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With Each Sip Of Whisky, You're Taking A Gulp Of Atmosphere

Oct 13, 2013
Originally published on October 13, 2013 4:48 pm

You know the saying about drinking early in the day: "It's 5 o'clock somewhere in the world."

Well, it turns out that the "somewhere" actually can make a difference when it comes to drinking.

Scientists at Oxford University have found that whisky has a different taste depending on where it's sipped.

The idea came from the experience of many travelers. Go someplace warm and sunny, and the food and drink are breathtaking, explains Charles Spence, lead author of the study. Bring some home, though, and it never tastes as good, he says.

"All those cues about the warmth of the sun on your back, that's all actually transferring some kind of meaning and some value to that which we are eating and drinking," Spence tells Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin. "That's what's lost when you bring it home on a cold winter's night, and it was that that we wanted to try and capture with this experiment."

The researchers set up three rooms, each bathed in a different light and infused with different aromas. The first smelled of fresh-cut grass, had turf on the floor, a croquet set and the sounds of gamboling sheep.

A red light washed the second room, accompanied by high-pitched tinkling sounds, "because we know those convey the notion of sweetness," Spence says. A sweet smell permeated the room as well.

The final setting was lined with wood and smelled of cedar, with the sounds of someone walking through dried leaves in a forest.

Scientists guided people from room to room; participants sipped from the same glass of whisky in each environment.

"We asked them, after they'd spent a few moments in each room, to think about how intense was the grassiness on the nose, how sweet the taste of the whisky in the mouth, and how rich was the textured woody aftertaste of the drink," Spence says.

The result: People rated the same drink differently depending on which room they were in, even though they knew they were carrying just one glass. Spence says he was surprised the participants noted a difference, despite knowing they had the same whisky.

"But in fact, that was kind of the genius of the thing, that they carried just one glass," Spence says. "And that's what kind of struck people ... that they could look back at their scorecard and see that they'd given the very same drink in their other hand a very different rating — and they knew that all that had changed was that they had walked from one room to another."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

You know how the saying goes: it is 5 o'clock somewhere in the world. Well, turns that that somewhere can actually make a difference when it comes to drinking. Scientists at Oxford University have found that whisky has a different taste depending upon where it is sipped. Joining me from the BBC in Oxford is the lead author of the study, researcher Charles Spence. Thanks so much for being on our program.

CHARLES SPENCE: My pleasure.

MARTIN: So, sounds like a pretty fun topic to research.

(LAUGHTER)

SPENCE: Absolutely. Kind of think why don't more people get into the world of whisky and things that are fun to eat and drink.

MARTIN: Yeah, right? So, how did this particular line of research come to you?

SPENCE: Well, it kind of came to us a couple of years ago. In fact, when we first starting thinking about it, an inspiration was really the experience that many people you speak to have had of going to the Mediterranean, somewhere nice and warm for their summer holidays. Things taste great. Wine is lovely. The cheese is delicious. The sausages are marvelous. You bring some home - it never is the same. All those cues about the warmth of the sun on your back, that's all actually transferring some kind of meaning and some value to that which we are eating and drinking. And that's what's lost when you bring it home on a cold winter's night, and it was that that we wanted to try and capture with this experiment.

MARTIN: So, what happened? Can you walk us through the experiment?

SPENCE: So, for the main event, what we did is took over an old gum maker's studio, decked it out to have three rooms, each with a very different theme. In the first room, the notion of grassiness, that people will sort of smell in the nose of a whisky. We had turf on the floor and the smell of fresh-cut grass. We then took them through the taste room, which was designed to convey sweetness by the use of red light, 'cause we know that red equals sweet, tinkling high-pitched sounds, because we know those can convey notions of sweetness. We had a sweet smell in the room as well. And finally took kind of the woody room at the end.

MARTIN: Sipping the same glass of whisky.

SPENCE: The same glass of whisky in one hand and in the other hand they had a little scorecard and a pen. And we asked them, after they'd spent a few moments in each room, to think about how intense was the grassiness on the nose, how sweet the taste of the whisky in the mouth, and how sort of rich was kind of the textured woody aftertaste of the drink.

MARTIN: So, how did it work out? Did it reflect your thesis?

SPENCE: Absolutely. I mean, I was kind of worried beforehand. I hadn't been allowed to give people a different glass of whisky in each room. I was really afraid that people would kind of say, well, it's the same glass, isn't it? So, it's obviously the same whisky but nothing's changed. But in fact, that was kind of the genius of the thing, that they carried just one glass. And that was what kind of struck people when they were coming out of the woody, the final room, was that they could look back at their scorecard and see that they'd given the very same drink in their other hand a very different rating. And they knew that all that had changed was that they had walked from one room to another and thereafter to a third.

MARTIN: Charles Spence doing the hard work of researching whisky and how its taste changes depending on where we sip it. He is a researcher at Oxford University. Thanks so much for being with us today, Charles.

SPENCE: A pleasure. Thank you.

MARTIN: Happy research.

SPENCE: Thanks..

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

WES MONTGOMERY: (Singing) Give me a drop of that whisky, (unintelligible) give me a dime...

MARTIN: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.