The Science of Taste & Flavour – Disaronno Mixing Lab – Marsala, Sicily

Taste is personal they say, taste sits between your ears. Everybody knows that, but it seems that taste goes even further than that. From our genes to our immediate environment, our history and even our own personal memories.
Disaronno Mixing Lab 2014
Disaronno Mixing Lab 2014

Having judged the Belgian delegates of the Disaronno Mixing Lab Competition, we were invited to join the winner, Adrian Guerron, to Siciliy on an exclusive two day mixology boot camp in the Cantine Florio, a landmark in the history of Italian Liqueurs and aromatic wines, located in the town of Marsala.

Tony Conigliaro, Rachel Edwards-Stuart and Tess Posthumus commenting on the flavours of the contestants' cocktails.
Tony Conigliaro, Rachel Edwards-Stuart and Tess Posthumus commenting on the flavours of the contestants’ cocktails.

Our teacher on the first day was professor Rachel Edwards-Stuart. Having studied at both Cambridge and Nottingham University, she has worked with a number of big names in the field including Heston Blumenthal and Hervé This. She earned the reputation of being a renowned scientist of flavour and food and showed us what happens to our brains when we see, hear, smell and taste food and drinks.

What do we taste?

First of all we have to make a difference between ‘taste‘ and ‘flavour‘. Taste is what the receptors in our tongue experience when it touches things. Anything, from your grandmother’s furry cheek to a delicious and juicy apricot (for some of you apricots will never taste the same from now on). Science tells us that our tongue can only differentiate 5 separate tastes: sour, sweet, salt, bitter and umami. What happens next is that the brain puzzles together a momentary picture of inputs tingling all five senses of the human body (smell, sight, sound, touch and taste) and subsequently compares and associates it with a myriad of past experiences. It is interesting to note that memories and smell cover the same area in the brain. People are quick to compare agreeable flavours and aromas to something out of their mother’s or gran‘s kitchen. And that could be anything from napalm to strawberries, depending on who you are (or who your gran was).

"The things she made us taste, ugh...!" ;)
“The things she made us taste, ugh…!” 😉

That’s why we always associate vanilla with sweetness and comfort, because of the vanilla ice-cream and pudding you probably got when you were a kid, yet vanilla is not sweet by itself. In some Asian cultures vanilla is associated with saltiness. (And if you don’t like vanilla you’re weird)

The Flavour in your Head

Flavour is an interpretation and it seems that we are very bad at describing it. As the unforgettable Dylan Moran proves in the next video about wine tasting:

Dylan Moran fine-tuning his wine-tasting notes. Click the magically moving picture to see a video of Dylan describing wine tasting.
Dylan Moran fine-tuning his wine-tasting notes. Click the magically moving picture to see a video of Dylan describing wine tasting.

Also, it’s a momentary interpretation. That’s why that “special local drink” on vacation tastes different when you take it back home. You drink it in a totally different location, situation, context, etc… (remember “Ichi go, ichi e“!). Another thing you have to take into account is that everybody experiences the 5 tastes at different intensity (this has to do with DNA, but also with exposure of course). Something bitter can taste less or not bitter at all to somebody else.

Feeling and effect are also very intriguing aspects of flavour. By that we mean the heating effect of chili peppers for instance or the cooling effect of peppermint. But also the bubbles in carbonised drinks. When the miniature bubbles burst on your tongue, a receptor is triggered. The Co2 becomes carbonic acid and people experience a bitter or less sweet flavour to their drink. What actually happens is that you experience a controlled pain sensation that releases a (very) limited amount of endorphins.

Last, but not least there are congruent flavours and incongruent flavours. There exist secret and arcane formula’s to certain combinations of flavour, colour and effect. For example the colour green, melon flavour and a cooling effect makes a magical combination in that when you increase one aspect it increases everything else. So when you would make the drink (consisting of those three elements) more green, it would also taste automatically more like melon and have a greater cooling effect.

This does not work with the colour purple, a pineapple and a cooling effect for instance. So you can’t do this with everything.

Rethink Mixing Drinks

Now, all the above makes you really rethink mixing drinks and that is exactly what Tony Conigliaro does. He was our teacher the second day.

Normal people start making a new kind of mixed drink by looking at possible matching  ingredients. But not Tony apparently, he starts from a concept, an idea. These are Italian designer cocktails, mind you. Then he literally draws a story board with a diorama. This diorama is a picture of the designed sensory environment Tony envisioned for the drink. The cocktail is just one actor in the movie, you know. You’re the co-star and the public at the same time.

With so many factors influencing taste, you have to go further than the drink itself. Like rubbing sun lotion on the stem of the glassware at a beach party for instance, something he did.

All this is why we keep on telling the new bartenders that making a good drink is not enough. You have to take into account the hospitality, turn the drink into an experience. Watch the lighting, check the music, clean everything, keep smiling, etc, etc… This not only just courtesy. This is science.

Cantine Florio
Cantine Florio






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