What's in a name?
November 14, 2012

Professor Charles Spence spends a lot of time thinking about the noise made by crisp packets. This is because the Oxford University academic is a specialist in crossmodal research, a field of experimental psychology concerned with the way our senses interact to shape our perception of the world. According to Spence’s research, the sound of a rustling crisp packet can make the contents seem up to 5 per cent crispier.

“All these external factors—the words on the label, the packaging, the weight, the name, the sound of the packaging being opened—are very important to our experience of a product,” he says. “There is starting to be a real change in the industry, as people realise packaging is not just about storage and about shelf life—it’s actually integral to the consumers’ experience and it’s increasingly becoming a key part of new product development.”

One industry that is having to give some serious thought to these external factors is that of Scotch malt whisky, particularly in relation to age statements. That number on the bottle—which must, by law, refer to the youngest whisky in the bottle, be it a blend or a single malt (as even single malts contain a mixture of ages, unless they are single cask malts)—has traditionally played a huge role in consumers’ perception of quality. According to research by Chivas Bros, the whisky-making arm of Pernod Ricard UK, 89 per cent of us actively look for an age statement when buying whisky, and 93 per cent of us believe that older equals better.

With global sales of Scotch now at a record high, however, aged whisky stocks have become increasingly scarce. Stretched whisky-makers have been forced to draw on younger stocks to maintain supply. The problem is that most consumers would be prejudiced against buying a single malt with an age statement under ten years old. So what’s the solution? For a growing number of distillers, the answer has been to drop that age statement altogether.

The result is the no-age-statement, or NAS, whisky. But while they’re good for the producer, what about the uninitiated consumer? How is a whisky buyer supposed to navigate their way around the off-licence shelf without the signposts offered by age statements? It’s a marketing conundrum that has forced whisky brands to seek out a whole new set of quality cues to seduce us.

In the case of the new 1824 Series from Speyside distiller Macallan, that cue is colour. Named Gold, Amber, Sienna and Ruby to reflect their respective hues, the four NAS malts in the 1824 Series have been designed to showcase the effect of ageing in different types of sherry cask.

But the 1824 Series, which replaces the younger Macallan age statements, has proven controversial. This is partly because colour is not always a reliable cue in Scotch whisky, as many producers, entirely legally, add a little flavourless caramel to their whiskies to ensure a consistent appearance. While Macallan does not use caramel, does their emphasis on the significance of colour set the consumer up for a fall?

Not a bit of it, says Ken Grier, director of malts at the Edrington Group, owner of Macallan. He argues that the 1824 Series simply “throw[s] off the shackles of arbitrary age,” allowing for a “more flexible vatting of casks chosen for their colour and the character delivered, whenever they are ‘ready’ or ‘ripe’.”

Grier’s use of the ripening metaphor brings us back rather neatly to the professor’s research into the significance of colour: “Colour certainly has a much bigger influence than people think,” says Spence. “People often taste what they see. Red in particular is a very powerful cue for sweeter, because we think of fruits ripening and our brains have learned that. We have internalised it and brands piggyback on that.’

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that the tactile qualities of the packaging also play a part in our perception of quality. “Our research has shown that as the bottle gets heavier. your expectation of quality increases,” he says. ‘The weight correlates with what price you expect to pay.”

One NAS whisky that successfully took this on board was Johnnie Walker Blue Label, which relaunched last year featuring a heavier base, light blue glass and a more conspicuous gold embossing. Sealed with an old-school cork closure, it’s a seriously pleasurable bottle to handle, and a fine match for the classy liquid within.

“Of course, the old whiskies like Johnnie Walker were normally simply named after their founders, but now naming is a much more strategic process for everything from cancer treatments to chocolate bars,” adds Spence, bringing us to the question of provenance. This has become an increasingly powerful factor in the naming of food and drink in recent years.

For island malts in particular, elemental imagery is a recurrent cue: Talisker 57 [degrees] North, a wild and woolly malt named after the distillery’s latitude on the Isle of Skye; the powerful, peaty Ardbeg Corryvreckan, a nod to the treacherous Corryvreckan Strait nearby; and Bowmore Tempest, a maelstrom of smoke and spice from the wave-battered shores of Islay are all NAS malts which have replaced the age statement with a powerful sense of place.

The very sound of the name can also influence the quality of our experience, says Spence. High noises tend to be associated with sweet, pleasant flavours, and low noises with more unpleasant ones, a correlation which he believes derives from the fact that an infant’s tongue goes out and up in response to a sugar, and out and down in response to bitter flavours.

“Satisfaction is also increased by speech sounds that are congruent with texture,” he adds. An obscure and lengthy name helps us to perceive a satisfyingly rich and complex flavour.

A NAS whisky which could fit the bill in this instance would be Aberlour A’bunadh (pronounced a-boo-nah), a cask-strength, small-batch, heavily sherried malt from Speyside, which is as delightfully complex and idiosyncratic as it is hard to pronounce.

“But it’s not simply the case that people are being fooled by these external factors into thinking they are having a better experience,” insists Spence. “Using brain scanning techniques we can see they actually are having a better experience, as the region which registers pleasure shows increased activity.

“It’s a bit shocking at first, but really all it means is that value isn’t necessarily where you think it is. Quality is as much about what gives you the best experience as the actual liquid that’s in the bottle.”