August 18, 2018

Blind and in the Dark

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I’ve seen a few stories recently about trendy gimmicks in the dining world. My favorites are the restaurants that serve dinner in the dark or make patrons wear blindfolds as part of the meal. While I don’t advocate eating with the lights off, as it’s a recipe for spilling and slopping all over yourself, it does emphasize a key concept in the world of sensory perception.

People in general are extremely visually dominant when it comes to the five senses. After sight comes hearing. That leaves the senses of  smell, taste and touch lagging behind. The average person is quite often pressed to describe the world around them relying on these three senses. It’s the reason why the concept of dining in the dark is novel. If one takes away the dominant sensory cues, the experience that’s left becomes  something beyond most people’s comprehension at first.

The booze world has long practiced a similar concept, albeit not to the extreme of turning off the lights and making you drink in the dark. That concept is the blind tasting. Take away as many cues as possible from the drinker that might bias their opinion of what’s in the glass and make them judge based solely on what they smell and taste. Many people are often surprised at the results.

This month, I delve a little into the concepts of blind tasting and encourage you try it a bit more often, as it allows you to drop any preconceptions you might be hanging on to and simply enjoy a bit more the smell and taste of what’s in your glass.

If I take away the fancy marketing campaign, do you really enjoy what’s in your glass?

My favorite blind tasting to throw at people is a vodka  tasting. Vodka, by definition, is a neutral spirit that in theory is supposed to have little in the way of distinctive flavor, smell, or character. The premium end of vodka comes with large marketing campaigns, glitzy packaging, and determined egos from vodka drinkers that insist their particular brand is by far the best, and that they would never stoop to the standard “cheap” stuff, because the flavor is so different.

The problem is, when I take away the fancy package, the marketing pitch, and every other input that says “high dollar, premium brand,” can you really tell the difference? Vodkas do vary a little bit, so people can  frequently distinguish that some taste or smell different than others.  The challenge comes in describing what you’re tasting or smelling, and the even more difficult task of picking what you think is a favorite out of a line-up. My experience is that many of the expensive brands people insist are the best are not the ones they choose as favorites when the cues are gone.

Another experiment that’s fun to try with guests is to take away the visual cues of wine by pouring it into a black colored glass, and see how many people are able to guess not only what type of wine you’ve served, but even something as basic as the color of the wine in the glass. You’d be surprised how similar a red and white wine can seem to the nose when you take away the visual cue of the wine’s color. It’s not until one takes a sip and gets the mouthfeel sensations of tannin that a red or white wine becomes obvious.

The core of blind tasting, though, is not to strip away all visual cues and make people grab at straws. It’s OK to let everyone see the wine in the glass. The purpose is to hone your tasting skills so you can develop what for many people are minor senses. If I hand you glass of red wine, can you put your nose into it and say with any degree of certainty that it’s a Cabernet or a Zinfandel? Can you distinguish between a wine that’s dry versus one that has a little residual sugar? If you’re drinking a spirit, can you distinguish between the sweet corn and oak character of a Bourbon versus the peat smoke barley character of a Scotch? More useful, though, is if I take away the fancy marketing campaign, do you really enjoy what’s in your glass?

I can’t speak to dining in the dark, but going blind as far as your beverage is concerned is a good way to learn how to appreciate the true pleasure of eating, and that’s the smell and taste of your food. When your senses work in concert, it adds a new level of pleasure to everything you eat and drink.

Remember to drink responsibly.

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