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Westward Whiskey’s Lead Distiller Uses Sounds to Build Flavor Profiles

Anna Mantheakis, the lead distiller of technical development and innovation at Portland, Ore.-based Westward Whiskey, doesn’t have what one would say is an easy job. Her expertise, most recently in helping fine-tune the distillery’s latest sourdough American single malt offering, isn’t deployed the same way as your average whiskey distiller. Instead, she’s had to learn to hone her sensory skills to manage her lifelong synesthesia condition, in which her sense of taste is affected by her sense of hearing.

For Mantheakis, sounds can distort how things smell and taste to her. It’s not exactly a condition conducive to the type of career she’s chosen, except she has learned, through trial and error, to, as she describes it, “perceive flavor in the context of sound.”

How this works exactly reflects her journey into her current role. According to Mantheakis, those with synesthesia can go through life not perceiving anything out of the ordinary until something seriously contradicts their perception of what their senses have been telling them. In the wine/whiskey world Mantheakis entered into, that can take the form of tasting notes not being consistent, or the noise of a space affecting how something tastes.

The eventual solution for Mantheakis was to develop a series of sounds she listens to through headphones to help intentionally focus her tasting acumen. It is a process she’s constantly developing through extensive evaluation of sounds. Her sensory environment, and thus her career as a whole, has become one she’s been able to seize control of and thrive in through experimentation.

We chatted with Mantheakis to learn more about her journey with synesthesia and how she’s learned to use it to her advantage in her distiller career.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

1. What exactly is a lead distiller of technical development and innovation?

Mantheakis: I created this title for myself to best capture all the things that I do. I wear a few hats at the distillery, but one big focus of mine is on implementing technical development projects. I spent about a year and a half on distillery efficiencies, but I’m also the point person when we want to work on a method or a technique. For example, the fermentation of our sourdough whiskey. I’ll design the trial, and I’ll come up with how we’re going to do it on a small scale and then on a large scale, develop a process, and then see how it turns out in practice. So, R&D is a big part of my work, and I’m involved in quality management and safety at the distillery, and I’m also on the blending team.

2. Tell us about your journey with synesthesia. Where did this situation emerge from, and how did you begin to navigate it?

Mantheakis: I’ve had synesthesia my whole life. It’s something that you’re born with, and it was something that I took completely for granted. It became more of a thing for me in wine school. That’s where I started to experience more conflict because you have to taste and improve your palate, train your palate, and be consistent. I could see right away that my tasting notes were not consistent, and with what I was tasting, the wine would change as the volume of people’s conversation rose in the room.

For a long time, I addressed this by wearing earplugs. I thought these distortions weren’t helping me and I needed to be objective. I needed some kind of standard. I mean, I’ll always get to taste it that way, right? And my standard was silence. And I think I penciled myself short there because when it’s quiet, and there’s no sound, everything’s bland. I do not taste as much when there’s no sound.

And then, if I have a sound in the background, it will shape the flavors I am tasting and how they feel in my mouth. But it will shape it in different ways, depending on what the sound is. And I just couldn’t accept that for a long time. It made me feel like it was bad that my sense of smell and taste are relative to what I’m hearing.

It wasn’t until I moved into distilling that I decided I was over it and wanted to try something new. So, I started experimenting with sounds, using them intentionally, and seeing what they gave me and how I could distort things.

For example, if I was at a big wine conference and it’s a room full of a lot of chaotic background noise, when I take a sip of Chardonnay, that Chardonnay will taste like you took wine, diluted it 50/50 with pond water, and put a bunch of acid in it. It burns my mouth, or the alcohol feels so hot in my mouth because that noise and that level of noise makes it hot. It makes it taste like decomposing vegetable matter, and it strips away all this flavor because of the effect the noise is having on my brain.

On the other hand, if I sit down with my headphones on and I taste a glass of Chardonnay, I’ll play through different sounds, and I might play a sound that kind of subdues the fruit but really makes it oaky, and the tannin is so much stronger with this sound. And I’m getting tons of oak, vanilla, and dried autumn leaves. And then I switch sounds, and now it’s much less tannic, or the body has dropped off.

I went to people who study synesthesia and asked them, “What is this?” and one of the things I learned is that in people with synesthesia, it’s hypothesized that all this cross-communication happens in the brain because the brain is hyper-connected in a way that happens early in childhood development. So, what’s happening in one sense influences what’s happening in another. For me, by using sound and not screening it out, I get to fiddle with the dials in my brain. It can give me a bit of a signal boost for certain smells.

3. What was it like making those adjustments in your day-to-day life, and how did you navigate it with regard to work and living in general?

Mantheakis: I had a lot of self-doubt because I thought once I started playing with this, I didn’t know if it would help me. I had the self-doubt of living in a world where everybody else seems to taste things the same way, no matter what noise is around them, and I don’t. For a long time, I wished I could have invisible earbuds, and I could just do this without anyone noticing ever, and then I wouldn’t have to answer anybody’s questions.

It took me probably a year working at Westward before I felt comfortable. Now it feels like, “Great, I do this all the time. I’m pretty relaxed about it. I’m ready for whoever comes up to me next to explain this to them.” And if they don’t believe me, they can just move on. We can both just move on with our lives. But that sense of exposure was strong and inhibiting for a long time.

4. What is your tasting experience like and how do you account for sound?

Mantheakis: Every time I taste something, I wear my headphones and flip through sounds. With the sourdough, I did a little lab skill fermentation to kick the whole experiment off.

What I was experimenting with was the amount of yeast and sourdough starter that worked well together, giving a good, successful fermentation with plenty of flavor. The first thing I do when I get my results is put my samples out, put my headphones on, and taste them with my short list of tasting sounds, the ones that I found work well for me in this environment. And I have a noise that — I call it the most annoying sound in the universe because, with synesthesia, you don’t get to choose. It’s not necessarily happy or good sounds that make things taste in a way that’s good for me.

But I have this noise that I play that really enhances certain botanical aromas, these aromas hidden in the leaves of trees, flowers, plants, and things. I played that one to bring out certain flavors, and I played my tails — I call it my tail sound because I play it every time I make a tail cut. It makes me more sensitive to a lot of the heavy, oily things in tails, which helps me evaluate that aspect of the whiskey.

And if I go through the list, then I’ve kind of seen it from these different angles that give me information about what I’m tasting. And since my sense of taste and smell is relative, I don’t have a standard. I cannot sit down and taste something with one sound and one way, and that’s how I write it up. I have to go through the different sounds on my list and then I just kind of create a composite. I feel like I have enough information now that when I write up my tasting notes, I include everything I observed and talk to other people about it. So, I ensure I’m not observing irrelevant things, and that’s what I do.

5. How do you determine or come across sounds for different applications or situations?

Mantheakis: When I want to find a new one, when I’m done with my usual list, and I feel like, “There could be more here, let’s see what happens,” what I’ll do is I’ll put my device on shuffle for the whole library, and then I’ll put my phone down, and I won’t look at it, and put on my headphones, and then I’ll just flip to the next sound. I don’t know what’s coming. I have no biases or preconceived notions before it hits me. And then I just sit there, and I’ll flip through them randomly and see what happens.

The article Westward Whiskey’s Lead Distiller Uses Sounds to Build Flavor Profiles appeared first on VinePair.

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