Tuesday 15 May 2012

Science of Taste: Other Factors Than Your Tongue

We've now looked at all the actual taste factors that affect taste and how they interact, but there are many factors that affect taste. Being a sensory response, it is interpreted by the brain and therefore susceptible to all factors affecting the brain, which is just about everything. Aside from the taste groups, there are several other important variables:
 - smell/aroma
 - physical properties, such as viscosity and temperature
 - proof (alcohol content)
 - genetics
 - mood
 - social factors

The first two are quite simple. Drinking something that smells bad to you will make it taste worse, drinking something that smells floral or fruity will bring out those flavours, etc. Increased viscosity will increase the sweet response on the tongue and decrease the bitter, as previously discussed, and temperature can have dramatic effect; for example, if something is very hot, your tongue won't be able to register much flavour at all (which is why you should always let a good tea cool just a bit before sipping it), and similarly if something is ice cold some flavours will be masked. This is why the proper way to enjoy a very high quality spirit is always neat, or, in the case of some whisky/whiskey, with just a little room temperature water. Drinking a fine spirit over ice will inhibit you from really tasting it. Also, keep an eye for cheap spirits that invite you to drink them cold or even frozen because they're usually trying to hide some nasty flavours that are the results of cheap production.
I also should bring up whiskey stones. I've had friends ask me what I think and my answer is that these just don't make sense to me. Reducing the temperature stops you from enjoying all of the flavour, but furthermore it's not diluting anything, which is at least half the reason we use ice. People drink spirits on the rocks mostly because they don't like the alcoholic burn, and it's the dilution from the ice water that helps, not simply cooling it down. This is a topic for another time (and perhaps someone could enlighten me).

As for proof, the higher the ethanol concentration, the higher the bitterness to the tongue, and the less the sourness. Balancing cocktails has so much to do with dilution and not just ingredients, and what you're doing when you stir or shake is not just drop the temperature but reduce the ethanol concentration, allowing flavours to marry and bloom and other nice metaphors. Using a high-proof whiskey in a Manhattan will require more dilution, and also maybe a dash less of bitters - keep that in mind.

Genetics is obvious. We're all different and therefore we all taste differently. This is extremely important to keep in mind when you're making drinks for someone else, and this is what I'll get into for the next post.

Now, mood. How you feel affects everything in your life, in terms of both perception and biochemistry. To simplify this concept, let's look at chemistry - increased seratonin levels will increase both the sweet and bitter perceptions. Seratonin is released when you feel "good" or "happy," which is when your taste is literally sharpened. There is also a brain chemical called noradrenalin, or norepinephrine, that acts both as a neurotransmitter and a hormone and is typically related to a fear response in our bodies, but also nervousness, and is occasionally prescribed to combat depression. The presence of this biochemical in the brain will improve bitter and sour recognition on the tongue. How can this be applied to bartending? Well, maybe it can't really, but it's still interesting.

Social factors affect all of our perceptions, thoughts, opinions - everything. Ever see a movie or read a book you thought was awful, but a friend explains to you why they think it's great and you start to change your opinion? This sort of behaviour is always present and will affect how things taste. If I take a sip of a drink, give a really happy and surprised look and tell you how amazing it is before I slide it over for you to try, it will taste better to you. If I make a disgusted face and say my drink is gross and bitter then offer you a try, your brain is already assuming it's not going to taste good. This is something you can use when behind the bar. Even just acting passionate about the cocktail you're making or telling a customer that it's one of your favourites will already improve what they'll think about it. Having an excited bartender spend three minutes making his all-time favourite tipple complete with a little history will make it quite awkward to admit to him/her that you really hate the taste of it, and your perception will alter to accommodate. This may sound a little crazy, but it probably also makes a lot of sense. Because it does.

Next time we'll take all these taste factors into account then see how they can be applied as a bartender so that you can give your guests the best of service (plus you'll be interested to hear how gender, race, and body-type have common effects on taste so you can judge everyone before they even sit down).

Make sure you check out Savory and Bitter
Sour and Salty
and Sweet

[[ Photography by Shutterstock.com and the other is of John Belushi and I have no idea who took it but it's awesome ]]

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