Difficult flavours: Michael Butt on understanding our attraction

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Other: Opinion

With amaros and bitters ever more common on the backbar, we need a better understanding of our attraction to these ‘difficult’ flavours


My father was a wine buff – my coppers jar was a Methuselah of Latour, and we would make significant contributions to the contents by taking lead capsules for scrap.

He, against protestation, always had a thing for Jilly Goolden and would occasionally relax the no television rule to allow us to watch her and Oz Clarke on the Food and Drink. Her often-outlandish descriptions of wines’ flavour would beguile pre-teen me, and have certainly influenced my stream of consciousness writing style.

One description particularly stuck with me: ‘Like a bonfire after the rain’. What wine was being described has long escaped my memory (Malbec didn’t exist – possibly an overwrought Aussie Shiraz), but the idea that one of the least pleasant aromas of childhood, stale smoke, could be enjoyable was a surprise.

Fast-forward 30 years and I still don’t get it. Why is smoke tasty?

Like many areas of neuroscience, our understanding of taste is barely beyond the most basic idea of ascribing potential pathways to self-evident truths. Indeed, as our understanding slowly increases, our idea of five discrete senses becomes more and more obviously incorrect.

This leaves us in a difficult position when trying to analyse reasons for an individual or even a group for ‘liking’ a particular taste or flavour.

We can map brain activity as a response to stimulus, with heat-map style pictures demonstrating potential locations for nervous excitation, and have had some success in extrapolating the size, frequency and longevity of these neuron hotspots into an initial understanding of how the mechanisms work. However, because of the complexity we are really just toddlers taking first steps.

We tend to gloss over lack of knowledge in this area with some guff about individual experience and the power of context in shaping our opinions. This works with lemon lovers describing their Sorrento straight-from-the-tree experience, but it is less easy to see how purposeful consumption of acrid chemicals can be enjoyed by anyone.

One possible answer is that the ‘burnt’ flavours are a demonstration of the Maillard reaction in the cooking of meat. We associate the flavours and aroma of char with the natural sugars caramelised in well-cooked, as opposed to well-done, meat, and by association enjoy these aromas.

Another potential reason, less palatable to bar professionals, is that it is a Pavlovian signifier of incipient effects of alcohol. Developing enjoyment of neat spirits is a process that requires practice – the perfect scenario for developing a complex series of reward responses.

One could suggest that the absence of soft drinks with smoke flavouring indicates that the smoke is not a pleasant experience on its own.

An oft-repeated aphorism about Campari suggests a similar requirement of repeated consumption to connect alcohol as reward to the process – a learned response to something that is initially unpalatable. This process, only with caffeine as the reward, is repeated as people learn to enjoy coffee.

Despite Angostura suggesting its suitability for savoury and sweet dishes on its bottle, we don’t often purposely add bitterness to food. This suggests that our conclusions about flavour balance in cocktails requiring ingredients that contribute to all areas of the taste spectrum may be affected by our learned responses.

Smoke is spreading rapidly to the agave shelf, and amaros and other beverage bitters are also popping up like mushrooms all over the backbar, making understanding the attraction to these difficult flavours more and more commercially important.

Creating the atmosphere and drinks for customers to begin to experience and enjoy these difficult elements is one of the most important jobs of the modern bartender.

As for me? I will keep trying, and hopefully an appreciation of smoke will come. After all, Campari and coffee were worth the effort!

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Michael Butt

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