What makes the perfect glass of wine? Rituals, expectations & psychology

Picture this: you're sitting at your favourite bar, sipping on a perfectly poured pint of your go-to beer. But have you ever stopped to think about the ritual? It's not just about the taste, but how you serve and consume your drink will significantly change your experience. From a shot of tequila with salt and lime to decanting red wine, every drink has its own ritual. And as it turns out, these rituals aren't just for show - they change the way we enjoy our food and drink. In fact, researchers found that adding a simple ritual makes eating food 15% more enjoyable and caused shoppers to spend TWICE as much. Find out how marketers incorporate rituals to increase sales, regardless of the product – cheers!

The ritual of drinking

tequila with salt and lime

When it comes to having a drink, it is not just serving the right drink, in the right glass that’s important. There is an element of performance associated with how you serve a drink. If you’re drinking tequila, you’ll be told to lick, shoot, suck": Lick the salt off your hand, then down the shot, and finish off by sucking on a wedge of lime. Drinking red wine might be more sophisticated, but there is still a performance. Traditionally, red wine is decanted and allowed to breath before drinking, and we all know that it takes 119.5 seconds to pour the perfect pint of Guinness – because good things come to those who wait.  

We may just assume that the only reason we serve tequila with salt and lime or serve a burgundy in a different glass to a Bordeaux, is because of social expectations, but from a psychological perspective what we’re doing is engaging in a ritual.  A ritual does not need any spiritual connection; it is simply a set of activities or gestures performed in a set sequence, and these actions change how we enjoy our food and drink. For example, researchers gave people a chocolate bar, and told half of the participants that they could eat it straight away, but the other half were told they had to perform a ritual before they could eat it. Those who engaged in the ritual spent 50% longer eating the chocolate, rated the experience as 15% more enjoyable, and most importantly, claimed they would spend almost twice as much for the chocolate¹. So, what was this mysterious ritual? Before unwrapping the chocolate, they first needed to break the bar in half, unwrap each half, and then eat it, before moving onto the second.  

Why rituals work?

At first this might sound strange and that nobody would engage in this sort of behaviour before eating their chocolate.  But just think how you might eat Oreos, twisting them apart before dunking them in milk, eating hula-hoops from your fingers, or even just how you might always save the bottom half of a bread roll (the best part) to last. All of which are a ritual. 

By being forced to perform these actions they cause us to pay closer attention to what we are doing, resulting in us focusing on the simple pleasures. And it is likely to be the same with booze. Letting a wine breathe, warming a brandy in your hand, or combing the head off a beer, all help to make us concentrate on the drink. Not only this, but it helps to build anticipation, and this is key. Most people assume that the brain releasees dopamine (a neurotransmitter that plays a critical way in how we experience pleasure) when we receive a reward. However, it is released in anticipation of a reward². By forcing us to wait an extra bit longer for our drink – it helps build anticipation and increases the dopamine release.

Anticipation and Experiences

While anticipation is important for a dopamine release for any activity, new research indicates that anticipation is even more important when we are waiting for an experience, rather than waiting for a possession. When we are required to wait for a material purchase, such as a book we have ordered from Amazon, it’s often edgier and fraught with impatience. However, we find waiting for an experience, such as waiting to share a bottle of wine with friends, as a more positive experience. Rather than being frustrated by the delay, it ends up building excitement, and triggering a range of positive emotions³

So, what does this mean for marketers?

All too often when companies launch a new product, they focus on understanding how it performs objectively. For example, how does the new product compare with the market leader in a blind taste test? But in practice, people know what brand they are consuming, the expectations, rituals, and brand perception changes how we perceive a product performs or tastes. While it’s important to understand how your product objectively performs, you still need to understand how it will perform in the marketplace. As with most things in marketing, perceptions can be more important than reality.  

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1 Vohs, K. D., Wang, Y., Gino, F., & Norton, M. I. (2013). Rituals enhance consumption. Psychological Science, 24(9), 1714-1721.

2 O'Doherty, J. P., Deichmann, R., Critchley, H. D., & Dolan, R. J. (2002). Neural responses during anticipation of a primary taste reward. Neuron, 33(5), 815-826.

3 Kumar, A., Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilovich, T. (2014). Waiting for merlot: Anticipatory consumption of experiential and material purchases. Psychological science, 25(10), 1924-1931

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