliant and no-one really ever recorded these sounds.”

Drawing on many hours of recorded audio, the duo also created a backing track for an upcoming single by Scottish singer-songwriter Jenny Sturgeon, who wrote the lyrics at the distillery and recorded vocals by singing into one of the distillery’s stainless steel washbacks. (“They give this incredibly cavernous reverb,” says Ridley.)

Metallica"s Blackened Whiskey

Then there’s the whisky itself. While many musicians have entered the whisky industry with their own brands (see: Bob Dylan’s Heaven’s Door and Yelawolf’s Creek Water Whiskey, among others), some have sought to incorporate their art into production.

One of the best examples belongs to metal titans Metallica. Their whiskey, Blackened, blends a mix of bourbons, ryes and other whiskeys before further maturation in ex-brandy barrels. The barrels are then blasted in the warehouse by large speakers playing Metallica songs. The power of the sound waves from the music leads to the vibration of the liquid, which means more contact between liquid and wooden cask. The result is legitimate metal-music-aged whiskey.

It is impossible to overstate music’s ability to enhance whisky’s aromas and flavours. All these examples only scratch the surface of what can be accomplished by combining them.
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