As some bars challenge traditional methods of helping people to choose their drinks, Prof Charles Spence looks at how aesthetic preferences may be linked. 

Gastrophysics research shows people like food and drink more if they get to choose what to order rather than when exactly the same foods are delivered without their being given any choice. For instance, in the latest laboratory research out of Nobu Sakai’s lab over in Japan, people’s ratings of both tea and curry were significantly higher among those who had chosen what to eat or drink as compared to those who had not.

But getting the number of options on the drinks menu right is currently as much of an art as a science. List too many drinks and your customers may well be frustrated by the amount of choice; have too few and you run the risk that some of your guests may not see anything that tickles their fancy. According to restaurant menu research, seven seems to be about the right number. For those who find themselves with too many drinks to showcase, the trick is to break the menu up into sections, so that at each stage the customer doesn’t feel overwhelmed by choice at any stage. It can be as simple as separating the list into one list of seven alcoholic cocktails and another for mocktails, or perhaps arranging the drinks by style or serve.

Some innovative souls have gone about the challenge of drinks selection in quite different ways. For example, barista Maxwell Colonna-Davis has no list of drinks in his coffee shop Colonna & Smalls in Bath. The idea here is to engage the customer in discussion, so perhaps deliver something personalised to their own particular taste/preference. We’ve seen this in the bar industry most notably at Attaboy in New York.

Meanwhile, others in the bar world have gone for more of a themed approach to the design of their drinks menu. One particularly intriguing example was the Evocative Menu by Rémy Savage at Little Red Door in Paris, three years ago. The menu simply showed a series of artworks and no text. Customers were encouraged to pick a picture they liked, then pull back a tab to reveal which drink they had chosen for themselves.

Savage developed 11 unique drinks, each with a complex flavour profile designed to stimulate the drinker’s senses. The drinks were then sent to Parisian and international artists, who were given the task of creating a visual representation of their experience of the cocktail. The resulting menu consisted of 11 works of art from which the customer could choose, rather than selecting their drink by name or description. The cocktails themselves were not given names, although the ingredients were listed alongside the respective artwork when the tab on the menu was pulled out.

The idea here was to avoid the situation, familiar to many bartenders, of those guests who are put off a particular drink because of the ingredients. Think here only of tequila and chilli which, according to Little Red Door’s Laura-Louise Fairley, can – perhaps counterintuitively – be incorporated very effectively into a gentle, floral drink. While Savage’s approach will probably appeal more to the neophile than to the neophobe, it undoubtedly creates a talking point. In the years since the appearance of the Evocative Menu, drinks lists that link up with the arts have appeared in a number of other bars – there has been a theatrical drinks list at the Beaufort Bar at The Savoy Hotel in 2018 (with sections on Music, Magic, and Drama), and the Ivy Soho’s music-themed cocktails were introduced at the start of this year.

Connected preferences

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However, one can go further here and ask whether a customer’s choice of paintings provides any useful information about their preferences as far as cocktails are concerned, or is this nothing more than random choice? What if our aesthetic preferences were to be connected? Perhaps those who like being challenged by modern art are just that bit more likely to enjoy a deconstructed drink. If you prefer Edward Hopper’s paintings of America, then maybe an Old Fashioned is the one for you.

While I am not aware of anyone having done the research, it does not seem unreasonable to believe that our preference for visual arts bears some meaningful relation to the music we like to listen to. After all, just how many grunge or death metal-loving fans of Impressionism do you really think there are out there? (And don’t forget how the colour scheme/art choice for album covers, especially classical ones, would seem to be far from random.)

Given the emergence of machine learning and big-data analysis, a definitive answer to the question of just how closely connected our preferences across the senses really are will likely not be that long in coming. Once we accept the premise that our preferences may be linked, it really doesn’t seem like all that much of a stretch to extend the same logic from our preference for painting or music, crudely defined by style (rather than artist), and our preference for drinks.

Intriguingly, neuroimaging research has shown that the processing of aesthetic stimuli – be they paintings, music, or food – overlap within the primary gustatory (ie taste) cortex. The suggestion here is that the aesthetics system in the human brain may first have evolved for the appraisal of those environmental stimuli that were necessary for survival, such as evaluating the suitability of food/energy sources. Over time, though, the same neural circuitry may have been co-opted for the appreciation of art. The fact that our evaluation of painting, music, and food are processed in overlapping brain areas might then underpin any correlations that are observed in the aesthetic choices we make.

And, going one stage further, such a shared neural substrate might also help to explain why it is that our hedonic evaluation of stimuli in one sense (basically, how much we like them) might influence our evaluation of the stimuli presented in another. This was demonstrated by some of my close colleague Felipe Reinoso-Carvalho and others’ latest work showing that the more people like the music they are listening to, the more they like the drink they are tasting.