Can changing where you drink whiskey change how it tastes? Oxford researchers say “yes.”

The University of Oxford has a renowned reputation for being one of the top research and education institutions in the world. With Nobel Prize winners developing quantum mechanic theories, identifying and vaccinating Hepatitis B and resolving major world issues like the Suez Canal Crisis, among other things, there are countless accomplishments by scientists, parliamentarians and revolutionaries all of which have one thing in common — the University of Oxford is their alma mater.

So when a study came out from researchers at the University of Oxford about where to drink whiskey, I was definitely listening.

Conducted by experimental psychologist and Professor Charles Spence, the study looked at if where you drink whiskey changes perception on how it tastes.

The results? A big “hell yes.” Direct quote. Okay, maybe not, but their study, which was released in 2013, concluded that the multi-sensory attributes in the surrounding environment CAN in fact influence the flavour receptors in our brain to enhance or inhibit the taste of things.

With whiskey, it is a common drink but with very complex flavours. The study wanted to see if they could enhance three different common aroma/flavour attributes for whiskey: grassiness, woodiness and sweetness.

For this experiment, they created three different rooms (The Nose, The Taste and The Finish room), paying attention to everything from the layout to lighting to design to colour to the smells being emitted into the rooms.

The Nose room featured green grassy turf on the ground, lawn chairs, croquet sets and other outdoorsy items. A green light illuminated the room while a blend of galbanum (a gum resin from a flowering Persian plant) and violet leaf was used to create a fragrance that was reminiscent of fresh cut grass. The sounds of a summer meadow with birds chirping and the wind softly blowing played in the background.

Oxford Experiment Results - Whiskey MuseThe Taste room featured red globes, padded chairs and other rounded-edge items including a bowl of fresh red fruit. A red light illuminated the room while a blend of prunol and aldehydes was used to create a fragrance reminiscent of something sweet. The sounds of high pitched tinkling bells chimed in the background.

The Finish room featured exposed wood panels, wooden boxes, wooden chairs and clocks on the walls. The room was dimly lit and a blend of cedarwood and tonka bean was used to create a fragrance reminiscent of something woody. The sounds of creaking timbers, a crackling fireplace, and someone walking through the dry leaves on the forest floor played in the background.

Attendees to the Sensorium event were notified of what to expect, poured some dram and then proceeded to be escorted into each room for approximately 5 minutes where they could sip their whiskey and make notes about the taste. All-in-all the experience lasted about 20 minutes. With 441 participants, researchers collected the data to analyze and the results were astounding.

Despite the participants knowing that they were drinking the same blend of whiskey in each room, they ranked the whiskey’s smell to be significantly more grassy in the Nose Room (the green grassy room). Similarly, they ranked the whiskey to taste more sweet in the Taste Room. And once again, the after-taste or finish to be significantly more woody in the Finish Room.

So what is the significance of this?

Well particularly for whiskey brands and their marketing / experiential outreach, there is a huge opportunity to enhance each touching point with customers to optimize the experience they have with your brand. Everything from the bottle, to the scent-recognition to the sound cues to the environment its served in matters. All of these things can enhance, dull, or quickly become a forgotten by the consumer. Being conscious of the fact that the taste is just one part of the experience and further, these other sensory elements can even enhance the tasting experience itself will help to create something memorable.