All in the best possible taste
Our ability to experience, or enjoy, certain tastes is dependent on various factors, finds Tom Bruce-Gardyne. But whatever our perceptions are of what we do and don’t enjoy – and whether we are demonstrating ‘good’ taste in the process – they are always subject to change
MAIN IMAGE: MIKE WILKINSON
“We develop our tastes and smell preferences in the womb. Then it’s about what we’re exposed to, and what our peers like. ”
Dr Morgaine Gaye
For those who haven’t had the pleasure, Fernet-Branca is an intensely bitter Italian digestivo distilled from ‘railroad tar and spinach’, or so the New York Times once claimed. Argentinians love it with Coke and hardened bartenders slug it neat as a badge of honour, but it’s definitely an acquired taste, especially today. As Nicola Olianas, Fernet-Branca’s brand ambassador, told me: “We consume so many sweet things, from jam and croissants in the morning. My grandfather used to eat salami and cheese for breakfast, and he appreciated whisky at 17!”
LEARNING TO LOVE IT
Any appreciation I had at that age was by association. It was what real men drank, and armed with a Scotch and a cigarette I could practically see the hairs sprouting on my chest, although the main attraction was probably the alcohol. Professor Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist at Oxford University, believes “virtually all tastes are acquired, in that we learn to like them through exposure, and learning about the consequences.” With coffee for example, the consequence would be that caffeine-induced buzz, while with whisky there are the feelgood effects of the booze. Both drinks are relatively bitter, which is a taste we are pre-programmed to consider poisonous, according to the food futurologist Dr Morgaine Gaye.
FORMING TASTES FROM AN EARLY AGE
Morgaine suspects that stems from our ancient ancestors foraging for roots and herbs. New-born babies will instinctively reject anything bitter or sour, while licking their lips and gurgling with joy at anything sweet. Our tastes are formed even earlier however, depending on what our mothers were eating and drinking at the time. “We develop our tastes and smell preferences in the womb,” says Morgaine. “Then it’s about what we’re exposed to, and what our peers like. If coffee is cool in our culture, we are more likely to be accustomed to it, and it’s the same with whisky. If Scotch whisky is part of your cultural identity, you’re more inclined to want to like it.”
With coffee there’s a well-worn path of sugar, milk and cream on the journey to a double espresso, while with Scotch there are plenty of mixers to soften the blow and you never have to drink it neat, whatever some reactionary old fossil might say. Although, as the American master of wine Tim Hanni points out: “There are people who taste Scotch and don’t get that burn from the alcohol or that bitterness, so there’s nothing to acquire.”
“There are people who taste Scotch and don’t get that burn from the alcohol or that bitterness, so there’s nothing to acquire.”
“Virtually all tastes are acquired, in that we learn to like them through exposure, and learning about the consequences.”
Professor Charles Spence
“Research has shown that women as a whole are slightly more sensitive to flavour than men, but the difference is so marginal that it doesn’t explain the lower levels of whisky consumption.”
Dr Frances Jack
THE THREE MAJOR VARIABLES
Tim has been studying taste in depth in his ‘Perception Project’ and says: “Every human perception is subject to three major variables, starting with our sensory physiology which is genetic.” In other words; how many taste buds and how sensitive a sense of smell we inherit. The latter is what really matters, since we ‘taste’ with our nose. If it’s blocked, we can’t even distinguish a chopped onion from a chopped apple.
The next variable is our neurology, which transmits the information from our taste receptors. It can be reprogrammed, as Tim explains: “When you start to get that bitterness, it’s now sending dopamine and ‘good feeling’ neurotransmitters to your brain.”
The third variable is psychology, which includes the cultural influences and peer pressure mentioned above. The net result is that “taste ranges from one person getting nothing to another having this intense, vivid or even painful experience,” says Tim.
GOOD AND BAD TASTE
This tallies with Charles Spence’s perception, who says: “Over half the cerebral cortex is given over to what we see, but less than one per cent to what we smell and taste, and this leads to the realisation that we live in much more different taste worlds than we do auditory and visual worlds.” He suspects this might help explain why we so often lack confidence in our own taste. “We assume we all taste the same thing, but we don’t,” he says.
And to complicate matters further there is the aesthetic meaning of taste – a loaded term if ever there was one. “It’s hugely problematic,” says Charles. “It’s not always clear what people mean, or if they know what they mean.” For years those who confessed to liking sweet white wine were deemed ‘tasteless’ – in both senses of the word – by the wine establishment. Tim Hanni reckons they are due an apology for such snobbery. In his view, such people are simply more sensitive to taste, as they are to loud music or anything itchy on their skin. He once told me he identified a man wearing no underpants at a San Francisco tasting purely from his wine preferences. Maybe that’s why Batman always wore his Y-fronts on the outside.
“Some people crave sensation and thrill. It’s why some like rollercoasters and others don’t.”
DR MORGAINE GAYE
A WILLINGNESS TO EXPERIMENT
With Scotch, there’s a wide spectrum of flavours from the gentlest grain whisky to the hairiest peat monster imaginable. A few novice drinkers will dive straight in at the deep end. “Some people crave sensation and thrill,” says Morgaine Gaye. “It’s why some like rollercoasters and others don’t.” It also comes down to our willingness to experiment, as Dr Frances Jack, sensory scientist at the Scotch Whisky Research Institute, points out: “Some of us are much more receptive to trying something new, while others will say ‘No, I don’t like this, I’m not going to try it’, and this can depend on our individual sensitivity to tastes and aromas.”
This brings us to the thorny issue of whisky and gender. “Research has shown that women as a whole are slightly more sensitive to flavour than men, but the difference is so marginal that it doesn’t explain the lower levels of whisky consumption,” says Frances “and we don’t see differences in gender preferences for other intensely flavoured foods.” Maybe instead it’s to do with conditioning and how whisky has evolved as ‘a drink for men’. To overcome a challenging taste you need to persevere. Perhaps there is a sense that men will stick with it and try it more because they’re thinking ‘this is something I should be drinking’.
BLOKEY, BROWN AND BORING?
So, to conclude – the biggest barrier is not the taste, but the baggage. “What don’t you like about whisky?” Morgaine once asked a group of women. “It’s just so blokey,” they replied, and when asked why, they said: “It’s brown, it’s boring and it’s always got a manly name like Jim Beam or Johnnie Walker.”
Well, not at The Scotch Malt Whisky Society. And it’s really time to get over the adolescent male fantasy that it might even put hairs on your chest.