Lessons in sensation

Lessons in sensation

Finding new ways to portray whisky's sensory nature

Thoughts from... | 10 Jul 2023 | Issue 192 | By Liza Weisstuch

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Synaesthesia is a rare condition where one’s senses are essentially cross-wired. For some among the select few to experience this, sounds have colours. For others, smells have textures. I once read about a perfumer named Barnabé Fillion who experiences images and sounds as textures. It inspired him to create a fragrance meant to evoke the feeling of being under water.


Much research is being done to explore how synaesthesia benefits those with the condition. Studies have concluded that synesthetes have exceptional memories and subtly enhanced senses: those with colour-related variations are better at differentiating between similar colours, and those with touch-related variations have a more sensitive sense of touch. Synesthetes have inspired philosophical debates on the nature of perception, consciousness, and creativity. Studies show that it seems to be more common in artists and poets.


I was inspired to do a little research about synaesthesia after attending a launch event of Acclaim – The Karuizawa Whisky Stage in New York City in April. The collection was created and is sold by Dekantā, the high-end Japanese whisky-focused independent bottler and retailer, and goes for a cool £40,035 (US$50,000). It includes three bottles of whisky from Karuizawa Distillery, which ceased production shortly after the turn of the 21st century. The whisky in the set was distilled between 1999 and 2000 and aged in sherry casks. It’s the last of this expression. There are 50 sets available (or at least there were when the collection launched).


The set is sold in a lacquerware cabinet with a 24-carat gold leaf layering and custom LED lighting. The bottles are dramatically perched on an inner shelf. Yes, it’s like a stage. And yes, that’s intentional. Artist David Stanley Hewett, an American ex-pat who’s lived and worked in Japan for 30 years, designed it to look like a kabuki theatre. Hewett, who’s painted the ancient Shinto shrines’ ceilings and created work for the US embassy in Tokyo, the Ritz Carlton, and many more places, designed other aspects of the ensemble with an eye for representation and symbolism and, dare I say, sensory effect. The bottle, lacquer capped and broad shouldered, suggests the imposing stance of a samurai warrior. It’s decorated with an ink-black splatter, Hewett’s signature, surrounded by what might be impressionistic cherry blossoms.


The work was created over the course of 18 months, much of which Hewett spent travelling to work with craftsmen throughout Japan, including the venerated Taya Lacquer Studio, established more than two centuries ago in Wajima, a small city in Ishikawa Prefecture that is synonymous with lacquerware production.


Much of the presentation that Hewett and the Dekantā founders gave, and subsequent conversation throughout the night, focused on Japan’s unfathomably rich legacy of craftsmanship, and the degree to which mastery resonates across every aspect of Acclaim. But I can’t help wondering if the finished product has the touch of a synesthete. The silkiness of a fine-tuned 20-ish-year-old Japanese whisky is reflected in the glossy lacquer. The sturdy structure of the spirit, formed over decades of maturation, manifests in the bold warrior-like stance of the bottle. The bright notes of the whisky (or notes I can so imagine from having tasted Japanese whiskies of similar age) are revealed in the gold inlay.


Whisky brands partnering with artists and designers is not new. In the past few years we’ve seen celebrated designer and architect Sir David Adjaye make a jewel-like decanter set in an oak ‘pavilion’ for Gordon & MacPhail’s Generations, an 80-year-old single malt from Glenlivet. Bowmore’s master blender worked with Aston Martin’s chief creative officer to develop the Masters’ Selection, a limited-edition single malt in a custom bottle, while Macallan collaborated with Bentley on something similar. But while these are all deeply thought-out, meticulously crafted projects, they do not evoke the sense that the drink itself is being exhibited in different sensory form. With Acclaim, the connection is more primal and immediate. 

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