If smell can be impaired by age and illness, so can guests' appreciation of our drinks. Professor Charles Spence sniffs out the truth

The growing realisation that one of the major symptoms of Covid-19 is a loss of smell, taste and the trigeminal sense has brought into sharp focus the importance of the chemical senses for our wellbeing. Just how important the loss of our more emotional senses (eg smell, taste, and touch) can be is highlighted by the suggestion that the incidence of suicide tends to be higher following the loss of smell than for any other sense.

The fact of the matter, though, is that all of our senses deteriorate as we age, with the decline in our senses of smell and taste typically starting in our thirties. However, unlike what happens when vision and hearing start their inevitable decline, there are no prostheses for the loss of the chemical senses. The much-vaunted advent of digitally stimulating the senses of smell and taste have, thus far, come to naught. This is especially problematic given that it has been estimated that something like one third of all pensioners are functionally anosmic. My octogenarian father, as one might expect, vociferously denies this, whenever I bring the topic up. Although it does have to be said that more frequently than ever he says that the food he cooks doesn’t seem to taste of anything much.

So what does all this have to do with the world of cocktails? Well, the question you might want to ask yourselves is what you would do differently should your clientele be on the – how shall I put this – more mature end of the age spectrum and, being in my early 50s, I suppose I would have to count myself in this group too. When thinking about the design of food and beverage experiences for those who are getting on in life, one oft-mentioned solution has been to emphasise the eye-appeal and sonic elements of a dish. That is, to do as much as one can with the residual senses (and the prostheses that so often keep them working). So use lots of bright colours and tasty trimmings in drink creations. There is often also the suggestion to add a bit more chili to spice things up.

At the same time, however, I am increasingly of the opinion that at least a part of what we think we taste in a dish or drink, we really imagine. That is, our brains make predictions, and very often we live in the world of predicted flavours as much as of experienced flavours. Clearly, what is in the glass matters but all the carefully-conducted research that has been published on the topic suggests that we are only able to pick-up somewhere between two and four distinct tastes/aromas in a drink. Hence, when the wine writers come out with 1,000 word epiphanies to what they experience in a glass of particularly fine wine, I can only imagine that it is as much (or perhaps more) mental imagery of what they know, based on their training, should be there than what their taste buds and lfactory receptors may be capable of physically discriminating, no matter how well trained their palates may be.

Coding machine

The human brain, then, is a predictive coding machine, and would seem amply able to fill in many of the gaps between what the senses can provide in the moment. It is for this reason that more descriptive labels, as increasingly found on wine bottles, coffee labels, and even (somewhat implausibly) bottles of water, are key to helping those with diminished senses get the most out of what they are drinking. Telling people what they should be able to taste, providing them with semantic anchors/ labels as it were, can really help them to fill in the gaps when the perceptual apparatus start their inevitable decline.

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It is this ability to predict how something should taste, given the various other cues that helps those of advancing years, to make up, with expectation/ prediction, for what sensation/perception may slowly be robbing them of. Here, though, there may be a difference between what your customers expect they will be able to taste, and what they can mentally imagine in terms of taste. For, according to the research, there are some really quite profound individual differences, with some people claiming they simply can’t mentally imagine smells and aromas at all, whereas others claim they can do it without any problem. Some even say they can predict what the combination of different ingredients will taste like, despite the fact they have never knowingly tasted them together before.

So, when the Covid nightmare is one day, finally, over, it may well make sense to remember that those you serve may not have quite the sensory abilities you imagine. Indeed, designing drinks for those who have started to lose their chemical senses is presumably only going to become more important, as the number of those suffering from so-called long Covid continues to rise. Bear in mind that according to one recent survey, 20% of those who had contracted Covid were still suffering a self-reported loss of their olfactory abilities two months later.

While smell might be the most important sense contributing to the taste of a drink, it nevertheless makes sense never to neglect the others, and what they may contribute to a multisensory drinking experience that can be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of the state of their sensory faculties.