How we taste

A disheveled wet dog pouts at the camera.
From wet dog to sweet vanillin to forest floor, the way humans experience taste is complex and fascinating. Photo by Linoleum Creative Collective / Unsplash

Ever watch a toddler taste something new for the first time?

There's a pause, a moment of thought, and then a response, a shudder—and then maybe you're cleaning up a mess—or maybe the shudder gives way to elation and wide-eyed joy.

Maybe there's an ice cream dance.

While I've been working on our upcoming liqueur releases (federal formula and label approval, tasting notes, label design...oh yeah, and actually making liqueurs), I've also been thinking and reading a lot about how we taste.

Terry Acree, who studies how we perceive flavors and odors at Cornell University and creator of Flavornet (check it out!), boils it down to three components of a reaction:

flavor-active chemical + human ⟶ flavor response

This three-part reaction is deceptively complex. Think about it:

  1. A chemical, some actual part of the outside world (a tiny piece of wet dog, brown butter, or campfire smoke), makes its way through our nose and almost to our brain, where it locks in to one of hundreds of different kinds of chemical sensors, each kind interacting uniquely with a specific chemical. Together, it's thought that these sensors can help us sense a trillion different smells.

    Caveat: some odors inhibit or even suppress other odors in ways we can't fully explain.
  2. Our brains compare the incoming message to our massive rolodex of flavor memories. We then create a "flavor object" - the *idea* of wet dog, brown butter, or campfire smoke.

    Caveat: the sensors are wired directly to the parts of our brain that process emotion - which means our moods affect our perceptions, which affect our moods.
  3. We respond. How we respond is entirely dependent on how we've been conditioned by past personal experience. Maybe we shudder. Maybe we do the ice cream dance (maybe we think about buying another bottle of Pekut and Carwick's excellent independently bottled spirits?).

    Caveat: evolution and even epigenetics are thought to play a part here, too. So it's not just *your* past experiences.

Even if you do shudder at wet dog (or worse), take a moment to sit back and appreciate the magnificence of this process and how thoroughly you own every part of the experience and enjoyment of it.

Source: Flavor science : sensible principles and techniques / Terry E. Acree, editor, Roy Teranishi, editor.