The idea was that through the exploration of how nature and nurture play a part in the flavours that we like and dislike, The Essence House’s bartenders (including Lorenzo Antinori, director of bars at the Four Seasons Hong Kong and Maxim Schulte, head bartender at The American Bar, The Savoy) could create an array of cocktail combinations based on individual palate preferences.
The experience was curated by science of gastronomy and flavour perception expert Dr Rachel Edwards-Stuart. Imbibe caught up with Edwards-Stuart, along with The London Essence Company co-founder Ounal Bailey to find out more about both the logic and science behind personal taste.
On the face of it, the concept plays into a wider personalisation trend, as well as consumer curiosity around ingredients.
‘We live in a world where we have much more knowledge accessible to us about the food we eat, and people like to know what they are consuming, how it tastes and why they might like it,’ explains Edwards-Stuart. ‘People have become more and more interested in participating in experience that delve into this.’
So, how does The Essence House’s taste assessment worked? Well, the palate profiling tests were based on a ‘combination of scientific tests, which analyse an individual’s taste sensitivity to bitterness, sweetness and acidity through the trial of three different unmarked liquids and tests based on consumer preferences,’ explains Bailey.
The first test focused on palate sensitivities and guests were asked to mark their preferred mix, then use it to create a base for their cocktail.
Next, drinkers explored London Essence’s flavours, before being asked to select their favourite to take to the bar.
‘It was this response, and the findings from the first part of the experiment, which the bartender used to create the guest’s drink,’ says Bailey.
Nature and nurture
Delving further into what’s behind a person’s flavour preference, Edwards-Stuart says that what we like and dislike is governed by many factors, ‘some of which are genetically determined, though the majority are governed by nurture’. She says these factors include things like ‘what our mother ate when pregnant, our experience of family meals as a youngster, our exposure to different flavours and the environment in which we tasted them, even peer pressure and marketing’.
Though there are no broad camps in which consumers can be classified in terms of flavour preference, people can be classified as ‘super-tasters’ and ‘non-tasters’, according to their specific response to a bitter tasting compound.
People can be classified as ‘super-tasters’ and ‘non-tasters’, according to their specific response to a bitter tasting compound
‘Super-tasters have been shown to have more taste receptors on their tongue, and in general seem more sensitive to things like the heat of alcohol and the burn of chilli, but little correlation has been found to link ‘super taster’ status to flavour preferences, again showing the importance of nurture,’ adds Edwards-Stuart.
There are also many factors that can impact our taste preferences as well as our ability to taste. Smoking and eating strong flavours are known to affect taste sensitivity, for example, and sensory testers are often asked to refrain from smoking and eating or drinking anything except water for an hour or so prior to doing any tasting, says Edwards-Stuart. ‘We also know that taste perception declines with age.’
On a more unexpected note, Edwards-Stuart also suggests that factors such as colour, lighting, crockery, shape and music can impact taste perception. ‘Studies have shown that a whole number of foods and drinks actually seem to taste different when these environmental factors are changed,’ she says.
Behind the bar
While it might have been fun to take the test, were the results any different from a bartender asking a customer what they like to drink?
When asked by a bartender about personal preference in terms of sweet and bitterness, most people don’t know how to answer
‘If a bartender manages to get the taste profile to your liking in terms of sweetness, bitterness and acidity, and assuming they choose flavours to which you are not averse, there is a good chance you will end up liking the cocktail,’ explains Edwards-Stuart.
However, she says that when asked by a bartender about personal preference in terms of sweet and bitterness, most people don’t know how to answer.
‘It can also help to ask what types of drinks they usually like to help determine their preference for them,’ she says. ‘The Essence House takes this one step further, allowing consumers to really get to grips and understand what they like and dislike through the palate profiling experience.’
This time, it’s personal.