Taste and sensation of alcohol

  1. I hope this isn't an inappropriate topic for this section, but I was curious if anyone knew what taste sensations are stimulated by alcohol. Of the four taste buds; sweet, salty, bitter, and sour, I'm not sure where alcohol would fit. There is also a burning sensation associated with alcohol, but I'm not sure whether or not it's similar to the burning that capacitance in hot peppers cause.

    I became curious about this while discussing whether to use a caramel sauce or whiskey sauce for a bread pudding we're making this Thanksgiving. I was try to describe how the juxtaposition of the sweetness of the sugar in the sauce and the alcohol "flavor", make the whiskey sauce a better choice. However I'm not sure what taste sensations alcohol stimulates. Hope someone has an idea.

  2. jcsd
  3. I too don't find any of the fours suitable for naming the test of alcohol. Well burning sensation can only be the proper explanation.
  4. Evo

    Staff: Mentor

    Depends on the alcohol.
  5. Yeah, but alcohol has its own unique taste. Whether whiskey, bourbon, wine, grain alcohol, etc. there is still an underlying taste attributable to the alcohol it's self.
  6. Borek

    Staff: Mentor

    I wonder if it really is a taste. My bet is that alcohol acts on other sensors (heat, damage) and the signal sent to brain is misinterpreted. Not much different (in a principle) from the way capsaicin works.
  7. turbo

    turbo 7,063
    Gold Member

    I am an older guy, and my aunts seemed to have great success with brandies. Mince-meat pies, sweet desserts, etc, often got the brandy treatment.
  8. Andy Resnick

    Andy Resnick 6,144
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    Absolute ethanol has no taste. The 'burning' sensation is likely due to irritation/dehydration of the tissue lining your mouth, sinuses, and throat.
  9. Yeah, I was wondering if it wasn't much different than how capsaicin works. I was however, watching a TV show the other night, with the guy from Andrew Zimmer from "Bizarre Foods". He was at a soda pop factory where they made different flavors soda pops. One of the flavors he tried was bourbon, I think, but he was amazed that it actually contained no alcohol, but it tasted like it did. I'm wondering how they could replicate the "taste" if it is actually more of a sensation?

    Yeah Turbo, I was thinking I might get good results if I used a brandy.
  10. Evo

    Staff: Mentor

    Because "Bourbon" isn't pure alcohol, it has ingredients that give it a distinct flavor, what it is made from, the wooden casks, even the water can affect the taste. That flavor can be mimicked. That's why I said it depends on the alcohol.
  11. Pythagorean

    Pythagorean 4,483
    Gold Member

    But we have to admit that most alcohols have a familiar kind of antiseptic taste or sensation to them. It may be what alcohol does to the other aromas we taste or a bath effect (like Borek suggests) but alcohol does something to the experience that allows you to detect alcohol distinctly.

    I know that alcohols can modulate the epsilon unit of GABA receptors.. I wonder what other targets it has and if they're in taste receptors.
  12. Evo

    Staff: Mentor

    I think Andy summed it up in post #7.
  13. Pythagorean

    Pythagorean 4,483
    Gold Member

    I think it's too trivial of an explanation.

    Firstly, alcohol experience is shown to vary with a genetic marker for taste variance:


    Secondly, University of South Dakota taster lab find that hypotasters experience a sweet taste with alcohol.


    (Supertasters tend to perceive a bitter taste)

    And, indeed, in mice, alcohol produces physiological stimulation of sweet receptors:


    Ethanol also modulates a salt taste receptor:


    And possibly the bitter taste receptor (no direct physiological evidence, just behavioral predictions):


    In general, several chemosensory factors contribute to the sensations involved in alcohol consumption.

  14. Andy Resnick

    Andy Resnick 6,144
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    To be clear, I asserted that absolute ethanol has no taste (e.g. salty, bitter, sweet, etc.)

    "alcoholic beverages", not absolute EtOH

    "Alcoholic Spirits"

    "intake of a broad concentration range of ethanol, sucrose, and quinine"

    "ethanol solutions containing NaCl or KCl"

    "50% ethanol"
  15. AlephZero

    AlephZero 7,248
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

    The OP was probably to trivial in saying just "alcohol", since higher alcohols than ethanol do have a bitter taste, which is present (in low concentration) in some types of beer.

    There are literally hundreds of compounds in alcoholic drinks which affect the taste in small quantities, and some are detectable by taste at parts-per-billion concentrations.

    If you don't want to invest in expensive gas chromatography to sort this out (which is what some producers now do) the simplest test (which verifies Andy Resnick's assertion) is to spike a non-alcoholic drink (e.g. orange juice) with (1) cheap vodka, and (2) expensive vodka, and note the difference :smile:
  16. Pythagorean

    Pythagorean 4,483
    Gold Member

    Of course! It doesn't make sense to talk about modulation without the agonist present!
  17. Andy Resnick

    Andy Resnick 6,144
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    Or you can simply taste absolute EtOH- we get about 20 gallons per year from Pharmco-Aaper (http://www.pharmcoaaper.com/). It definitely 'burns', but there's no identifiable taste. I've never tried Everclear (95 proof), so I can't say if there's a difference.
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