Edinburgh International Science Festival examines the science of whisky
Scotland's national drink will go under the microscope at two GastroFest events
The Edinburgh International Science Festival aims to show us the science behind the everyday food and drink we take for granted. Whisky expert Annabel Meikle uncovers the science of Scotch being explored at two of the festival’s events
I have, I’m told, an excellent nose. It once helped me get a job at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. I still take it to work with me every day, because there’s nothing like whisky to make you realise the extraordinary range and perceptiveness of human smell.
Scotland’s whisky sells itself all around the world, in vast quantity and hugely profitably, thanks in large part to a well-crafted image of romantic history, mythologised locations and the intangible interplay of water, malted barley, wooden casks and generations of craftsmanship. Anyone selling whisky tends to be a lot more loquacious on subjects such as wafts of peat smoke and angels’ shares than precise phenols and accurate aldehydes.
Yet even here things are changing. Whisky professionals and aficionados are looking in ever more minute scientific detail at the ingredients, processes and products of distilling and ageing, not to mention the drinking and appreciation of whisky.
I used to carry a slight chip that I hadn’t paid more heed to those teachers who tried to inspire me with science at school. It might have equipped me to talk the same language as some of my colleagues in the industry as I discovered how much chemistry goes on in a distillery. After all, the aromas that waft from mash tuns and spirit runs are a good indicator of some of the chemical reactions taking place. When the still man uses a gauge to measure his cut, it’s a reminder that there isn’t much of the whisky-making process that is left to chance. Matured spirit can be analysed using gas chromatography, which effectively dissects the aromas and measures their intensity, invariably confirming the observations of the best-trained noses in the business.
Ewan Henderson of Scotch Broth Events is well aware of the importance of science in your glass. He’s on a mission to shake up your taste buds and get you thinking about the sensory journey that you take when you eat delicious food paired with whiskies. He is a champion debunker of myths, and slashes through conventional theories like a musketeer.
He’s leading the Edinburgh International Science Festival event A Perfect Match: Marrying Malts with Molecules, and he’s got men and women in white coats from an organisation called Glasgow Polyomics to prove that behind every great marriage there’s some serious molecular match-making. Part of the University of Glasgow, Polyomics looks at molecular profiling technologies, and as well as examining the composition of the national drink in minute detail they’ve also been exploring the molecular basis of ideal taste pairings.
By downloading the Showmappr app, the audience can log their taste preferences to map the event journey with real-time analytics. The ingredients included in the pairings include ginger, rosewater, cloves, Irn Bru, pork, dark chocolate and blue cheese – the kinds of matches that will polarise opinion and rejuvenate your palate. It’s the sensory equivalent of skinny dipping in the North Sea on New Year’s Day.
Yet while molecular physicists can explain in intricate detail the make-up of the food and drink you’re tasting, it’s also a tacit recognition that our senses of taste and smell are extraordinarily complex things too – and that they themselves are the subject of vast amounts of scientific enquiry.
It’s easy to take our senses for granted, but I was once taught to understand smell and taste as a single sense of which the mouth is the lab and the nose the chimney. Every time you encounter a new smell it registers deep in your brain, along with an emotional association. Chairing tasting panels at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, I often hear the scientist of the group describing a dram using terms such as esters, phenols and aldehydes, while I detect pear drops, peat smoke and warm grass. They’re the same aromas, but described in a completely different language.
A second Gastrofest event, SciMart, which also takes place at Summerhall, offers the opportunity to explore this world of olfactory perception. It’s described as ‘a farmers’ market with a scientific twist’, and various food and drink producers will explain the science behind their products. Alongside local chef Mark Greenaway, Summerhall’s in-house brewery Barney’s and bug-eater Craig MacFarlane, the Scotch Whisky Research Institute will be examining how we all detect aroma, and how this varies between individuals. Using a range of samples they’ll give you the chance to test your nose, challenge your senses, and maybe shake up a few of your perceptions too. If you discover that you too have an excellent nose, you might find that it leads you to some extraordinary places.
A Perfect Match, Summerhall, Sun 6 Apr. SciMart, Summerhall, Sun 6 Apr. Both events are part of the GastroFest strand of the Edinburgh International Science Festival 2014, which runs Sat 5–Sun 20 Apr.