Edinburgh International Science Festival 2018 / The Science and Spirit of Scotland

Credit: Edinburgh International Science Festival.

On Tuesday evening a capacity crowd of revellers descended upon Summerhall’s Dissection Room to enjoy a panel discussion on the ‘spirit of Scotland’. No, not the foul tasting orange insecticide that perplexingly outsells Coca-Cola here, but Scotland’s other national drink (the one to which changes in recipe are celebrated rather than derided). Upon entry to the venue the diverse audience found little measures of whisky placed upon the large round tables where they were to be seated. This amusingly led to several people failing the so called ‘marshmallow test’, draining the amber spirit before the discussion had begun.

The panel was hosted by Professor Barry Smith, Director of the Institute of Philosophy at the School of Advanced Studies in London. He began by introducing his guests, Professor Charles Spence, author of Gastrophysics: The New Science Of Eating amongst others and Rachel McCormack, author of Chasing the Dram: Finding the Spirit Of Whisky. They began by educating the audience upon the process by which whiskey is produced. Grains are fermented, much like for the production of beer, and then distilled and left to age in an oak cask for a minimum of three years and a day. Interestingly, Mrs McCormack stated that Scotland may have acquired its whisky production tradition as hops didn’t grow here, meaning that barley brewed beer couldn’t be preserved by the adding the hops grain that secreted antimicrobial beta acids, therefore necessitating beverages to be distilled to a much higher alcohol concentration.

The debate shifted to the inevitable question of whether to drink whisky with or without water. An audience show of hands showed a slight preference for adding water, but only marginally. We were invited to sample our first whisky of the evening, Johnnie Walker Black Label, under the express instruction to refrain from adding any water. It offered a sharp, smoky and in my opinion pleasant taste, though analysis of a few attempts to stifle grimaces suggested that the strong flavour wasn’t a universal hit. It was then explained that mixing with water breaks up some of the fats, altering the aroma to become sweeter and less smoky. We were instructed to finish the sample this time with an equal measure of water, with the taste changing accordingly. This time it was the older seasoned whisky drinkers who offered muted complaint to the dilution of their spirit, whilst the ‘plus ones’ of the enthusiasts appeared more satisfied. This segment of the discussion was aptly rounded off with Mrs McCormack imbuing the crowd with an old Scottish saying, ‘never kiss a man’s wife nor water a man’s whisky’, reflecting the personal aspect of the choice.

The debate progressed to some of the well known perceptions and misconceptions the accompanying the drinking of whisky, single malt is better than blended, malt is better than grain, the older the better and so forth. Professor Smith then elucidated the combination of history and psychology that has spawned such wide held beliefs. Firstly, he described how in blind taste tests, people don’t sort along the lines of blended versus single, but rather on other unifying features such as ‘peatyness’ or ‘smokyness’. Professor Spence added that the perception of single malts being superior originated from astute marketing in the 60s alongside a rapid growth of the middle class in Scotland at the time, associating smaller independent single malt brands with higher quality. Professor Smith also described how the environment in which we consume something affects our perception of it. He used the all too familiar example of wine bought on a Mediterranean holiday never tasting quite as good as it did whilst basking in the sun by the beach. To demonstrate this principle, the audience were then invited to sample their second whisky whilst stroking a piece of velvet. When asked, people described the taste of the spirit as being soft and even possessing sweet tones. We then drank from the same glass whilst rubbing sandpaper, with peoples descriptions of their beverage changing highlighting the ‘sharp’ tones this time, enforcing the notion that our perception can morph due to external stimuli. This de-masking of the whisky prompted Professor Spence to disclose that ‘the whisky drinker should chose his whisky to reflect his taste and pocket rather than his self image’, referring of course to the tendency to find the most obscure artisan brand (and so premeditating that it will be flavoursome and enjoyable) rather than instinctively trusting our senses.

The final taste test of the evening comprised of the audience indulging in a measure of Talisker, the most fierce of the drams offered. We were then instructed to dip in to the pots of wasabi peas that had been left on the table before trying the Talisker once more. Whilst the pea consumption was under way it was explained that the nerves responsible for the detection of the fiery taste would become overloaded by wasabi coating, causing the brain to temporarily ignore signals emitted from them. This meant that upon second tasting the final measure could be enjoyed without the flaming sensation on the lips, allowing for a rich variety of subtler tones to grace the palette.  For this reason a recommendation of enjoying whisky with a curry was made, something I am rather eager to investigate after seeing how such combinations could alter perception.

The evening ended with questions from the audience, which prompted a foray into the comical matter of the water with which whisky is made. This is something the distilleries take much pride in and guard their water sources closely. All the while many of their consumers then mixing their product with tap water to preference anyway. That said, some distilleries do actually sell bottled water that they recommend to be mixed with their spirit, with the panel non-verbally communicating their opinion on that. My take away message from the evening perhaps best put in the words of novelist James Joyce, ‘the light music of whiskey falling into a glass – an agreeable interlude.”


This article was written by James Hitchen and edited by Bonnie Nicholson.

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