The science of sound

In the first edition of Tasting Whisky, we examined the impact of smell on perceiving flavor. Moving on to our next ‘sense’, here’s a breakdown of how what we hear can influence what we taste:

Like the cork popping on a bottle of champagne, when you open a bottle of whisky, the sound immediately captivates a thirsty audience.

When we hear a particular sound, vibrations in the air bounce off three bones in our middle ear, which in turn act as members in a relay race, sending them to our inner ear to then transmit a message to our ganglion cells in the brain stem. It’s here that lots of different neurons create our own human experience of sound. These neurons aren’t only set up to respond to external sounds, they also pick up on the sound made when we eat and drink.

Sound and Food

In relation to food, Professor Charles Spence was one of the first to study ‘the role of audio cues in modulating the perceived crispness and staleness of potato chips’; the ‘snap, crackle and pop’ of cereal isn’t just there as a marketing ploy – the sound created by the cereal as its being enjoyed has an effect on the created flavor, with freshness impacting our enjoyment. When we drink, the muscle activity used by moving our tongue about and swallowing creates ‘glou-glou’, a French term used to describe the sound of wine being swallowed.

The sound of our environment will also impact the flavors picked up from a glass of whisky. In the simplest of contexts, a maritime whisky will taste saltier and stronger if we’re listening to waves crashing against a harbor wall as compared to, say, the sound of coffee grinding, which could highlight the chocolate notes of that dram.

Pairing sound

Pair the sound of your environment with the sound of your personal glou-glou depending on the texture of the whisky you’re drinking and its ability to slide down the back of your throat, and through sound, you’ve added another dimension to perceived flavor. This article series above was originally presented at the WED talks: Whisky inspired TED Talks at Tales of the Cocktail 2013. Read the full series here:

  • Smell
  • Sight
  • Mouth & Culture