An Attentional Features Primer

A symbol is a stand-in for a sensory experience. The symbol Cointreau represents a set of sensory values such as sweetness, alcohol, aroma, etc. We uses these symbols without much care often taking for granted how they work and what we can do with them.  We are often unaware of how literate people are in them and which are the most salient and attention grabbing.

Back in the spring I was experimenting with perfuming eggs with tobacco similar to how truffles are often perfumed. I was using really intense tobaccos like Perique and Syrian Latakia. It worked sort of, but it was subtle.

boston flip: scotch, madiera, simple syrup, tobacco perfumed farm egg

In this list of symbols the unusual, if not extraordinary, tobacco perfumed farm egg is the most attentional.  To us intermediate level drinkers the others symbols are common and ordinary.

But now we have to drink this stuff and have a raw, aesthetic, sensory experience.  It turns out that the most attentional symbol in this case does not make the most attentional sensory contribution.  Many people ended up disappointed.  The tobacco only tonally modified the egg slightly like adding a little apricot juice to orange juice.  On the sensory level, the ordinary gets nudged slightly over into the extraordinary but it is faint while on the symbolic level there is an out sized shove into the extraordinary.

espresso-martini: vodka, simple syrup, espresso

In this case the most attentional symbolic feature and sensory feature are one and the same.  This is what many people expect and simultaneously what many other people find amateur creative linkage.  Many people love seeing that “-martini” symbol and see the symbol implying that their drink will be served in their favorite drinking vessel; a symbol of sophistication.

bees knees: gin, lemon juice, ames farm’ basswood honey

I’ve done this drink for years now with various varietal honeys.  Ames farm’ Basswood is my favorite. I thought the idea of a specific varietal honey was pretty extraordinary.  The sensory experience of the honey is also extraordinary.  Strangely it never really caught on.  I’ve served a million happy imbibers but no one ever even commented on how out of the ordinary it was to see a varietal specified.  When there were comments it was “honey? is it going to be sweet?”  These people could not conjure a sensory experience from the symbols and did not realize that the drink also likely contained a sizable quantity of lemon juice.

bobby burns: compass box artist’s blend scotch, vergano’s americano, corsican chestnut flower honey

This drink has three esoteric symbols.  There is no clear consensus on what is the most attentional.  They are ordered by volume which seems to be an unwritten rule.  In Brookline where I’m serving this now, the Vergano Americano seems to be the most attentional.  We simply explain it as a “boutique aromatized wine from northwest Italy” or if we want to tease we add “made from the nearly extinct varietal Grignolino from Monferrato”.  Grignolino and Monferrato are cryptic symbols but they are euphonically fun. To me personally, the honey is the most attentional symbol and it gives the others a run for their money as the most attentional sensory feature even though it is applied by the spoonful.  The honey is bitter and could easily be likened to wood varnish.  Strangely, the day after I wrote this, I served one to an old man who looked like a viking and even before he tasted it he was captivated by the idea of every symbol on the page.  His sensory review was no less glowing.  Finally someone noticed. He made my day.

The name of a drink is also a powerful symbol and has been known to get people to try challenging or unpredictable sensory experiences.  The sensory and symbolic worlds are glued together by the theory of cognitive dissonance and each world has the ability to rearrange the harmonic bounds of the other.

So what am I getting at here?  If we learn to deconstruct the two worlds I’m describing, we can start to play around in new ways. Patterns may emerge that we can take advantage of.  Rules may appear, and when we realize there are no rules we can start to break the ones we thought we saw.

Being a work of art, a cocktail can be an expression of rhetoric or a solution to a problem.  A drink can change you.  My drinks, with their obsession with acquired tastes, aspire to make you more sustainable and less complacent.

3 thoughts on “An Attentional Features Primer

  1. If all goes well, Mr. Meyer said in a telephone call from Copenhagen, the restaurant will use food “to change the destiny of a country.” -nytimes in regards to the owner of Noma in Copenhagen aspiring to open a restaurant of the same style in Bolivia.

    this is art based problem solving via culinary mediums. this is what i’m talking about.

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