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Exploring the Multi-Sensorial Science of Taste

These days it’s not enough to just taste your whisky, you have to hear, smell, see and touch it too!

Upon walking into the black light-lit room, the first thing that catches the eye are the silky wisps of vapour swirling from a line of large scotch-filled beakers assembled along a wall. Another glance reveals a tables of headphones. In between, numerous vials of different coloured liquid. It was a curious, intriguing scene, one that felt as if somewhere between the door and this room we’d somehow fallen down a rabbit hole.

But this was no dreamland, steampunk concept party. This was a tasting event for a new IPA-finished Glenfiddich, and the drink lab was the feature showcase of an otherwise predictable day of guided tastings from brand representatives.

Events like these are part of a recent trend among beverage brands that incorporate multi-sensorial experiences into the launch of new products where consumers can experience any drink, from soda pop to single malt whiskey, in an entirely new way. This event was crafted courtesy The Robin Collective, a London-based group of creatives, ranging from chefs and actors, to writers and designers, that delivers such experiences. Their self-described mission is “to confuse and delight the senses within a unique and memorable atmosphere.”

How does that work? In the case the Glenfiddich tasting, that meant guests were first instructed to take a small tab of white paper from a small wooden box and place it on their tongues. To the relief of some, (and disappointment of others), it was a benign experiment to see who among the group was a supertaster and detected a bitter flavor on the tab… it was only about 5% of the group. What followed was hands-on experimentation including sipping the whiskey steam through glass straws, tasting cocktails while listening to different types of music to see how perception of flavor changed, and sipping from different coloured vials to see how colour impacts one’s sense of taste.

Photo: Tess Rose Lampert

How does that whiskey sound to you?

“Our events allow guests to play with their food and drinks and learn a little about themselves. We try not to be prescriptive and tell people how they should enjoy the product but allow them to find out about it themselves. With Glenfiddich, we've gone into flavour science a lot – looking at the huge affect the brain has on flavour – the environment in which you are drinking including sights, sounds, textures will all affect what you taste,” explains Robin, founder of the collective.

During these mind-expanding taste experiments the focus shifts from the brand, in this case Glenfiddich, to a larger philosophical understanding of gustatory taste. This bold choice proves successful, offering guests a new and memorable experience that ultimately raises the status of the brand in their esteem for offering something of value.

Experiential marketing has been on the rise in the last decade, and this playful, intriguing and intellectual approach is quickly sweeping the food, beverage and big business circuits. The Robin Collective works with names like Pepsi, KFC, Google, and L’Oreal to name a few. As more and more businesses seek to release innovative products, their off-beat and out-of-the-box approach is in high demand.

One of the obstacles they face is working with brands that are established on long-standing tradition. “With whisky there is a lot of tradition and whisky companies tend to look back rather than forward,” shares Robin, adding that working with such forward-thinking companies like Glenfiddich has opened new horizons for everyone involved: “We've been to some very interesting places – like Shanghai – that we wouldn't have gone to otherwise and met very interesting people.”

In addition to their contracted brand work they are in the midst of a European tour, “a theatrical experience based on a magical train that stops at 10 places in the world where the spirit’s botanicals are sourced. Each stop is amplified with food, drink and performance,” says Robin. You can catch their upcoming visits in Barcelona, Madrid and Amsterdam.

For those looking to bring the trademark creative style to their own tasting experiences, they offer an easy way to delve into the world of flavor science experiments: “ [Try] rubbing silk [and then] sandpaper in your hands while sipping your Glenfiddich. You should find that one seems a lot smoother on the tongue because your brain is getting a little confused by what your fingers are feeling!”

Published Monday, December 12th 2016

Header image credit: Tess Rose Lampert

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