The Terroir Of The Moment or… Why Whisky Tastes Worse on a Bad Day

2020 has been hard on many people. The loss of human interaction, the loss of a job, the loss of a cheeky weekend away, all of this has affected us. The isolation and depression that comes with it hurts people in many ways, and the frame of mind it sets us in can alter ways in which we perceive our whisky, changing our mindset, what we could call the Terroir of our minds. So what is terroir?

‘Terroir can be defined as the interaction between the natural properties of a territory (soil and climate) and the savoir-faire of human being’ – Terroirs and Grape Varieties of Cognac, Y. Bernard & JN. Pelleten

In other words, terroir is a sense of place, how the factors within the production of wine – such as soil and climate – affect a wine or Cognac and how we perceive that in tasting it. From a Cognac point of view, we understand this coming from differences between the regions, most famously soil compositions.

  • The soils of Grand Champagne are comprised of chalky clay.
  • Those of Petite Champagne holds clay with soil that is more compact than that of Grande Champagne.
  • Borderies’ soil contains clay and flint.
  • Fin Bois’ soil holds both clay and limestone.
  • Bons Bois’ soil is sand, clay and limestone.
  • Bois Ordinaires’ soil is mainly sand.

The grapes in each region will grow to taste differently due to the different variations in soil, the climate within each region and other factors. When the liquid is eventually made into cognac, terroir is thought to be present within each drop. It is then that a sophisticated nose and palate are able to tell the difference when tasting the same grape grown across different regions of Cognac.

Put simply, if I grow a grape in ripe soil and a warm climate, the flavour will be different from that of a grape grown in a cooler climate with poor soil. If I grow some Ugni-Blanc grape in Grand Champagne and some in Fin Bois, the difference in taste will be apparent and the terroir of the region showing itself in the cognac.

So why am I talking about this?

Terroir is a concept that has garnered much attention within the wine and cognac world for some time, with many labels proud of the difference the terroir creates and with many research articles on the concept.

Recently, the idea has moved into whisky but this article is not going to be about the existence of terroir within whisky. This is about something different: Crossmodalism, or the terroir of the mind, or how your mood affects your whisky.

Mood is intrinsically linked to how we perceive things. When we feel happy, hills appear less steep, days are brighter and foods high in sugar such as chocolate taste sweeter. Conversely, when we are sad and experiencing depression, those hills are insurmountable, the days are darker and that chocolate is bitter. It is the same with alcohol.

I’m sure we’ve all felt this ourselves. If you’re a sports fan and you go to the pub after the game, the mood will be happy or sad depending on the outcome. That mood directly influences your perception of how the beer tastes despite the fact that it is the same beer you always drink.

My team won, I am happy, I am having a great time, this beer tastes amazing.

My team lost, I am sad, I am not enjoying myself at all, this beer is piss.

While this might seem anecdotal we have research to back this up.

A 2006 study gave a group of 20 individuals two anti-depressants, one raising serotonin levels, a monoamine neurotransmitter commonly referred to as the happy hormone and the other increasing noradrenaline, the release of high levels of this hormone being associated with anxiety.

After being given the serotonin raising antidepressant, the participants noted being more sensitive to sweet and bitter tastes and flavours, while those who took the noradrenaline noted that they felt more sensitive to bitter and sour tastes.

A 2013-2014 study tracking 550 individuals through the 2013-2014 Hockey season found that when the team won and feelings were high and happy, sweet flavours were enhanced and sour diminished, while, when the team lost and emotions ran low, sour flavours became enhanced and the sweet ones were diminished.

A 2020 study conducted on the effects of mood and beer saw that those who had just watched a happy movie scene, in this case a scene from the movie Wall-E, rated the beer as tasting better, sweeter and being of an increased quality. During the same study, the participants were shown a sad movie scene from The Shawshank Redemption where a character commits suicide. After this scene, they rated the same beer as tasting worse, being more bitter and of a perceived lower quality.

These studies show that how intricately linked our mood and perception of flavours are.

Whisky is incredibly complex. The taste and flavours that come from it can be expressed in an untold number of ways. While the way that we perceive those flavours is often through memory association, our moods deeply affect both those perceptions and memories.

Let’s say you’re having a fantastic day. You found some money. It’s your anniversary. It is a warm, sunny day and you’re prone to outside influences on your mood, your serotonin levels are raised. When you taste a whisky, the sweeter notes within the drink will be better expressed. The memories that come to mind are likely to be happy, re-enforcing your already happy mood and emotions. As the sweeter notes are likely to be heightened, you will also perceive a higher number of notes flowing from the glass.

Compare that to a bad day. You just got a final notice, an eviction notice, you’ve been fired. Your partner left you. It’s cold, dark and raining and you are influenced by the outside world, your serotonin plummeting and anxiety and depression setting in. The memories that come to mind are more likely to be of sadder days and darker moments and so, the sweeter notes are dampened and the bitter notes expressed more.

Let’s express that in whisky terms:

When your terroir of thought is rich and happy, the notes comes through more easily and there are more of them, with you perceiving the flavours that are expressed as being more rich and deep. As the whisky holds more flavour, you dive more deeply into it, searching for more and more. The more notes you find, the more you look for others.

When sad or depressed, sweet notes become subdued and fail to come through. What does come through are the bitter and sour notes, typically described as off-notes or poor notes in a whisky. The whisky is perceived as plain or worse as your current terroir of thought is one of despondency. As you perceive the whisky in being either subdued or bitter, you dig for less with the whisky being perceived to be of worse quality.

So, what does that mean for drinking?

I’m not suggesting that anyone wanting to explore the flavours of whisky more deeply purchase anti-depressants, but it is important to think that you should be in a healthy head space before tasting whisky.

The terroir of the moment is constantly changing while the terroir of the whisky is fixed in the glass. Your headspace can change while the flavour of the whisky cannot, only your perception of it.

Go back to whiskies that you have rated as poor. Think back to the day you drank them. Were you happy or sad? I’ve often said the best way to try whisky is neat, then with water, with ice and with heat respectively – though it is clearly most important that you are in a good mood first. Note the differences between the whisky when life is good and when life is bad.

As Terroir is a sense of place, you should be in your happy place when tasting, reviewing and drinking whisky. That’s really the crux of it. In the end, before we want to delve into the terroir of our whisky, maybe it’s best we’re in the right terroir of mind first.  

A quick message to readers….

This article was initially written in order to talk about how your mood effects what you taste, but news of a second lockdown looming in multiple countries made it all the more apparent that while recognising that our frame of mind is important, talking about it is important too.

If you are feeling isolated, untethered, lonely, remember that there are alot of people who want to help you feel better. Send your friends a message, jump on a video call with someone, get talking and talk about what is hurting. You can even talk to me, you can send me an email at somewhiskybloke@gmail.com and I’ll do my best to sit down and understand what is hurting so hopefully you no longer have to.

If you would like to help others during this time Movember is right around the corner. I’ll be growing a Mo to support mental health and suicide prevention, if you’d like to help out you can click here to learn about what you can do to help yourself and your mates, and here to donate.

Just remember, no one is alone in this, you’ve always got someone you can talk to, even if that person is someone who rambles about whisky on the internet. Stay safe, keep positive, and when this all passes we’ll meet for a whisky in a pub somewhere.

Slainte

Somewhiskybloke

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