Friday 18 May 2012

Science of Taste: Personality & Genetics (and how to apply this all to bartending)

Aside from using all this taste information for balancing flavours and understanding how different ingredients interact with each other, there is also important information here about being a bartender and serving your guests. Darcy's presentation revealed some really interesting generalizations that are very useful behind the wood if you're serving someone for the first time.

To touch on mood again, the happier you are the higher your taste perception is, so if you're in a great mood you'll probably enjoy more moderate flavours, and if you're feeling depressed or down, stronger and more flavourful foods and drinks will actually be a more enjoyable choice. Dopamine (essentially the pleasure-biochemical) is released in your brain the more you drink, but the more alcohol is in your system the more your taste perception is dulled. This is is one of the reasons why you should start with lighter spirits and drinks and graduate to digestifs with more bitter and higher-proof components. If you're serving someone who's had a few there's not as much need to moderate flavours as when they first sit down.

Personality also plays a role in how people taste. To put it more specifically, everyone's genetics are different and therefore everyone's personality and taste is different and there are some consistent relations between the two. Typically, people who are very upbeat, perky, and excitable tend to have more sensitive taste perception and therefore will prefer more delicate, moderate drinks and won't like bitter flavours as much. Low-key, down-to-earth personalities often prefer more flavourful food and drink.

Race and age can also affect these responses, with age of course decreasing taste overall (which occurs more rapidly with men), and Africans and Asians typically having a stronger bitter response.

There are three different recognized categories in tasting through this range of responsiveness:
non-tasters (at about 20% of the population),
normal tasters (at 60%),
and super tasters (at 20%).
Super-tasters actually possess a high taste-responsiveness to detection of the PTC/PROP chemicals that increases the response to bitter and will react much more dramatically to this taste than other people. I actually had the pleasure of watching this in action during Darcy's presentation as he handed out strips of paper containing PTC (phenylthiocarbamide), which is genetically specific so non-tasters will get nothing from it, normal tasters will find it fairly bitter, and super-tasters will, as Darcy put it, be 'emotionally upset for the rest of the day.' I can you tell you that he wasn't wrong because it turns out my lady is a super-taster (a fact she STILL proudly and constantly reminds me of), and in fact the only one in the room. She was visibly upset, complained about the flavour all day, and couldn't enjoy dinner that night. I, on the other hand, found it unpleasant but not torturous, and there were people in the room who even put several strips on their tongues and got no taste at all. These non-tasters have literally fewer taste buds and taste response biochemicals, and likely due to their bodies adapting to having one weaker sense, have a much stronger sense of smell then other kinds of tasters.
Non-tasters tend to be male, and they tend to have larger bodies or be prone to obesity. Super-tasters tend to be smaller, thinner, and female, and have the highest response to bitter, so will have or have had trouble enjoying flavours like coffee, grapefruit, or even alcohol in general. They can also be more sensitive to other flavours and tastes as well, including spicy foods and sweetness.

As a bartender, you can use all of this information and "judge" people by their appearance when they walk in to a bar. This is a generalization, of course, but the majority of super-tasters are slim women, whereas the majority of non-tasters are overweight men. So if a slim, young, and pretty girl sits at the bar, it's likely she won't enjoy a Negroni or something similarly bitter, but will probably very much enjoy something more subtle and perhaps a little sweeter like Corpse Reviver #2 or just a 1:1 Martini with a really nice gin and a really nice vermouth (but don't go too sweet, which you shouldn't be doing anyway). Meanwhile, the large, middle-aged man who sits down would probably enjoy something stronger and more bitter, like perhaps a Toronto or Brooklyn cocktail.

When making a drink, focus on balancing primary flavours using the balance information in the previous posts, and make sure you're always thinking about how other people taste and not just how you taste. Use aromas, texture, and the appearance of your drinks to get the most out of them, and I will again reiterate - please don't use too much sugar.

Thanks again to Darcy for his wonderful presentation and all the awesome and intriguing research he has on his site.

Make sure you check out Savory and Bitter
Sour and Salty
and factors that affect taste other than your tongue


  1. Great post, great series.

  2. Thanks! And thank Darcy O'Neil. Definitely check out his site if you're interested in the science-meets-drinking -