From Synesthesia to Digital Whisky Sensations

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Posted by Mica on May 26, 2019 in Concept & Research

Academic research is a base of every Masters project. In this blog I will summarise relevant research which directs my design in a digital whisky tasting experiences and how the whisky enthusiasts can benefit from it.


David Brang and V. S. Ramachandran take a closer look into synesthesia in their paper ‘Survival of the Synesthesia Gene: Why Do People Hear Colors and Taste Words?‘ While this condition is often transmitted from parent to offspring the synesthesia type does not necessarily will be the same. This is not only due to the extraordinary amount of variation within each type of synesthesia. Additionally they are stating that specific triggers are hardly evoking the same subsenses in different synesthetes which makes my attempt to find a common library of connected senses obsolete. (1)

Richard E. Cytowic and Frank B. Wood studied in their paper ‘Synesthesia: II. Psychophysical relations in the synesthesia of geometrically shaped taste and colored hearing‘ the cohesion of the perception of synesthetes and non-synesthetes. For their small scale experiment they compared the results of a gustatory synesthete and an audatory synesthete with the results of non synesthetes. Overall the authors concluded that there was no connection between the results and could therefore not confirm that these perceptions where generally valid. However, I personally could relate to the choices of a non synesthete matching sour flavours with pointy shapes while sweet flavours were assigned to round shapes. (2)

Cohesive Senses

Chalres Spence published with several Co-Authors a study called ‘On tasty colours and colourful tastes? Assessing, explaining, and utilizing crossmodal correspondences between colours and basic tastes‘. This research paper questions the desire of combining taste and colour matched by synesthetes as their perception is very unique and is usually not shared by the general public. This statement is followed by critical comparison of various crossmodal correspondence studies matching taste to colour in which the 5 basic tastes (sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umamy) were matched to a selected choice of colours by non synesthetes.
All studies show quite similar results and can be summarised as follows:

  • sweet – red, pink, orange
  • sour – yellow, green
  • salty – white, blue, grey
  • bitter – black, violet, brown
  • umamy (savory) – sometimes violet

It is further to note that these results where cohesive despite different cultures and a timespan of nearly 3 decades of these studies.
And weather these colour matching are originated by our ability to match the colours of our environment with these tastes it has to be mentioned that these tests were not conducted using the actual flavours but words.
While I personally can relate to most of the taste to colour choices it would be very interesting to see these matchings being done using the actual flavour and a broader palette of colour choices. (3)

While Synesthesia is clearly an inspiration on how to approach taste and smell, I can agree with Charles Spences statement about these matchings being not applicable to the general public.

Several studies already proved that there are several flavours that can be matched with colours by a large majority of non-synesthtes. However, while taking the importance of texture and hue into account, Charles Spence does not mention the importance of the actual shape of the presented food. The Designer and Co-Author Jialin Deng  tried to recreate a more abstract matching of colour, shape and flavour. Nonetheless, a following study could not confirm a success in all creations.

From the publication ‘On tasty colours and colourful tastes? Assessing, explaining, and utilizing crossmodal correspondences between colours and basic tastes‘ (3)

Whisky Profiling

Tasting whisky is a complex and very subjective term. Professionals are using for determination of tasting notes an agreed vocabulary (e.g. cereal as a nutty/chocolaty tasting note). It has to be noted that this terminology is learned and practiced by professionals over many years. Attending many whisky tastings over my past years, however, I experienced consumers to have very broad definitions of tasting notes of which all are valid. Many whisky ambassadors are actually encouraging drinkers to be open in their descriptions. A Glenfiddich brand ambassador reasoned this with the assumption of people have not experienced the same flavour profiles in their past. Therefore a person might have never tasted e.g. butterscotch and therefore would describe this flavour differently.

C. Guy, J. r. Piggott and S. Marie compared the differences of whisky analyses in their paper ‘Consumer profiling in Scotch whisky‘. Their research evaluated the applicability of free choice profiling (FCP) – a method to describe tastes with your own vocabulary while still using this own developed vocabulary persistently – for regular consumers. While the implementation and results might be questionable regarding its scientific value, they pointed out that there was a need of interpretation and aggregation of the collected vocabulary to gain comparability with a trained panel analysing the same whisky with a profiling method using a shared vocabulary. (4)

It is possible to conclude form this article that while professionals use a defined terminology to describe nosing and tasting notes of a whisky these descriptions are not approachable by regular consumers untrained in this method while being still able to perceive similar flavour notes. Due to this knowledge it is not inadvisable using clearly defined images of fruits etc. for a digital whisky tasting but create an abstraction of these which can be developed through the basic idea of synesthesia but adapted to general people with functionality of cohesive senses.

Whisky Sensorium

Carlos Velasco, Russell Jones, Scott King and Charles Spence have conducted in 2013 a study called ‘Assessing the influence of the multisensory environment on the whisky drinking experience’. They performed two experiments regarding the multisensory influences on the taste of the whisky The Singleton 12. The first experiment combined whisky, vision and sound in a controlled laboratory environment testing the influences on each of the three flavour profiles grassy, sweet and woody in adapted rooms including a fourth control room without any influences while the second experiment was hosted on a much bigger scale in a real-live environment with adapted multisensory designs and added smell to the experiences but without a control room. Their results stated that the flavour profiles could be enhanced with multisensory stimuli in both experiments but were most successful regarding the woody sensorium room.

Although, the authors pointed out some limitation of the study regarding the fixed order of the sensory rooms (grassy, sweet, and woody) the participants had to follow as well as participants experiencing all rooms with the same whisky glass in the second experiment they concluded the aim of enhancing individual flavour profiles with separate multisensory stimuli as proven with consideration of both experiments specifically . And while considering participants adapting to the taste of the whisky might influence their perception and liking of the whisky but not their choice in specific taste further limitations could be added for both experiments regarding order of the flavour rooms and the increasing alcohol intake of the participants during both experiments which might have distorted the results of the study.
Further the use of smell as another multisensory element could be seen as questionable in perceiving taste due to two factors. Firstly the experiment already provided smell with the whisky itself and secondly taste is often perceived through smell rather than actual flavour experienced on the tongue (6) resulting in covering the taste perception of the whisky rather than influencing it.
On another note it is noticeable that the sweet room showed a lesser impact on participant than the other sensory rooms. While the sound choice of a ‘high pitched consonant of a tinkling bell’ was developed from based on other studies regarding the taste of sweet and I personally agree in the choice of rounded shapes in the room, the colour choice, however, can be seen controversial and therefore a reason for this result. Two years later the linking of the colour red with the perception of sweet was questioned by Charles Spence himself and his Co-Authors a study analysing previous work in this area with the result of higher tendency of participants matching this flavour with the colour pink (3).
This enables to the assumption that pink and rather delicate colours might have gained a higher impact on participants than the chosen colour palette. (5)

Multisensory Rooms, Image from ‘Assessing the influence of the multisensory environment on the whisky drinking experience’ by Velasco, C., Jones, R., King, S., Spence, C. (5)

Conclusion for Digital Design

Design and research have been inspired by the condition of synesthesia and therefor further studied and developed this condition regarding the general public (cohesive senses). The coherence of colour and taste is one of these researched areas. Our taste perception perceives its information not only from the receptors on our tongues and nose but was proven in several academic studies to additionally be influenced by a multisensorial experience thus additionally taking vision, hearing and touch into account.
Whisky is a very diverse spirit in nose as well as in taste with complex facets of flavour profiles and serves here as a great research material on the effect of cohesive senses. The influence on our perception emphasising our senses currently seems to be rather subtle but can be enhanced with multiple stimuli (e.g. taste, sound, smell).

So what possibilities regarding digital design are opened here in terms of whisky? Where are the benefits and who can benefit from this?

Firstly, in my opinion, we benefit most from digital design when we merge it with our reality instead of detaching us from an already immersive world, thus enhance our reality with digitality.

As designers we are given a complex and rich drinking experience, scientific knowledge regarding the stimulation of our perception and immersive technology such as AR and VR. With these tools it is possible to enhance our senses in various ways.

We can diminish the perception of unpleasant flavours while also enhancing pleasant flavours to ease the long process of practicing nosing and tasting of whisky for novices enabling them to experience the complexity and beauty of whisky. But also enhance the experience for experts presenting a richer immersive whisky tasting journey.


(4) C. Guy, J. r. Piggott and S. Marie. Consumer Profiling of Scotch Whisky. Food Quality and Preference. Volume 1, Issue 2, 1989, Pages 69-73.
(5) Velasco, C., Jones, R., King, S. et al. Flavour (2013) 2: 23.