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Nice to meet you.

I'm a whiskey distiller, formerly a winemaker. Due to a brain abnormality, sounds distort how things smell and taste to me. I come here to write about my experiences.

Tasting with linked senses

I wear my headphones every time I make a tails cut, taste a finished whiskey, or sample a spirit. I'm not listening to music. I'm playing sounds, each of which has a different effect.

Picture yourself in an art gallery, where you have been asked to assess colorful landscape paintings. Just when you're getting started, someone flips a couple switches and the full-spectrum lights of the gallery all change to red lights. Imagine how the greens and blues of the colorful landscapes would appear in a room illuminated by red light. They would change to ugly swaths of black and brown, some colors now impossible to discern. We perceive color in the context of light. Changing the lighting radically changes what we see.

I perceive flavor in the context of sound. When the soundscape changes, my wine changes with it. I sit down to a dark-fruited Cab Sauv with notes of green pepper. The motor of a nearby fridge clicks on. Now the green pepper has disappeared, the wine has brothy notes of steak drippings, and its texture is weighty and almost hot. The effect is immediate. By flipping through sounds on my headphones, I get to see wines and spirits a few different ways, like turning an object around to look at it from another angle.

In my mind, most sounds are textured things. Some feel like rubber, some like metal, some like static electricity. Experts tell me I have synesthesia, a brain trait where an experience in one sense inspires an automatic experience in another. Like a lot of people with synesthesia, I have several types. Some are common forms of synesthesia, such as spatial sequence and mild grapheme color. Others, like the sound/taste distortion effect, are a little odd even for synesthesia.

A shift in perspective inspired me to blog

I used to suppress this trait, afraid that it undermined my objectivity. As a student in the Viticulture & Oenology master's program at UC Davis, I crammed plugs into my ears every time I put a glass of wine to my nose. I felt that the only way to be an effective winemaker was to standardize myself, to hell with all this sound-induced interference. But after some years of struggle, I had to admit that I was cutting something important out of my life. Wines often tasted better when paired with the right sounds. Even complete silence imparts its own distortion upon flavors, making everything taste bland.

 

I've learned to use sound intentionally. With the right sound, I can suppress some flavors and enhance others. I can distort mouthfeel and think about what a wine or spirit tastes like to someone who is more sensitive than I am to astringency and alcohol burn. On quiet nights at home, I search online sound archives for noises of interest and play them while tasting wine or whiskey, just to see what happens.

 

Sensory integration is universal

Although I haven't yet found someone else like me, I trust my writing will be relevant to others. It is well established that we appreciate the flavor of foods in the context of our sensory environment, including sound. There is mounting evidence that our perception of wine is influenced by music, and that sensory cross-talk between sound and taste may be common. I hope these blog posts inspire readers to explore cross-sensory experiences. You may learn something about yourself.

My glass-sniffing booze-slinging credentials

I have a master's in Viticulture & Oenology (UC Davis 2014; master's thesis in yeast microbiology) and two BS degrees in Biology and Biochemistry (Southern Oregon University). I'm an artist and a scientist, as well as a science fiction lover. I was raised up free-range and frequently barefoot in the countryside of Southern Oregon. I traveled the world working vintages in Argentina, New Zealand, France, and Australia before I found my way back home. I worked as Assistant Winemaker at Irvine and Roberts Vineyards near Ashland, making Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from 2017 to 2020. After The Year That Changed Everyone's Life, I made a bold leap into distillation, where I found an exciting new home in the wonderful world of American Single Malt. I've been working for Westward Whiskey since June of 2021 and I'm loving life in Portland, Oregon. I enjoy reading about emerging science and technology and drawing street portraits.

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