WSU scientists present whisky research to international audience at Scotland conference

An invitation to the Worldwide Distilled Spirits Conference in Edinburgh offered two Washington State University Tri-Cities researchers a chance to present their findings on whisky aromas while experiencing Scotland for the first time.

Mackenzie Aragon, a food science doctoral student, and Layton Ashmore, a 2023 food science doctoral graduate, presented their research at a poster session and in front of a group of academics and whisky industry professionals. Department of Viticulture and Enology (V&E) Assistant Professor Tom Collins and Professor Jim Harbertson joined the pair on the trip.

Ashmore’s presentation included recently published research examining how whisky’s aroma changes as the liquor is diluted with water. The findings could help whisky producers make recommendations to consumers about how much water or ice to add before imbibing.

Layton Ashmore stands next to his research poster.
Ashmore’s presentation included recently published research examining how water dilution changes whisky’s aroma. (Photo courtesy of Jim Harbertson)

“It’s not as straightforward as it might sound,” Ashmore said. “By diluting the whisky, you’re changing the polarity of the system. Some components stay in the water, while others leave. You’re going to smell the latter more readily.”

Chemical analysis and data from a sensory panel showed that dilution of 20% or more made individual whiskies of the same style almost imperceptible from one another. Simultaneously, dilution made the characteristics of different styles of whiskies (such as Scotches, American bourbons, and ryes) stand out even more dramatically.

“Our findings suggest that some whiskies shouldn’t be diluted too much, otherwise you’ll stop smelling the aromas that make them special,” said Ashmore.

After presenting related research at the same conference virtually in 2020, the trip represented an opportunity for him to wrap up loose ends and celebrate the completion of his PhD.

“In addition to providing closure on this project, the trip was a cap on my degree as a whole,” he said. “My first act as a doctor was going overseas and presenting at an international conference. That was exciting.”

Ashmore and Aragon also earned a best student poster award for separate, unpublished research they are working on in conjunction with Collins and Oregon State University researchers Angelica Iobbi and Elizabeth Tomasino. The group is studying how the interaction of volatile phenols and thiophenols impacts the sensory perception of smoky aromas in bourbon and peated Scotch whiskies. The research stemmed from Aragon’s previous analysis of compounds responsible for smoky aromas in smoke-affected wines.

Mackenzie Aragon stands next to her research poster.
Aragon is researching how the interaction of volatile phenols and thiophenols impacts the sensory perception of smoky aromas in bourbon and peated Scotch whiskies. (Photo courtesy of Jim Harbertson)

“It was my first time presenting my own research to such a large audience,” Aragon said. “I was nervous, but it was really beneficial to share the data and interact directly with the people that this research is impacting.”

Ashmore appreciated the in-person opportunity to learn more from other researchers around the world.

“The wider your audience, the more feedback you receive, and the more chances for partnership,” he said. “Science is nothing without collaboration.”

The conference also offered an opportunity to represent WSU and the V&E department in front of an international audience.

“The department and the university both benefit when our graduate students make conference presentations,” Collins said. “Layton and Mackenzie’s presentations were well done and well received. It’s a great way to showcase the work we’re doing and the abilities of our students.”

During their weeklong stay, the group took advantage of the sunny weather by visiting Edinburgh Castle and Loch Ness. They also attended several distillery tours on Islay, an island famous for its Scotch.

“I had never been to a classic whisky distillery before,” Aragon said. “From a scientific mindset, it was really interesting to look at their process and see how the whiskies vary from one another and how small-scale distilleries differ from large-scale ones.”

Layton Ashmore, Mackenzie Aragon, and Tom Collins stand in front of Edinburgh Castle.
The group visited Edinburgh Castle during their trip to Scotland. (Photo courtesy of Jim Harbertson)

Ashmore, whose dissertation work involved distilled spirits, agreed.

“Tasting a whisky and seeing how it’s made, you start to gain understanding of what they’re doing to make that particular whisky stand out,” Ashmore said. “That was a really insightful experience.”

Harbertson hopes the trip helped Ashmore and Aragon see firsthand the crossover in knowledge that exists between wine science and whisky research. “I hope they learned how people with a wine background can bring their knowledge and insight to a different field of study,” Harbertson said. “Some of the most innovative whisky in Scotland is produced by people with a wine background. I could tell that Mackenzie and Layton were happy to see that.”