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Chapter 8

Do alcoholic beverages taste good?

  1. Taste preferences: inborn or learned?
  2. Is alcohol of vital importance for the taste?
  3. Do "good" alcoholic beverages taste better than "poor"?
  4. Alcohol, taste and illusions

Taste preferences: inborn or learned?

"There's no accounting for tastes." Nobody is entitled to tell us which foods or beverages taste good and which do not. Nevertheless, it may be interesting to scrutinize the widely held assumption that alcoholic beverages are consumed because of their marvellous taste.

Research on taste preferences has established that only the preference for sweet taste is a natural taste preference.1 This preference exist in all cultures, and even infants prefer sweet taste.

All other taste preferences are socially acquired through learning. The individual adopts the taste preferences encountered in his surroundings. A certain latitude remains for individual variations. Individual differences are, however, small compared to the vast differences between groups and cultures. This is witnessed by anyone travelling around the world.

Most people remember that initially, they did not enjoy the taste of beer and wine, but rather found it aversive. Drinking is, however, perceived as a symbol of adulthood (chapter 1). If the neophyte has the courage to show his lack of taste for the symbol, he is told: "After a while, you will enjoy it".

Not until an individual has forced the beverage down his throat several times does he learn to appreciate the taste. The same is true for coffee, cigarette smoking and several kinds of food.

The taste of hard liquor is usually, especially in the first period, concealed by adding beverages with less obnoxious taste. At the start, few people will judge the taste of the mixed drink as better than the added beverage alone (if any taste difference is discernible at all).

Thus, cultural indoctrination is obviously the reason for the notion that alcoholic beverages are consumed because of their peculiarly wonderful taste. An entirely different issue is whether the alcohol itself has a strong impact upon the taste of the alcoholic beverages.

Is alcohol of vital importance for the taste?

Pure brandy leaves a burning sensation in the throat. This may have generated an idea that alcohol has a strong taste. The burning sensation is, however, not due to taste properties, but to the fact that concentrated alcohol - above approximately 20 % - is a local irritant to mucous membranes.

At lower concentrations, only the taste properties of alcohol may be detected, and these are not very strong. When alcohol is mixed with pure water, concentrations below 3-4 % cannot be detected.2, 3, 4 In real life, alcohol is mixed with other taste-producing substances, and therefore, even higher concentrations of alcohol are needed for detection by taste. Moreover, when taste experiments are performed, the participants' awareness is above normal and they make full use of their senses. In blind tests with alcohol, various alcoholic beverages have been used. Some beverages have contained more than 10 % alcohol, and in those cases, the alcohol may be detected by taste.5 A study performed in 1973 demonstrated that alcohol is hardly discernible in a vodka/tonic-drink mixed 1:5, containing 8 % alcohol.6 This drink has often been used in blind tests.

In a Norwegian taste test, the ability to detect alcohol in wine and drinks was studied.7

Eleven participants drank 12 drinks each. They were told that 1/3 of the drinks had normal alcohol content, 1/3 had half the alcohol content and 1/3 contained no alcohol. The alcohol content was correctly estimated in 47 % of the cases.

The result seems more correct than we might expect from the American blind tests with alcohol. The cause is probably that the participants were instructed to estimate the alcohol content and knew which alternatives were present.

Red and white wine contains more alcohol than ordinary drinks -10 to 12 %. In similar tests with wine, the alcohol content was largely correctly estimated for red wine (88 %). With white wine, only 33 % of the answers were correct. The taste organ functions less well at low temperatures, at which white wine is served, than at the room temperature of the red wine.

A group at Old Dominion University in Virginia introduced the use of beer at blind tests.8
A popular beer (Schlitz) with 5.7 % alcohol was used as alternative to non-alcoholic beer. The test revealed that the participant could not determine which beer contained alcohol "at a better rate than by chance".
A number of other studies have confirmed that regular beer drinkers cannot decide reliably by taste whether a beer is strong, medium or very light in alcohol content.9, 10, 11

In the 80s, beer was used in several blind tests. 12, 13, 14, 15, 16

Do "good" alcoholic beverages taste better than "poor"?

Most people take for granted that expensive alcoholic beverages taste better than cheaper ones. Experiments do, however, indicate that this is not at all an evident fact, and that taste differences are often hard to spot.

The British Medical Journal published a taste experiment involving different brands of whiskey.17 Surgeons at St.Mary's Hospital had grown tired with some colleagues' whiskey snobbery. The colleagues frequently made confident statements on the taste qualities of different brands of whiskey. The report states: "The ability to discriminate plays a part in establishing a social order among whisky drinkers."

The task was to discriminate the expensive malt whiskeys (Glenfiddich and others) from ordinary blended whiskey (Haig, Bells, White Horse).

Four regular and four inexperienced whiskey drinkers participated. They were blindfolded and given a glass of each of six whiskeys.

The novices gave correct answers in 50 % of the cases, that is, exactly what we would expect if they tossed coins. The answers of the experienced drinkers were just a little bit better - 58 %.

A real connoisseur also expects to recognize which brand he is drinking. This was a total failure. Only in a single case did a participant positively identify the area of production. When tested again, he failed to repeat his success.

A few years later, the British consumers' journal "Which" published taste experiments involving several brands of hard liquor.18 Genuine experts were used, a number of them from the alcohol industry. The experts evaluated cheap and expensive brands according to their taste qualities, while the identity of the brands was hidden.
Among blended whiskeys, Co-op's cheap whiskey won, over distinguished brands.

Among malt whiskeys, the cheap malt whiskey of the Sainsbury chain store won, while the "king" Glenfiddich came last!

Among cognacs and gins, differences were small. Once more, the Sainsbury chain store's cheap brands, sold in simple bottles, did very well. They scored even with Hennessy and Courvoisier cognac and with Gordon's gin.

A newspaper correspondent raised the question: "What would happen to the whiskey producers if large groups of consumers see through the snobbery and mystique?"19

Corresponding experiments with different brands of beer have largely yielded similar results. Three studies showed no tendency for regular beer drinkers to judge well-known or expensive brands more favorably than others, as long as taste was the only cue available.20, 21, 22

One of the studies served the beer drinkers' favorite brands along with other brands. In a blind test, the drinkers' own favorite brands were not rated significantly higher than other brands. The labeling in a subsequent experiment did, however, significantly influence the taste ratings.

Another study concluded: "The beer drinkers in this study were largely unable to taste the differences between three different beers. Although prior to the experiment most of the female participants claimed that they did not expect to do well on the identification task, a majority of the males indicated that they were confident of being able to identify each beer type by taste. Some men actually professed a taste aversion to a particular beer, which they then were unable to distinguish during the experiment."

A fourth study did, in fact, show some tendency towards higher ratings for more expensive brands.23 It is interesting to note that this tendency was multiplied when, in a subsequent study, the beer bottles were labeled correctly. This signifies that even in this study, labels indicating the brands' prices and images were more important cues for the perception of taste quality, than the real physical differences between various brands. Another experiment studied the ability to discriminate between ordinary and non-alcohol beer.24 Experienced beer drinker had slightly better results than the others, but no group had more than 65 % correct answers.

Corresponding studies for wine have not been published. Several anecdotes indicate that ordinary wine consumers have large difficulties in identifying even their ordinary wines.

The different brands of wine do not, indeed, have completely similar tastes. At wine taster competitions, distinguished experts try to identify different brands and vintages, and they often succeed. In addition to their systematic training, these experts employ special techniques. They use the color and smell of the wine, they spit out the wine instead of drinking it, and they clean the mouth with water between each sip. They seem to have very little in common with ordinary wine consumers on natural drinking occasions.

The "wine scandals" provide additional evidence for the limited role played by taste differences. Once in a while, a wine producer markets "simple" wine under the label of a "noble" wine. Such a fraud has often been carried out for several months. The wine's price and label have obviously been sufficient to provide pleasant feelings for the consumers.

The impact of price upon the subjective experience of taste was measured in an experiment with beer at Stanford University.25

Sixty beer drinkers got a lager-type beer from a single production, served in three different bottles. The bottles were labeled differently, indicating that the bottles contained different brands at different price levels. The results gave evidence that ideas about pricing have a substantial impact upon judgment of product quality.

Alcohol, taste and illusions

Our conclusion must be that alcohol as such does not have a particularly nice taste. As an ingredient in beverages, alcohol has a marked impact upon the taste of hard liquor and strong (dessert) wines. It has a certain, but overestimated impact upon the taste of ordinary wine. Whether the alcohol content actually enhances the taste, seems to be decided by social learning and indoctrination.

In most countries, however, the larger part of the alcohol is consumed in diluted spirits or beer, in which alcohol has a minimal impact upon the taste. (Different brands of beverages do, of course, taste differently because of ingredients other than alcohol.)

Very often, beverages are consumed in which alcohol has a heavy impact on the price, but scarcely on taste. The motive may, of course, be to get intoxicated. Alternatively, the role of the alcohol must be characterized as a mere ritual.

Twenty five years after graduation from high-school, we had a reunion party at our old school. The welcome cocktails only contained orange juice, ice cubes and vodka essence - no alcohol.

If anyone had drunk 4 or 5 glasses, they would have noticed the lack of alcohol effects. But as it went, no one commented the taste or the content of the cocktail.

The non-alcoholic cocktail played its role with complete success. If, however, the arrangers had proclaimed that "Now, we are going to drink a non-alcoholic cocktail", the subjective experience would have been different for several people. The element belonging to the festivity ritual is not really the alcohol, but the idea of drinking alcohol.

In most industrialized countries, people have learned the unfounded dogma that alcohol has a clear impact upon the taste and makes it pleasant. For several people, the presence of alcohol will therefore determine their attitude towards the beverage.

In a taste test, the participants were selected on the criterion that they all "loved beer".26 The taste test revealed large difficulties in recognizing their most popular beer. But practically without exception, they characterized the brand they believed was their favorite beer, as the one with the best taste. The same phenomenon was observed with common diluted spirits. The idea that the drink contains alcohol, often determines the subjective experience of taste. This was confirmed by an experiment at Vanderbilt University.27

Thirty seven men tasted two juice glasses, one of which was labelled "Orange juice". The other was labelled "Alcohol", but only had a thin layer of alcohol floating at the top (the beverage contained less that 1 % alcohol). The participants were invited to rate the beverages on a list of adjectives (e.g. "strong", "sour" and "pleasant").

Among the 37, 5 found out that the beverage did not contain alcohol. For the remaining 32, the labelling had a heavy impact upon their taste experience. In 52 % of the cases, different adjectives were used to characterize the beverage, contingent on the label attached to the glass.

Several perceptions of taste differences may be based upon similar illusions. The leader of an American Coke-movement had bad luck:
In 1985, the Coca Cola Corporation changed the recipe of its Coke. Vigorously protesting the change, Gay Mullins in Seattle founded Old Cola Drinkers of America, which eventually had 60 000 members.

Mullins was challenged to participate in a public blind test. Among the two glasses with old and new Coca Cola, he judged as better the new Coke, against which he had sacrificed so much of his personal time and money.

We may smile at the power of illusion. It may, however, be argued that it is wise to remove those illusions which have the most harmful consequences.


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2.McAirt,JGP et al (1968): A Taste for Drink and Its Control. Irish J Med Sci 1:579-580.

3.Richter,CP (1941): Alcohol as a Food. Quart J Stud Alc 1:650-662.

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6.Marlatt,GA et al (1973): Loss of Control Drinking in Alcoholics: An Experimental Analogue. J Abn Psychol 81:233-241.

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8.Briddell,D et al (1978): Effect of Alcohol and Cognitive Set on Sexual Arousal to Deviant Stimuli. J Abn Psychol 878:418-430.

9.Milner,G (1979): Light Alcohol and Standard Beers: Controlled Taste Discrimination Study. Med J Aust 2:383. 10.Cox,WM & Klinger,E (1983): Discriminability of Regular, Light, and Alcoholic and Nonalcoholic Near Beer. J Stud Alc 44:494-498.

11.McLaughlin,K (1988): An Investigation of the Ability of Young Male and Female Social Drinkers to Discriminate Between Regular, Calorie Reduced and Low Alcohol Beer. Br J Addict 83:183-187.

12.Rimm,D et al (1981): The Effect of Alcohol and the Expectancy of Alcohol on Snake Fear. Addict Behav 6:47-51.

13.Kaplan,RF et al (1983): Alcohol Dependence and Responsivity to an Ethanol Stimulus as Predictors of Alcohol Consumption. Brit J Addict 78:259-267.

14.Pihl,RO et al (1984): Alcohol and Aggression in Men: A Comparison of Brewed and Distilled Beverages. J Stud Alc 45:278-282.

15.Kaplan,RF, Meyer,RE & Virgilio,LM (1984): Physiological Reactivity to Alcohol Cues and the Awareness of an Alcohol Effect in a Double Blind Placebo Design. Brit J Addict 79:439-442.

16.Kreutser,JS et al (1984): Alcohol, Aggression and Assertiveness in Men: Dosage and Expectancy Effects. J Stud Alc 45:275-278.

17.Chadwick,SJD & Dudley,HAF (1983): Can Malt Whisky Be Discriminated From Blended Whisky? The Proof. Brit Med J 287:1912-1913.

18.Which (1985): Christmas Spirits. Pp. 552-554.

19.Andenes,U (1985): Den store whisky-krigen. Aftenposten, Oslo, the 18th of December.

20.McLaughlin,K (1988): An Investigation of the Ability of Young Male and Female Social Drinkers to Discriminate Between Regular, Calorie Reduced and Low Alcohol Beer. Br J Addict 83:183-187.

21.Fowler,RL (1982): Detection of Differences in Beer Composition by Brand and Level of Caloric Content. Percept Motor Skills 55:967-970.

22.Allison,RI & Uhl,KP (1964): Influence of Beer Brand Identification on Taste Perception. J Market Res 1:35-39.

23.Jacoby,J, Olson,JC & Haddock,RA (1971): Price, Brand Name, and Product Composition Characteristics as Determinants of Perceived Quality. J Appl Psychol 55:570-579.

24.Martin,CD, Earlywine,M & Young,RD (1990): Identification of non-alcoholic and alcohol beer: Effects of consumption practices and beer brand. Addict Behav: 1990 14:89-93

25.McConnell,JD (1968): Effect of Pricing on Perception of Product Quality. J Appl Psychol 52:331-334.

26.Fekjær,HO (1980): Op.cit.

27.Connors,GJ et al (1978): Extension of the Taste-test Analogue as Unobtrusive Measure for Preferences for Alcohol. Behav Res Ther 16:289-291.

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