It’s one of the guaranteed disappointments of a holiday: you enjoy a bottle of something nice during a sunshine trip abroad and then you bring one back home only to find, well, it just doesn’t taste the same when you’re in rainy old Northern Ireland.
It’s not hard to see why – when you’re savouring a drink as cicadas chirrup in the olive trees or sardine boats bob in the harbour there’s much more going on than just your sense of taste at work. There’s a whole lot of other factors influencing you that you’re hardly even aware of. And that’s what a fascinating new Belfast drinks experience is all about.
It's called Sensorium, and over several floors above The National in High Street it takes participants on a journey that offers a very different perspective on the enjoyment of drinks. Last week I embarked on the Sensorium experience for myself and found it not only eye-opening, but also hugely enjoyable. I’ll try to not give too much away, since I don’t want spoil things for anyone who might give it a go, but I can say you’ll discover how certain sounds and images can influence what you taste, what happens when you eat a jelly bean holding your nose, if you’re a rare super-taster or (like me) a non-taster, and what your preference in chocolate says about the darker side of your personality.
Sensorium is part of The Spirit Circle, an offshoot of a local company founded by Phil Ervine and Caroline Wilson called Taste and Tour, which runs food and drink experiences across Belfast ranging from a ‘Gin Jaunt’ visiting five different pubs to three hours of ‘Craft Beers and Street Eats’. Sensorium, however, is not like any food and drink tour you’ve ever been on before.
On arrival, participants are presented with the first of four cocktails. The session I took part in was specially tailored for Belfast Whiskey Week so the cocktails were whiskey-based, but ordinarily there’s a much wider range of spirits involved, so don’t be put off if you don’t like whiskey.
So far, so normal. But then a glance at the table in front of you reveals a printed paper mat spread with glasses of ominous-looking clear liquids and other bits and bobs whose purpose has yet to be explained. Alongside is a series of unlabelled brown bottles containing yet more mysterious fluids.
Guided by entertaining host Phil McAlister, general manager of The Spirit Circle, our band of willing guinea pigs was challenged to identify the five pillars of flavour from the colourless liquids and pinpoint various tastes and smells that would ultimately play a part later in the proceedings.
I failed spectacularly at most of the tests. It was a case of ‘Umm, I know what that is but I just can’t place it,’ ‘Crikey, what on earth is that?’, ‘This tastes like cabbage… or maybe it’s vanilla’ – the sort of thing I usually do at a wine tasting while the host patiently waits for me to recognise something glaringly obvious. But hey, it’s not an exam, it’s a bit of fun, and you learn plenty of startling stuff along the way. Like you know those five senses everyone believes they have? Well, according to the Sensorium folk there are 32 senses in a human being. And over the next two and a half hours we’ll be trying out most of them.
Things get even more leftfield on the next floor up, where you are ushered into a darkened room to be greeted by a disembodied voice who calls himself The Inhibitor. Here a series of mind-bending sounds and images demonstrate how your enjoyment of cocktail number two, presented upon entrance, can be affected by a range of surprising influences. If you’ve ever seen the Warren Beatty movie The Parallax View, you’ll get an idea of what goes on here. Kind of.
The final stop is at the roof garden and here the experiences on the previous two floors are brought together in cocktails number three and four. You’re presented with a ‘Sensorium Serve’ (described as the drink your subconscious selected) and an ‘Emotional Serve’ (the drink your memory selected) in a satisfying finish to an intriguing afternoon. It’s an appropriate moment, perhaps, as you sip your bespoke cocktails, to reflect on what Sensorium has revealed about the drinks you like and why you like them. Maybe it’s even broadened your horizons a bit, and next time you might not just have your ‘usual’.
Phil McAlister describes Sensorium as a light-hearted way of “putting you back in touch with your senses and helping you listen to what your palate is telling you.” He says the whole experience was inspired by participating in various tasting sessions and immersive visitor attractions like the Johnnie Walker Experience in Edinburgh, adopting elements that seemed most interesting and giving them a novel spin. The result is quite a ride. I don’t think Belfast has ever seen anything quite like it.
A Sensorium session costs £45 per person, which includes four cocktails. Book online at www.tasteandtour.co.uk/the-spirit-circle