Remember the tongue-taste map? The one that so cleverly sections out each part of your tongue and gives it credit for identifying four key flavors: sweet, salty, bitter and sour?
It turns out that map is probably bogus—because your brain is actually doing all of the work. Though the tongue takes notes on what you’re tasting (also important to note: all taste buds can taste all flavors), it’s your brain that processes the information, deciding which flavor along the spectrum it falls into.
The map is also woefully incomplete. Scientists have added umami—more commonly known as savory—to the list of flavors that your brain can compute, and there may be even more nuanced tastes to add to that list someday, including fat.
Anyone who’s had a cocktail or fine spirit before (or read the tasting notes section of Whisky Advocate) knows that flavor and taste reception is incredibly nuanced. Sure, the salt from a Margarita hits you first at the front of your tongue where it’s extra-sensitive, but it will then commingle with the sweet and sour notes of the liquid, evolving as you sip. The progression of taste is one of the great beauties of craft cocktails and spirits.
Want to give it a try? Subject yourself to a boozy experiment by trying one cocktail that falls under each specific taste category. (Sounds so terrible, we know.) Notice how the flavor evolves on your tongue. Then try another cocktail, and repeat. See how fun this is?
Remember the ’80s? Shoulder pads and sweet cocktails abounded. And it’s not too hard to see why those were so popular—well, the cocktails, at least. Even kids know that sweet things are easy to eat and drink in excess. The sweet tooth is a real phenomenon, people. Eventually Alabama Slammers and pre-made “sour” mix receded, and the drink world mostly returned to balanced cocktails like the Mai Tai and refined ingredients like infused simple syrups and orgeat. Overly sweet cocktails still exist, but it’s much easier to find a (sweet) middle ground.
Salt is a brilliant tool in the right hands. An excessive amount of the stuff, however, is a hazard to the taste buds. The genius who thought to add a salt rim to the Margarita may be long forgotten, but the practice caught on like wildfire for a reason. A hit of salt at the beginning of the drink is the start of cocktail bliss, eventually blending seamlessly with the liquid in the glass. Though the Margarita features a classic sour formula, the rim gives it enough of salty kick to shock the system in the best possible way.
Italian bitter liqueurs have wedged out their own space in the cocktail kingdom. With distinct flavorings like artichoke and gentian root, they’re not exactly what inexperienced palates lean towards when sidling up to the bar. Cocktails like the Negroni, though, are meant to make these biting low-ABV liqueurs more accessible to all drinkers. With equal parts gin, sweet vermouth and Campari—the bitter component—the Negroni serves as an aperitif, aka something to whet your appetite before a big meal. Many spirits, like cognac and Scotch, and other bitter liqueurs fall into the digestif category, almost like medicine, to help the painful full belly syndrome.
Never was there a cocktail more practical than the humble Gimlet. Invented as a way to treat sailors’ scurvy during the 1800s, this sour cocktail started out as a combination of Rose’s Lime Juice and gin (to make the bottled juice’s sour taste palatable). Though it no longer serves such a burning medical need, the drink lives on. Some people (this author included) like a Gimlet with a touch too much lime. There’s nothing like an ultra-citrusy shock to the tongue—remember WarHeads?
If you’ve ever had olive tapenade or mushrooms in your drink, well, congratulations. You know how to enjoy an umami cocktail. If not, you should. The Bloody Mary is the perfect starting point for creating the ultimate savory elixir. It’s already got tomatoes, salt, pepper and a variety of other spices. This version adds olive tapenade, celery salt and hot sauce to the tomato juice, as well as a measure of dry sherry to complement the traditional vodka.