What happens in our mouths
For one thing, the temperature of the drink (or food) changes in our oral cavity; a cool wine or cocktail is warmed up, releasing more volatile substances. Secondly, food reacts with our saliva. This contains enzymes, substances that our body produces to regulate our metabolism, for example. Enzymes split molecules and thus release substances in our mouth that can then be perceived retronasally. The fascinating thing is that the composition of our saliva is entirely individual. It is genetically determined and different for all of us. This also has an impact on our perception of flavour.
The reason for different perceptions
In 2018, for example, it was proven that some people do not like cabbage because components of their saliva release sulphur, making it unpleasant to taste. Variations are not only found in saliva – the way one and the same molecule is perceived in the olfactory receptors of the olfactory mucosa also depends on genetic factors. The best-known example of this is probably the flavour of coriander, which many people perceive as soapy and unpleasant. The likelihood of such genetic variations also increases depending on the region. While in South Asian countries 3-7% of all inhabitants avoid coriander, in East Asia the figure is as high as 21%. These examples are probably just the tip of the iceberg.
“Blindness” and differences in intensity of flavour possible
It is not only possible to have different perceptions of the same flavours. We can even be anosmic, i.e. completely “blind” to them. 1% of the world’s population cannot perceive the flavour of vanilla. Theoretically, all possible flavours could be affected, over 10,000 can be perceived by humans. It is quite conceivable that many of us react anosmically to something specific and never find out because we don’t know what is missing.
Differences in intensity of perception are also possible. While one person may perceive a certain flavour as very intense, another may hardly perceive it at all.
Supertasters and non-tasters
In connection with flavour intensity, we should mention supertasters and non-tasters. Both groups make up roughly 25% of the world population; in between, 50% of all people are average tasters. Supertasters have considerably more receptors on their tongues and are therefore more sensitive to flavours. Especially bitter tastes can appear stronger and unpleasant to them, but also tannins or acidity are perceived more intensely, for example at wine tastings. Supertasters often dislike fatty foods and avoid foods high in sugar. They weigh less on average, are picky eaters, consume less alcohol than non-tasters and often have an aversion to foods such as coffee, grapefruit or dark chocolate. Their taste perception relates to that of non-tasters like neon colours to pastel.
Spread of supertasters and non-tasters
The statistical spread of supertasters is strongly linked to origin and gender. Women are twice as likely to be supertasters as men. People from Asia or Africa are much more likely than people of European origin. Non-tasters, on the other hand, are most often white men. You can check your own status with a simple test that can be found online.
What to do if you identify as a non-taster and work on the bar?
First of all, stay calm, because taste is only part of flavour perception. And yet it is not exactly irrelevant for bartenders who work on the fly with sweet-acid balances and bitter ingredients. In any case, it is worth hiring a varied team and developing or tasting recipes together. Any criticism should be accepted and taken seriously. Even a very experienced colleague cannot simply train away their possible sensory limitations. In this respect, the opinion of a service employee or guest is just as valuable as their own and should be treated as such.
“The most important palate is always that of our guests”
When dealing with customers, it pays to develop a good service strategy for recommendations and complaints. Taste is subjective. So wounded bartender pride is out of place if a drink comes back once, as are comments about special requests and preferences. The guest at the bar just sent back a Negroni because it was too strong and too bitter? Careful, there is a good chance that this person can taste better than you. With a little empathy and tact, they’ll like the second round better. The most important palate is always that of our guests. We live in different flavour worlds. On the one hand, this complicates our job, on the other hand, knowing this makes us better bartenders.