Charles Spence

Charles Spence

15 Mar. 2017
Meet the scientist who is changing the way we think about bars

What are the effects of sound on the taste of our drinks? How can you play with glassware? Does the colour of food impact its taste? These are a few of the questions raised at Charles Spence’s seminar at the 2016 Havana Club Grand Prix. Undoubtedly the most surprising session of the training days that preceded the competition…

As stated in his biography, Charles Spence, the head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University, “is interested in how people perceive the world around them”. This ranges from how talking on a mobile phone will affect the way one drives a car to how what we see contributes to what we taste. “There has been sensory work on food for decades but mostly boring stuff, and multisensory studies on how the senses connect, but mostly about hearing, vision and touch”, he told us. “Nobody cared much about food.”

Spence first started working on how smell and taste interact in 1999. He consulted with brands but “the industry is slow. Chefs and mixologists can change things immediately and what we learn can then be applied to other environments.” In 2003, he was put in touch with renowned chef Heston Blumenthal. “Chefs want to take things apart and recreate them in unusual ways, they want to shock and surprise people. So they mislead expectations and sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad. They needed a bit more information to understand why.”

One of Blumenthal’s most famous serve was seafood in a plate that looked like the seashore, to be enjoyed to the sounds of the… sea. This enhanced the sensory experience, but it only works for one dish, not a whole meal. Other experiences can fail: “the first impression stays with you, and it’s not easily overwritten later. If you’re expecting something sweet and you get something salty, you’ll find it too salty. If you get back to it later, even knowing what to expect, you’ll still find it too salty…”

Spence doesn’t only work with chefs: he has a very good working relationship with Tony Conigliaro, for instance. The thing is, multisensory experiences such as the ones some brands are now setting up can be very expensive. So how can a small bar owner apply the findings of experimental psychologists? According to Spence, it can be very easy. “You can do great things with glassware at high-end places, but Tony puts and inexpensive piece of string around the stem of a cocktail glass, and I remember some bar just putting bubble wrap around it. Cheap, everyday material that can help create a contrast between what it feels like in your hand and what you’re drinking.” Playing around with the sonority of cocktail names or their order on the menu can also have unexpected effects.

And, of course, there’s sound – and a bar is full of sound. “Many people order tomato juice on planes, yet very little do it on the ground. Tomato juice is umami-rich and we found that the loud noise of the airplane supress your ability to taste sweet and salty, but it enhances your ability to taste umami. That’s why some airlines are now developing umami-rich menus and altering their wine selection.” Now you know: if you want to sell lots of Cubanitos, the Cuban Bloody Mary, make sure your bar is loud.

More seriously, Spence says that it’s time to really consider your music selection: “Did you think about it or is it just a random playlist? I can’t necessarily tell you what the correct selection is, but if you start thinking about it, you’ll probably end up with a better space than you started with.”

Science is expensive and big brands or famous chefs and bartenders are better placed to help and benefit from its advances. But digging in Charles Spence’s research (and his book ‘The Perfect Meal’) might help you come up with your own ways of improving the overall guest experience. And stay tuned: Spence is now working a lot on what he calls ‘sonic seasoning’.
Coming to a bar near you soon enough...

François Monti