Thursday, October 11, 2012

Boston Cocktail Summit Weekend, Part IV: Sweet and Bitter


Friday night yielded a rough time getting out of bed on Saturday, but I rallied and made it in time for the Sweet and Bitter seminar at the Park Plaza.  I'm very glad I did because this session proved to be one of my overall favorites of the Boston Cocktail Summit.  The masters of ceremonies and mixologists for the session were the lovely Kitty Amann, Brand Ambassador for Fernet Branca and Infinium Spirits, and the handsome (I don't want him to feel left out) Martin Duffy, National Brand Ambassador for Bénédictine D.O.M.  The session had three speakers, who talked about the human perception of sweet and bitter tastes, and the effect of these tastes on human biology.  First up was Don Katz, professor of Neuroscience and Chemosensation, followed by chemist and founder of Opus Affair, Graham Wright, and nutritionist Kendra Strasburg.

Don first talked about our perceptions of taste, noting that taste is actually processed as a mixture of all senses, and not just what we taste using the taste buds of our tongue.  People's affinity for carbonated beverages, for example is partially a reaction to touch as the bubbles tickle our tongue.  He next discussed our evolutionary reactions to sweet and bitter, namely that sweet tastes in nature tend to indicate calories, which of course our bodies would need and be inclined towards, while bitter tastes are also the tastes produced by many poisonous things in nature.  A study showed this proclivity might hold true even when mixing sweet and bitter.  When a sweet flavor was added to a bitter flavor, subjects found the perceived amount of bitter greatly diminished.  When bitter was added to sweet, the sweet also diminished, but not to the same degree.

Graham talked about different perceptions of "pure" flavors, as opposed to mixed, noting that pure bitter/sweet flavors have a stronger initial response, but combined flavors have a longer duration of perception.  Regarding people's individual sensitivity, approximately 50% of people are sensitive to bitter taste, 25% or "super tasters" with exceptional sensitivity, and 25% are non-tasters with little or no perception (we all got to be tested using a strip of paper with a bitter solution placed on the tongue - I fell in the average sensitivity camp).  People's sensitivity, while genetically influenced, also appears to result from adaptation, aging, and experience.  Apparently in peoples with predominantly vegetable diets, 98% show sensitivity.

Next, Don and Graham took us through the nitty gritty of out taste buds and the reactions that go on when we taste sweet or bitter.  Even with in our taste buds, the cells that actually process taste are a minority - most are actually used in neuroprocessing.  The result is that sweet and bitter flavors actually compete for cells when it comes to how the tastes are perceived.  Perception of taste follows a particular order, detection, followed by identification, followed by "goodness" (assuming it's liked).  To illustrate some of the physiological responses to taste perception, we were shown a video of a rat first when given something sweet, and then when given something bitter, which resulted in very distinctive "yum" and "yuck" faces respectively (human infants apparently mimic the same response, which includes rolling the tongue forward as if to try to expel the food in the case of bitter tastes).

One of the most intriguing observations that was presented about taste perception is that sweet tastes, unlike others, trigger the dopamine system in the brain.  Dopamine is a chemical neurotransmitter commonly linked to addition.  Consequently, while bitter tastes might trigger a "liking" response, sweet tastes can trigger both a liking response and a "wanting" response from the dopamine response.  Further, when some sweet is added to a bitter taste, it provides a means to trigger this wanting response for bitter as well.  The cell response from sweet is also increased when calories are introduced as well.  Testing shows that you can achieve a maximal response by introducing calories first, and then a sweet and bitter taste mix, stimulating both the potential liking response and the addiction-related wanting response.  An example:  a sweetened rim on a glass, which provides calories just before the consumption of the sweet and bitter drink.

Last to present was Kendra, who discussed the nutritional side of .  Her major theme, however, was that of achieving balance in the body between the opposing sweet and bitter dietary elements, the yin and yang as she called it.  Sweet and bitter foods each introduce different, opposing physiological and emotional responses.  Sweet tasting foods can produce expansive sensation in the stomach, trigger happy emotional responses, and feelings of warmth to name a few; bitter foods meanwhile are contractive, can correlate to aggressive responses, and cool sensation.  In short, our bodies strive for balance between the two.  Hence, consuming from the opposing group may balance out an excess from the other, which perhaps helps explain some of the medicinal effects of bitter herbs (e.g. in cocktail bitters, original taken for medicinal purposes) identified in various cultures.

Kendra also gave a few tips on hangovers that are worth mentioning.  For one, she noted that drinks using non-refined sugars tend to produce fewer/less severe hangovers.  These include palm sugar, honey, maple syrup, and brown rice syrup.  She also mentioned one of her favorite hangover prevention methods (or hangover relief methods) is 4 sprays of Urban Moonshine bitters (unlike many bitters, Urban Moonshine promotes their products primarily as a homeopathic remedy rather than a cocktail ingredient; they are available at Whole Foods among other places).

One of the last topics mentioned was that of chemicals that enhance bitter and sweet flavors.  Fatty acids apparently have the affect of sharpening perception of both bitter and sweet flavors.  To illustrate, we were given a chance to taste some Bénédictine and Fernet Branca after a few drops of lineolic acid was added.  The difference in the Fernet was more pronounced, though interestingly, rather than taste more bitter, it was actually milder (perhaps proving the point about sweet overpowering bitter in an even matchup).  Also mentioned was the chemical zinc sulfate, which has the effect of chemically inhibiting bitter taste, but neurologically inhibiting sweet.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention that we had a chance to sample some tasty cocktails during the course of this presentation.  There was the "Problem Solver," a mix of rye, and Cherry Heering with a Fernet Branca rinse; the "Toronto," rye, simple syrup, and Fernet Branca, served with an orange peel; and my favorite if only for the simplicity, the "Big Ben," a combination of Bénédictine and tonic served with a citrus sliver.

So, in closing, the lesson to be learned here:  sometimes it's worth it to get up early on a Saturday, even after a night of drinking.  Kudos to the hosts and presenters on a great seminar.

Stay with me, one more post to go to complete my tales of the Boston Cocktail Summit...


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