I learned to drink whisky during a research stay in Scotland some years ago. The local supermarket had a large collection of whiskys from local distilleries that I had never heard about so I decided to buy whichever bottle with the coolest looking label. That was a 12 year old Laphroaig, which is apparently one of the peatiest whiskys that you can get. Later in the day, I poured myself a glass of the Laphroaig. No ice. And I really didn’t like the taste. The peatiness seemed to almost explode in my mouth and I was left with a strong smokey aftertaste long after having finished the drink.
While it took some time for me to get comfortable with the taste of whisky, I soon discovered one thing: I am really good at identifying different brands and distilleries by the taste. During a later research stay in the Scottish highland, local residents would offer me whisky when I stopped by for a visit. And as people realised that I was quite good at identifying different brands, whisky tasting became an integral part of my visits. As far as I remember, my success rate was pretty high.
So I can taste whisky. But that is also one of the only things that I can genuinely taste. I don’t really know why but I have a hard time differentiating the tastes of most foods and drinks. Once in a while my wife and I do a tasting exercise with our children as a way of encouraging them to focus their attention on the moment. If we have ice cream for dessert, we all have to close our eyes and focus on the taste of the ice cream. Even if I try to direct my full awareness towards the experience of tasting the ice cream, it is almost impossible for me to figure out what it tastes like. I know that it is cold. That is the first thing that I notice. And it has a softness that feels nice when you bite through it. But everything from there becomes slightly more blurry. How is the taste of chocolate different from vanilla? What is the experience of biting through a piece of pistachio nut? During those family seances, I am as bewildered about the taste as my kids are eager to simply eat the ice cream as fast as humanly possible.
A few years ago I did a ten weeks meditation course. One exercise stands out. We were asked to keep a raisin on our tongues for ten minutes without breaking its surface or swallowing it whole. I was somewhat sceptical about the exercise but I have to admit that it was surprisingly intense. I guess that if you focus your attention on one limited sensorial experience for ten minutes, chances are that you may come to disregard or completely ignore the noises around the experience and instead appreciate the immediacy of the moment. That is at least what happened to me. It was almost an erotic experience to immerse myself in the taste of raisin with my eyes closed for ten minutes.
I don’t know why I can only taste whisky. Maybe it is the extreme intensity of the peat flavour that offers a more easily decipherable register of tastes. To me, the raisin experiment suggests that I simply don’t privilege tasting as something that has value in and of itself. It is only by being forced to explore my own experience that I was capable of appreciating the taste. I have never considered tasting as something that was of value, I think. Probably because I never really found it important enough to figure out what I like and what I don’t like.