Can Whiskey Help You Taste Music?

Johnnie Walker and a group of musicians and tinkerers are determined to find out.
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Johnnie Walker and a group of musicians and tinkerers are determined to find out.
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It was a dark and stormy night and we were in a dim, high-ceilinged room full of leather chairs arranged around custom light fixtures that created little oases in which to drink our scotch. We’d been drinking for a while when the organ belched out its first note.

Custom panels lit up and people raised their glasses as composer Simon Little, not a small man, played the 398 pipes and 38 stops. The Flavour Conductor, as the organ is being billed by British tinkerers Bompas and Parr, is intended to heighten the perception of taste through sound. Little is the son of a vicar, a man who grew up playing church organs for weddings and funerals, but he recently departed from tradition and began researching how sound influences flavor.

To craft this evening’s arrangement, which was designed to highlight six separate notes in Johnnie Walker Blue Label whiskey, Little collaborated with Professor Charles Spence, a member of Oxford University’s Crossmodal Research Lab. Spence is a psychologist by training, but most of his work revolves around understanding how our senses can alter our perception of everyday objects—like how the color of your plate affects how much you eat. (Besides Willy-Wonka-inspired whiskey organs, Spence’s work has surprisingly practical applications, as evidenced by his seat on the advisory board of PepsiCo; much of his research is funded by Unilever.)

Spence helped Little understand how different sounds might bring out different flavors: Deep, booming chords, for example, were needed to pull out the peaty notes. The organ itself was then custom-crafted by John Pike Mander, of Mander Organs, who tuned the size and materials to deliver specific tones.

So when several dozen New Yorkers, a breed not known for naiveté, ended up circling the organ, Blue Label in hand, expectations might have loomed larger if earlier tastings had been less generous. LED panels flashed fire patterns and digitized images of tendriled smoke. Tom Jones, Johnnie Walker’s U.S. brand ambassador, narrated the flavor changes in a plummy baritone that had no trouble carrying over the pipes.

Soon enough, the show was over. “Did it work?” Ryan, a 25 year-old onlooker, shrugged. “I don’t normally drink whiskey, but I actually liked this.” His friend Simon added that he “could smell autumn? Or no, it was cinnamon, that’s what they said.” Melanie, who said she doesn’t normally drink at all, admitted she couldn’t taste any of the highlighted flavors. But, she said, “It’s similar to wine tastings, you find yourself searching for hints of all the notes.”

Scientists have long known that suggestion is a powerful thing—that’s why serious researchers use double-blind studies. Maryanne Garry, a psychological scientist at Victoria University of Wellington, recently investigated the mechanisms of why we’re so easily influenced. It turns out humans routinely anticipate responses to various situations. Essentially, once we think about an outcome, our behavior actually changes before the event occurs. This is true whether the prompting thought is a deliberate suggestion or an unintentional influence. Garry writes, “simply observing people or otherwise making them feel special can be suggestive.” As a result, you might work harder—or taste cinnamon.

As for the girls in sequined dresses pouring the Platinum label in the back corner? They giggled and said they hadn’t even really heard the music. (According to Charles Spence, “musk” is a scent overwhelmingly associated with brass, so perhaps its fair: The organ couldn’t really compete with the cologne of their dates.)