Flavor scientist David Dafoe’s career could have gone to the zoo. After all, he earned a degree in zoology at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. But after graduating, he stumbled upon a job as a lab assistant at flavor company Givaudan, and the rest is history. During his job interview, Dafoe realized he’s a rare supertaster and was immediately put to work.
Decades later, after being recruited by and working for Brown-Forman to develop products for Jack Daniel’s and with companies like Chiquita and Bols asking him to consult, he started his own company, Flavorman, in 1992. He has worked on every aspect of the beverage market, developing soda, cider, energy drinks, juice blends, enhanced water, ready-to-drink cocktails and more. And in 2012, he started Moonshine University in Louisville, Ky., where students, oftentimes industry professionals and aspiring beverage makers, learn the ins and outs of distilling, producing and bottling, all taught by veterans of the spirits world.
Dafoe discusses crazy flavor requests, drinking energy drinks at work and a typical day at work creating weed-flavored vodka.
When you’re out to eat or sitting at bar, is it obvious you have a heightened sense of taste?
If I’m going out for cocktails or beers, nobody would know that when I’m tasting these things I’m looking for a whole other set of properties than the person next to me. When I was first training, it was awkward because I would smell everything. You’d get accustomed to doing it at work, but then I’d go out to eat and I might pick up a bowl of mashed potatoes and smell it before I ate it. After a while, you watch yourself. [Laughs]
What do you mean when you say you look for properties?
I look for something I haven’t had before. I’m a very adventurous imbiber; I’m looking for some flavor that might excite me, something different. I just came back from a trip to Mexico and went to a place called Flora Farms. It grows all of its own fruit and vegetables, and I nearly fell off my chair when I saw the drink menu. It had a lavender Martini and presses the lavender right there.
Usually, you can usually find one or two things that are different at a new place, but literally everything off this menu was different. I think I had five cocktails! I told the people around me that I was going to drink my dinner. [Laughs]
I read that you made a beverage that tasted like meat to entice sick dogs to drink. Is that the craziest request you’ve ever had?
We get our share of strange ones. We had a request just this week. … We don’t know what ingredients this guy wants to use yet, but he wants to use ingredients that “will make your mind move through time.” We explained to him that we can’t use anything that’s not food grade, no pharmaceuticals. So they range from that to the normal.
We just finished a vodka that has the taste and smell of marijuana. It doesn’t have any [drugs] in it, but when you open the bottle, the whole room fills up with the smell. I wasn’t sure if we could pull it off. … I didn’t know if we could find the ingredients to really capture the distinct smell. Like, you open up an orange soft drink, and it really smells like orange. We’ve done drinks with extracts of hemp oil, but it doesn’t have the smell or taste of pot. … I’ve been around for a long time and have a pretty good feel for what consumers want, but the young folks coming in the market now—I think products like this vodka may be successful. I hope it is!
We’ve done soft drinks that taste like fish tacos—the tortilla shell, the fish, the tomato salsa, the onion.
Why would someone want to drink something that tastes like a fish taco?
Mostly for fun. We did a whole line of food-flavored drinks. … We did a turkey-flavored one; we did a canned ham soda. At one class at Moonshine University, we created a liqueur that tastes like an Oreo cookie; it’s not sold, it’s just for fun to show students. We break down the ingredients and put them together as one and then make adjustments: Is it too much frosting? Too much cookie taste? A lot of it is about perception. If I asked you what color the Oreo cookie liqueur was, what would you say?
I’d say dark brown. White seems too milky.
Exactly. If we asked 100 people, most people would say a color of dark chocolate, a dark brown. That’s part of the process. If it’s crystal clear, would I be able to convince you this tastes like an Oreo cookie? In our class, we made one batch dark brown, and one batch looked like the frosting inside—it was white. It had the exact same flavors; we just made them two different colors (the colors are flavorless). Just off perception, people thought they had different flavors. And if we left it clear, it would be a different story.
You know what that reminds me of? Crystal Pepsi.
Yes! Everything was the same in that they took out the caramel color, which doesn’t give taste. The consumers were mad about that and so were the caramel people, by the way.
It’s all about perception.
Yup, that’s why I smell my mashed potatoes when I go to restaurants. [Laughs]
What’s in your fridge? Do you have any favorite beverages?
That’s easy: I’m a big fan of energy drinks when I’m at work. I probably drink two or three a day. I can drink one and go to bed. I’m not worried about caffeine.
Are you worried about what’s in them?
Nah, we make a ton of them. Over the years, we’ve probably worked on 200 of them that made it to the market, so I’ll drink anything that’s in the fridge. If I’m going to a bar with friends, it’s always bourbon with one ice cube. Old Forester is my brand [of choice]. I know it’s not the most expensive, but it has been making it for more than 100 years, and I think it has got it right. I’m usually trying something new, a craft beer. I like a good Margarita—the fresher the better. There’s hardly anything better than a Moscow Mule.
Is there any flavor you can’t stand?
I despise cilantro—it tastes like a copper penny to me. If there’s a tiny leaf of cilantro in something, I swear I can taste it.
Do you tend to consistently try something new, or do you stick to what you know, flavor-wise?
I’m always looking for something different. I tell people: I’d flavor the world if I could. I’d put flavor in everything.