The Secret to a Successful Dinner Party Could Be in Its Soundtrack
Ericka Duffy can tell you whether a drink is hot or cold just from hearing it being poured, and which sounds—the slosh of ice in the wine bucket, the uncorking of a bottle—can turn a meal from average to extraordinary. Duffy’s CV ranges from perfumer to barista, and one of her current roles is as a creative consultant for Mothership Scotland, which owns a group of top cocktail bars in Edinburgh. At Bramble, Lucky Liquor Co., or The Last Word Saloon, you might drink a colorless, 30-ingredient tiki cocktail or a peated whiskey with bubble gum-flavored bubbles. But one of the most crucial ingredients isn’t in the glass at all—it’s in the air, in the bar’s soundtracks.
Sound has a surprising impact on the way we taste, and the way we experience food and drink can be altered just by manipulating the audio environment. Much of the research on this subject comes from Charles Spence, PhD, an experimental psychologist who runs the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the University of Oxford and is the author of Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating. Spence’s experiments test how sound, sight, and feel affect taste. His research shows, for example, that loud noise mutes our sense of taste—one reason why Bloody Marys are such a popular airplane drink. A jet’s ambient roar squashes our ability to taste sweet and salty, so we order something with more umami notes.
These ideas may seem far-fetched, but Spence and Duffy sometimes work in tandem, with Duffy reporting back how Spence’s research plays out in real time. “If the volume in the bar is at a certain level,” she says, “I’ve found people are more likely to order a certain kind of drink.” Nor is the effect solely due to how loud the music is. At Bramble, the soundtrack is upbeat hip-hop in major chords and higher pitches, which, Spence’s tests suggest, brings out a sweeter perception of taste. At Lucky Liquor Co., every record is played start to finish, which means guests don’t just hear the bangers: They also hear slower or sadder songs than bars usually play. This can increase guests’ perception of bitter notes in cocktails, and the drinks menu at Lucky Liquor Co., which changes every 13 weeks, often includes ingredients like fennel seeds and Greek yogurt.
One takeaway from all this, Duffy points out, is that changing the sound environment in your home can have an observable effect on how much your guests enjoy your next dinner party. When you’ve chosen a wine to serve with dinner, for instance, consider the attributes of the wine you want to highlight before hitting play. A complex wine’s nuances might ask for baroque music. “I’d go with a symphony, like Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz, parts of which are in really deep, dark minor keys, because you want to pull out some bitter, umami tastes,” says Duffy. “If you’re looking for depth and funk, you’re going to want to use a complicated piece of minor chords to draw that out.” Music can even help fix your mistakes. If you took a chance on a new bottle and it’s too sweet, put on low-pitched tunes (think Nick Cave) to take away the sweetness. It’s a quick and easy fix, says Duffy: “I’d switch the music before buying a new wine.”
A few hacks to the soundscape of your home can be a cheap way to elevate your cocktail, glass of wine, or dinner party from pedestrian to sublime. And, if your guests are lingering too long, put on some up-tempo music so they pick up their eating pace, then switch to something in a minor key, to get them into their coats and out the door. Minor notes suggest dusty, bitter attributes: the end of the evening. They also work great for whiskey, though, so pour yourself a good single-malt and relax once your guests have gone.
Get the recipe for Duffy’s Espresso Martini here.
1. Premix cocktails in advance. As guests arrive, pour the drinks into a glass pitcher with plenty of ice. Pull out a bar spoon and stir the cocktail where your guests can hear and see you. The sound of the spoon hitting the pitcher and the ice cubes knocking together conveys freshness, and seeing you do it makes your guests feel like they’re in capable hands.
2. “Preparation sounds—think shaking, stirring, and pouring noises—are crucial to an ambience of appreciation,” Duffy says. For instance, grinding peppercorns or salt conveys the impression of just-made food, so do those steps in earshot of your guests. With Champagne, pop that bottle in front of guests—let them hear it!
3. For music, Duffy suggests starting with music in a higher pitch to bring out sweeter flavors in drinks and make people comfortable. Her choices include Mozart, specifically The Magic Flute, or, in a non-classical vein, Minnie Riperton or Caribou. With food, switch to minor-key strings to make food taste saltier. And brass, she finds, brings out umami notes.
Learn more about Duffy’s work at erickaduffy .com, and for bar info, visit mothershipscotland.com.
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