I looked at the open can of my grandpa's Budweiser in front of my eleven-year-old little hands. I looked back up at my mom. I looked back down at the can. I couldn't tell if the can was wet with condensation or sweat.
I was about to try a beer. I just knew that the police and disappointed Jesus were outside waiting to arrest me.
"Are you sure this is OK?" I asked her for the 40 bazillionth time.
"Yes. I promise you are not going to get in trouble." I looked back down at the can like it was a magic lamp. I lifted the can up to my mouth, titled back, and let the beer flow.
Then I gagged.
My mom was laughing. "Gross, huh?"
From that point on, I didn't have the slightest desire to drink. Even when I was 21, the sensation of consuming an over-cologned Christmas tree called a "gin and sprite" was enough to keep me away for a few more years.
As life continued I don't think I ever met someone who had a positive first experience with alcohol in terms of taste. I think this is probably why everyone calls beer, wine and spirits an "acquired" taste. This led me to wonder, can we objectively say alcohol tastes 'bad' because of its chemical properties? If we can, then what has happened on a person's tongue and in the drink that makes an alcoholic beverage taste good?
Alcohol Tastes Bad
Let's skip all the charades and get right to the point: alcohol tastes bad. And I don't just mean anecdotally. Scientifically. Now you might be thinking, "You can't say something tastes 'scientifically' bad because taste itself is subjective." True. We cannot definitively say, "All human brains interpret the taste of the -OH chemical compound in alcohols as disgusting." However, we can do scientific taste tests to see if subjects would actually drink pure ethanol (the only form of alcohol humans can drink without harming themselves) if the "post-ingestive" effects were removed. In other words, we can test if people would drink pure alcohol if it wouldn't make you drunk. They won't. Or at least that's what Alexander Bachmanov's research suggests.
Also, sensationally, alcohol creates pain when you drink it. If you've ever had a shot of Everclear (which is 95% alcohol), you know that it burns worse than a Hot Pocket. The jury is still out on the science of this one, but some evidence suggests that alcohol burns because it lowers the temperature the nerves in your mouth feel "burning pain." In other words, if your mouth feels the sensation of burning when something over 110 degrees enters your mouth, alcohol somehow makes those nerves feel the burning sensation at 85 degrees. That means that after you drink alcohol, your mere body heat would activate those nerves. When those nerves are activated by your body heat, they tell your brain, "You're drinking fire! Knock it off!" However, as the alcohol makes its way to your brain, your brain starts to tell you, "Eh, the burning wasn't so bad. And that chick over there would think you're really cool if you jumped out of that window into those holly bushes!"
Why We Still Drink It
So, if you took out the fact that alcohol made you drunk, would people still enjoy the taste of beer, wine and liquor? Well, beer battered fish, red-wine marsala sauce, and bourbon balls suggest we would. There is a pleasant taste in those items that cannot be experienced unless those alcoholic beverages are included in the recipe. That is to say there is actually a good taste to Maker's Mark behind the gross alcohol flavor and the burn. But, if you are trying a Maker's Mark bourbon simply for its taste, why not just boil out the alcohol and make bourbon flavored sugar? Well, believe it or not, alcohol actually activates sweet and bitter receptors in the mouth which enhance flavor.
Merlin's Mixed Drinks
In order to turn this theoretical concept into an actual experience, we made our way down to the Seelbach Hotel in downtown Louisville to meet with one of Louisville's finest mixologists, Eron Plevan.
The thing you have to understand about the Seelbach Hotel is that when you walk in, you immediately feel classier than George Clooney at tea with the Queen. You may even find yourself having to consciously stop yourself from trying to part your hair like Jay Gatsby. Just by breathing in the air your taste for the finer things in life increases. That is to say it's a great place to do a taste test that requires the use of those refined taste buds you forget you have when you eat sandwiches smothered in BBQ three days a week.
As you walk up the from the lobby to the Oakroom, you'll notice a picture of a couple of schooners (schooners are fancier than sailboats) to your right. If you walk a little closer you'll notice the picture is actually paneling. If you arrive near the magic hour, the paneling will open to reveal a small bar with enough sparkling bottles to make you think you'd found Merlin's lab. That's where you'll find Eron with his Clark Kent glasses and his Popeye biceps waiting patiently for you to dare him to make something you won't like.
Seriously. Eron knows enough about balancing flavors that he can take something you think you don't like, gin for example, and balance it out with other ingredients to the point you'd think your drinking liquid nirvana.
Knowing how alcohol enhances flavor and what flavor each alcohol has is what makes a guy like Eron so good at his job. As he makes drinks and comes up with new ideas for drinks, he doesn't try to hide the alcohol so that you can't tell it's in your drink. Eron says the goal in making a delicious cocktail is to balance the flavor of the drink using the alcohol as part of the balancing equation. He doesn't try to put gin on the bench and pretend that he was still part of the team. He uses the flavor that gin brings to the table and balances out the sweet and bitter flavors with the other elements of the drink.
For Eron, mixed drinks are more art than science. A drink is not so much the reaction of the sucrose with the -OH functional group as it is the balanced flavor that tickles your nose before it dances on your tongue and high fives your uvula as it glides down your throat. Eron even says that big part of what makes a good drink is the name and the story behind it.
Perhaps that's why some people keep drinking alcohol even though it tastes bad. There is an artistry in each drink that in order to get to you have to learn how to appreciate the drink. Yes we might be able to explain with social science why after-work drinks are a cultural staple. We can explain biologically why the post-ingestive affects make frat-boys drink Milwaukee's Best. But perhaps if we can set aside the science of drinking we could appreciate the art of enjoying a finely crafted cocktail that brings an experience to our taste buds that we can't find anywhere else.