Whisky & Music : A Perfect Duet?
by Stephen Rankin, Director of Prestige, Gordon & MacPhail Whiskies
Great music can evoke all kinds of emotions and fond memories. A specific track may remind you of a particular group of friends, or instantly transport you to memorable time and place. For me, ‘Brothers in Arms’ by Dire Straits always takes me right back to my youth. ‘Soul Limbo’ by Booker T & the M.G.’s always fondly reminds me of times spent watching the cricket with my family.
Whisky is no different in this respect. A special dram or individual flavours can provide its own trigger. Smoky notes, for instance, may remind you of sitting at the fire at your grandmother’s house - or take you back to a beach bonfire decades before.
With that in mind, I got in touch with renowned whisky writer and fellow muso, Dave Broom (@davewasabi), to explore the effect of combining music and whisky, culminating at an event at The Drouthy Cobbler in Elgin as part of the Spirit of Speyside Festival.
And the results were revealing…
There is some science to support the hypothesis. A study by Charles Spence, Professor of Experimental Psychology at Oxford University, demonstrated that our perception of colour and taste can be affected by music by up to 10%.
Our challenge was to pair a selection of Gordon & MacPhail’s unrivalled depth and breadth of releases from distilleries all over Scotland with songs, each with a different beat and sound, to see what they could unlock in each liquid’s taste profile.
But not all music is likely to illicit this magical effect. The magic really is in the mix. You need a carefully curated track list, and this is where music fanatic Dave Broom – a man of eclectic taste – took centre stage!
On the evidence of our 30 event attendees, a correlation was clear. Almost all reported that their palates changed and detected new flavours in the whisky when they listened to the music.
TRY IT OUT FOR YOURSELF!
If you are interested in pairing whisky with music to explore what it reveals, here’s our guide for how best to approach it. (The whiskies and tracks we paired are featured below).
When tasting, make sure to taste the whisky neat in silence first, noting down the texture and flavours you find. Then repeat the tasting process, closing your eyes with the music on in the background. Again, note down the texture and flavours, looking at whether anything has been enhanced by the music, has changed with the tempo etc.
- For a melody that is fast paced with a rapid staccato beat, we recommend using a lighter floral style of whisky.
- For a song slower in tempo and ideally with strings, we suggest a medium-bodied, fruity whisky with an American Oak influence.
- To bring out the plumier, richer flavours within a Sherry-cask whisky, try a track with a particularly strong bassline.
- For whiskies with a long finish, avoid tracks with an obvious build or crescendo.
OUR SET LIST
For our event we paired the following tracks with a selection of single malts from Gordon & MacPhails’ Connoisseurs Choice range. If you do not have these whiskies to hand, then a similar style of whisky could be used.
Connoisseurs Choice Glenlivet 2003 (56.4%) & ‘Soukora’ by Ali Farka Touré
The track, from the legendary Malian Blues guitarist, is taken from the 1994 Grammy award-winning ‘Talking Timbuktu’ album, produced by Ry Cooder.
We discovered that the warm, summery tones of the song helped to bring out the sweetness and floral characteristics in the whisky which itself has a delicate herbal finish that develops as the sweet tropical fruit flavours disperse.
Alternatively, you could try Blue Monday by New Order – but always an instrumental version as we found during the tasting that lyrics can often cause a distraction.
Connoisseurs Choice Glen Grant 1997 (59.3%) & ‘A Catalogue of Afternoons’ by Max Richter
‘A Catalogue of Afternoons’ is the opening track on British composer Max Richter’s ‘The Blue Notebooks’ album, originally released in 2004. The song’s relaxed minimalism offers a contrast to the warming finish of our Connoisseurs Choice Glen Grant 1997. Its slow tempo and upweight strings helped to bring out honey and sliced apple aromas in the whisky.
Connoisseurs Choice Speyburn 2006 (59.2%) & ‘Whistman’s Wood’ by John Surman
‘Whistman’s Wood’ is taken from saxophonist John Surman’s 2012 album, ‘Saltash Bells’. The song has a romantic feel to it, which paired well with the CC Speyburn 2006. During the silent tasting, the notes of dried fruits and sultanas were prevalent but then the deeper, bass-driven tones helped to pull out a warming, full-bodied, chilli sensation on the palate, bringing heavier notes of plums and rich forest fruits.
Connoisseurs Choice Highland Park 1989 (51.1%) & ‘A Summer Long Since Passed’ by Virginia Astley
‘A Summer Long Since Passed’ comes from Virginia Astley’s 1983 ‘From Gardens Where We Feel Secure’ album. The slow build of the song helps to deepen the dark chocolate, red apple and orange flavours on the palate, complementing the long and fruity finish with a subtle hint of smoke.
An interesting alternative to this track is Coldcut: Autumn Leaves remix or Colin Stetson: Spindrift.
Connoisseurs Choice Glenrothes 1988 (58.5%) & ‘Running on Fumes’ by King Creosote
Here we introduced vocals to the tasting for the first time. The oldest of the whiskies we sampled on the night, the soft vocals managed for some to create a textured feeling in the dram, with sweet apricot jam aromas blending well with the warming ginger spice on the palate. Whilst the other pairings were overwhelmingly positive, adding the vocals did seem to diminish the experience for some of our tasters.
Connoisseurs Choice Glenlivet 2003 (56.4%) & ‘Take Five’ by Willie Mitchell
More observant readers will notice this resamples the same dram as in Pairing #1 (above), but with a different style of music. Compared to the Ali Farka Touré track, this Willie Mitchell song, released in December 1968, helped to entice some of the more hidden elements of the dram, including bursts of white pepper, balanced with pineapple and banana flavours on the palate.
It was a really interesting night, and special thanks to Mr Broom and all who attended for their participation.
I would thoroughly encourage you to try tasting your whiskies with music to really get all your different senses working. I’d love to hear from you all with your whisky and music pairing suggestions, so please get in touch on Instagram @Stephenrankingandm, or use the hashtag #GordonandMacphail and we’ll pick it up.