It’s one of the guaranteed disappointments of a vacation: enjoying a bottle of something delicious on a sunny trip abroad, then bringing one bottle home and discovering it tastes very different when you’re in rainy old weather. Northern Ireland.
It’s not hard to see why: when you’re enjoying a drink, when cicadas chirp in olive trees or sardine boats rock in the harbour, there’s a lot more going on than just your sense of taste at work. There are many other factors that affect you that you are not even aware of. And this is what constitutes a fascinating new experience of drinks in Belfast.
It’s called the Sensorium, and a few floors above The National on the High Street, attendees embark on a journey that offers a very different perspective on the enjoyment of drinks. Last week I decided to try out the Sensorium and found it not only instructive, but also extremely enjoyable. I’ll try not to say too much since I don’t want to spoil things for those who might try it, but I can tell you that you will find how certain sounds and images can affect your taste, what happens when you eat marmalade by holding nose if you are a rare supertaster or (like me) not a taster, and what your preference for chocolate says about the dark side of your personality.
Sensorium is part of The Spirit Circle, an offshoot of the local Taste and Tour company founded by Phil Ervin and Caroline Wilson, which handles food and drink in Belfast ranging from “Gin Jaunt” with visits to five different pubs to three hours of craft beer and street food.” The Sensorium, however, is unlike any food tour you’ve ever been on.
Upon arrival, participants are presented with the first of four cocktails. The session I took part in was specially designed for Belfast Whiskey Week, so the cocktails were whiskey based, but a much wider range of spirits are commonly used, so don’t be put off if you don’t like whiskey.
So far so good. But then, looking at the table in front of you, you find an unsealed paper rug lined with glasses of ominous-looking clear liquids and other little things whose purpose has yet to be explained. Nearby is a row of unmarked brown bottles containing even more mysterious liquids.
Led by entertainment host Phil McAllister, general manager of The Spirit Circle, our group of volunteer guinea pigs were asked to identify the five flavor pillars of colorless liquids and to pinpoint the different tastes and smells that would ultimately come into play later in the process.
I failed spectacularly in most tests. These were cases like: “Mmm, I know what it is, but I just can’t identify”, “Oh my God, what the hell is this?”, “Tastes like cabbage … or maybe it’s vanilla” – something something like that. I usually do this at wine tastings while the host waits patiently for me to learn something obvious. But hey, it’s not an exam, it’s a bit of fun, and you’ll learn a lot of amazing things along the way. Like you know these five senses that everyone thinks they have? Well, according to the Sensorium, humans have 32 senses. And over the next two and a half hours, we’ll try most of them.
Things get even more left on the next floor, where you are shown into a darkened room where you are greeted by a disembodied voice that calls itself the Inhibitor. Here, a series of mind-blowing sounds and images demonstrate how your enjoyment of cocktail number two presented at the entrance can be affected by a range of unexpected influences. If you’ve ever seen Warren Beatty’s Parallax View, you’ll understand what’s going on here. Something like.
The final stop is at the roof garden, and here the experiences of the previous two floors come together in cocktails number three and four. You are offered a “Sensorium Serve” (described as a drink chosen by your subconscious mind) and an “Emotional Serve” (a drink chosen by your memory) to end an intriguing day. Perhaps this is the right moment when you’re sipping your bespoke cocktails to reflect on what the Sensorium has to say about the drinks you like and why you like them. It may even have broadened your horizons a little, and next time you may not have “usual”.
Phil McAlister describes Sensorium as a light-hearted way to “get you back in touch with your feelings and help you listen to what your palate is telling you.” He says the whole experience was inspired by participating in various tastings and immersive visitor attractions, such as the Johnnie Walker Experience in Edinburgh, taking elements that seemed most interesting and giving them a new twist. The result is quite a ride. I don’t think Belfast has ever seen anything like it.
A Sensorium session costs £45 per person and includes four cocktails. Book online at www.tasteandtour.co.uk/the-spirit-circle