Analytical chemistry says that Scotch whiskys really are different

Short: The Scotch industry has new scientific evidence that different single malts and blended Scotch whiskys are complex and distinctly different from one another. (Unlike, the suggestion might be, some mass-produced American “craft” whiskeys.)

Long: You can learn a lot about a field by its acronyms. Acronyms arise for awkward word-strings that a certain flavor of professional uses often but everyone else uses infrequently enough for English not to have a better and less cumbersome word for whateveritis. Winemakers talk about MOG: Material Other than Grapes.* MOG is interesting because winemakers are generally trying to get rid of it. Mass spectrometry experts talk about NOM: Natural Organic Material. Wine is a NOM. NOM is interesting because it’s replete with myriad compounds at miniscule concentrations and therefore helps spectrometer-ers figure out how good their techniques are. Mass spec is interesting to NOM-lovers because its a good way to learn about the composition of the NOM. And who are NOM-lovers? You are. Wine is a NOM. So is whisky.

A batch of analytical chemists from Scotland has just published a new article (open-access) in the Journal of the American Society of Mass Spectrometry (no, I didn’t know that existed, either) applying a particularly sensitive and wide-seeking version of mass spectrometry (more detail on what that means below**) to quantify the complexity of single malt and blended Scotch. Across 85 different commercial whiskies, they found 4271 unique molecular fingerprints – not precisely the same as identifying 4271 unique molecules because of the kind of data mass spec generates, but definitely evidence that whiskies are very, very complex mixtures. Only 407 of those probably-molecules were common to every whisky, and only about a thousand were common to 75% of the samples. In short, whiskys are highly variable, and perhaps even more complex than you’ve been imagining.

That result should please the SWRI – an acronym you’ll recognize if you’re in the spirits trade and that I should otherwise explain stands for the Scotch Whisky Research Institute – who provided funding for the study. A cadre of American “craft” whiskeys have been attacked from many quarters (including NPR and Serious Eats) for being remarkably similar across brands and price points and, not unrelatedly, for originating in the same industrial production facility in Indiana. Funding analytical chemists in Edinburgh looks like a Scottish move to assert that Scotch is the real deal, and maybe that consumers’ money is well-spent trying honest-to-goodness different brands.

That implication brings us back to the NOM. For the chemists, the choice of NOM isn’t precisely inconsequential – I know that the lead author on this paper is a NOM-lover himself, and they obviously wouldn’t have won funding from the whisky industry if the lab was studying, say, latex wall paint. But this study is published in a journal of mass spectrometry, and at least a large fraction of the point here is about demonstrating the prowess of their hardware and analytical methods. And that point has to do with the kind of data this study provides. We know that whiskys contain a lot of unique molecules, and we know that different whiskys contain lots of different molecules. What we don’t know is anything about how or whether those molecular differences translate to sensory differences. But since the SWRI is interested in Scotch, not just in NOMs, I suspect that we may be seeing that sensory study soon.


* Material other than grapes that ends up in collection bins with grapes, not all non-grape matter everywhere; winemakers might get accused of singlemindedness, but they’re not that bad.

**Mass spectrometry, broadly speaking, is a method to identify chemicals by their mass which, given that every kind of atom (think the periodic table) has a unique mass and molecules are defined by their atomic composition (and how those atoms are arranged, which makes life more complicated), makes mass spec something approaching a molecular fingerprint. Mass spectrometry, narrowly speaking, is any one of many, many different versions of that general principle, all of which have their own acronyms. These folk sent their 85 samples of fine Scotch through ESI-FT-ICR MS, which means electrospray ionization-Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometry, which means that the scientists didn’t have to decide in advance which compounds they wanted to look for.

On the Times video about listening to lasagna and experiments in enjoying wine with your ears

The New York Times (sometimes flippant, often chic) “T Magazine” published a short video this past week in which Massimo Bottura makes and eats some lasagna. This is performance art or experiment, not a cooking show. Here’s why:

  • Bottura is the headline chef at Osteria Francescana, recently the first Italian restaurant to top the annual World’s Best list.
  • The “lasagna” comprises a small mound of meaty ragu topped with a puff of artfully piped dairy (some kind of fluffed ricotta cheese?) topped with “pasta crackers” made by pureeing cooked pasta, re-rolling the resulting dough into rectangles, deep-frying and then blow-torching the rectangles. The result does not look like lasagna, and Bottura eats it by picking up and dipping the cracker like a nacho.
  • Bottura and his two assistants prepare one serving of this lasagna in a heavily mic-ed studio. We listen.
  • Bottura feeds the dish to a humanoid robotic head with visible audio pick-ups in the ears by eating a bite next to the head, which hears him. It’s crunchy stuff.

As performance art, I think this is fantastic because it provokes questions about what food is, what we appreciate experiencing about food, and who can experience it:

  • How much of the enjoyment of eating has to do with the flavor of what you put in your mouth? How much has to do with how it looks, or how it sounds? How much has to do with the reactions of the people around you? How much of the experience of food happens as you listen and watch and smell during cooking?
  • Is the robot head hearing or listening? In other words, do those microphones just sit there while Bottura chews, or are the microphones the audience, or is the head “eating?” In the first case, X is acting on his own as an individual and presumably for his own sake (or at someone else’s command). In the second, X is performing, which changes his own experience. In the third, we’re now thinking about eating as something involving multiple senses and multiple people, which means that eating is always a communal activity, which means that sound is part of the experience of eating, which means that you eating changes your environment.
  • What do we pay attention to when we pay attention to food? What happens when you design a dish meant to be listened to?

We could design experiments to ask these kinds of questions about wine, too. We know that part of enjoying sparkling wine is the sound of popping the cork, and there’s plenty to be said in favor of the tenor of good glassware. But I wonder about creating an experiment that asks how enjoying wine could be tied to the richness of the experience of making the wine (maybe even thinking about the experience of the yeast?), and about how enjoying wine can be about someone else enjoying wine.

Here’s the hang-up: to me, the T Magazine piece is a successful, intriguing, worthwhile experiment. To some other people to whom I’ve shown it, it’s not. It’s absurd, it’s wasteful, it’s silly that all of this effort goes into making something that doesn’t look as good as a plate of good old saucy traditional lasagna. It just doesn’t work for them.

Huge swaths of contemporary cuisine are about blending performance art and fine dining to ask these sorts of questions about food and eating. Some folks think that’s brilliant; some call it balderdash.

How would we design an experiment to ask these kinds of questions about experiencing wine? I’ll be thinking about this for the rest of the weekend. Do you have any suggestions?

**The Times carries a companion piece to the video about Jeff Gordinier’s experience eating at Osteria Francescana. The best parts of the article talk about Bottura’s vision for his food as a tool for changing how people think through some kind of edible embodiment of seminal moments in his own experience. I wrote this post after watching the video and before reading the article, so now I can add that the video works for me, too, because it doesn’t depend at all on how I feel about Bottura and his restaurant (that’s a different matter), but uses a short film platform to great effect to ask a different set of questions.

On Palate Press: When Nobels + wine = more than just festive toasts

My latest piece for Palate Press points out that last week’s Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine has a lot more to do with sparkling wine than just being an excuse to raise a few glasses of Champagne. Dr. Ohsumi’s work on autophagy provides a lot of detail about what yeast are doing during that long aging in the bottle, and how a particularly organized form of dying means that they’re doing a lot more than you might imagine.

Find the full piece here.