Is flavor subjective? If so, can we even discuss flavor? Do tasting notes add any value to the conversation? And, how important is a shared language in order to train our perception of taste ? Fred Blans’ quest for answers… and a cure to WFS.
For some time, I’ve been experiencing the symptoms of WFS, better known as Whisky Fatigue Syndrome , the ailment was first described by writer Becky Paskin. At tastings, my time is consumed analyzing, classifying, and applauding. All at the cost of real enjoyment. Eventually, I even started doubting my perception of both flavor and smell.
So, I sought out the only one doctor qualified to treat my condition. Dr. Peter Klosse is a Dutch authority in the field of taste. Klosse’s bonafides are impressive. He holds a PhD is in Health Sciences, a professorships at both the University of Maastricht and his own Dutch Academy for Gastronomy. The academic also owns his own hotel and restaurant, De Echoput in Hoog Soeren. For good measure, our expert also authored six books including the celebrated The Concept of Flavor Styles to Classify Flavors.
Klosse theorized, “Nobody can have the same flavor and taste experience because our olfactory organ and the flavors we inhale every day are strongly attached to a personal experience of time and place.”
Cultural Flavor Wheel
Writing for Scotchwhisky.com, Dave Broom only increased my predicament. “Education, culture and personal preferences define how we talk about our preferences which means that every language and culture should design its own flavor wheel.”
Klosse agreed, telling me, “Our brains gather a huge amount of information around products. The more you taste a product and experience its essence the more information is added to your olfactory organs and the more subtle levels will be recognized. These are the levels and distinctions we talk about’.
So, no scoring anymore at tastings notes? “To a certain extent,” Klosse replied. “Tasting notes are not reliable. They are a subjective experience. Every writer of tasting notes is influenced in his or her own way.”
Broom stressed the importance of a shared language. “The more limited our linguistic base – and aroma map – the less able we will be to identify aromas,” he wrote, referencing Ludwig Wittgenstein. The philosopher philosopher notably declared “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”
So is our language more limited when our general frame of reference is smaller? Commonly cited research by Ilja Croymans and Asifa Majid of the Radboud University of Nijmegen seemed to think so.
In their seminal work, Odor naming is difficult, even for wine and coffee experts, the scholars examined wine and coffee experts. While these subjects are linguistically well equipped in their own field, they are no more accurate or consistent than novices when challenged with aromas from different fields. Expertise alone is not enough. An accurate command of a universal language is required.
Mastering The Jargon
In fact whiskey “expertise” debatably has more to do with semantics skills than a perfect palate.
“This [ascension as whiskey expert] has to do with mastering the jargon, being able to give words to your tasting experience and the skill to write it down, your language skill,” Peter explained.
“This is quite an arbitrary process. If you use the accepted jargon, the lingua franca so to speak, then you’re the expert to many people; rather than using new words and expressions. Whereas somebody who is less fluent with words might be a far better taster.”
Whiskyfun contributor Angus MacRaild is a man who knows how to choose his vocabulary.
His response to my query provided some reassurance. “We just need to remember not to take it all so seriously – it’s whisky’fun’ after all,” he concluded.
But, Angus is a strong advocate for tasting notes. He believes that they represent education, a key part of our whisky culture.
‘We humans are social creatures and creating a communicative framework to express our passions and opinions with others is an inherently social thing to do’.
Differences in opinion are not really about the whisky itself. After all, “a whisky can be broken down chemically in a laboratory and its flavor keytones and congeners identified and mapped. This is a whisky’s ultimate, scientific ‘objective’ truth,” he argued.
“The nature of human biology means we are heavily subjective in the way we assess both aroma and flavor. To efficiently describe the character of something in terms of its flavor or aroma I believe you need a combination of a good vocabulary and a good memory.”
Aromas And Its Surroundings
However, in Klosse’s opinion, a good vocabulary is not enough to just aroma’s inclusion as a measure.
“Odors are very difficult to use in scientific experiments,” the pro commented. “When it comes to analyzing I mostly keep away from them. This is because the world of odors has no model and can’t be classified. Molecules are known for their volatility which in turn has to do with very precise temperatures.
As an example, the scientist noted that certain molecules will only become active 19.4 ℃, whereas others will only get active at 26.8℃. Consequently, serving temperature affects the bouquet.
“Also the length of time you keep a sip of whisky in your mouth is important. It can influence the model I am after to a great extent. But, don’t get me wrong, odors are important,” he added. “Especially when you talk about sensoric observation. But even auditive and visual impressions have their say in our perception of taste. Not to forget our immediate surroundings’.
The Algorithm Of Taste
“In our peer-to-peer economy we connect within seconds and tend to follow those people who fit our own tasting profile. In our scientific research we hope to find correlations and hopefully an algorithm of taste. We do have a theory what flavors are,” concluded Klosse. “We made a model for this and what we do is measuring the presence of flavors and how they work. Next we look at the way these flavors mute or intensify each other.”
I am trying to imagine how this can work out for me as a lover of whisky: I pour myself a dram, hold up the glass to check the color, sniff, sip and say: ‘Yeah….lekker’.
I leaf through the pages of Klosse’s latest work ‘The new Book of Taste’ (Het Nieuwe Proefboek) and read to the chapter called ‘Lekker’. (In Dutch, the adjective lekker connotes several positive attributes including nice, appealing and high-quality). Here he says that our senses register genuine taste. ‘There’s nothing wrong with our senses. Our experiences in life dictate our levels of enjoyment. And of course all this related to our tasting perceptions’.
Greasing The Wheels
After having spoken to experts like Doctor Klosse and Angus MacRaild, I felt more confident. I guess I will be able to resist the peer pressure at whisky tastings which led up to analyzing, classifying and applauding too much. I might even cure my Whisky Fatigue Syndrome by realizing that it’s whisky’fun’ after all’. Together with a critical attitude and the right language at times I hope to have greased my whisky wheels again.
Fred Blans teaches young adults, trains young teachers and writes about whisky. There’s no connection between the first two and the latter whatsoever. When it comes to education he is interested in innovation in every aspect of learning. When it comes to writing his main concern is to trigger the reader’s attention and to interest him or her in all aspects of whisky. But, you might be right: it is ‘Inquisity’ that fuels Blans’ actions in both jobs.