Why Does This Taste Like This? Or What Makes This Taste Like That?

We are fascinated by science, as it informs what we do here at Crazy Gin and why we do it, and some of our biggest inspirations have been scientists (at least of sorts). So when we learnt that there is an actual science to pairing flavours, thanks to the amazing research of Charles Spence https://flavourjournal.biomedcentral.com/track/pdf/10.1186/s13411-017-0053-0?site=flavourjournal.biomedcentral.com], we thought it’d be a crime to not share this knowledge with you. We all know that some flavours seem as though they were made for each other, while others are complete disasters when combined. You might even be aware that flavour pairings can vary from culture to culture. But have you ever wanted to know why? Ever wondered why your taste buds seem to render fruit juices disgusting after brushing your teeth, or why there’s a sequence or orientation to certain dishes? We’re here to break it all down for you!

There is much more to food than aesthetics. Yet many establishments have long prioritised appearance for their customers over balancing palate sensations for them. We all know that there is an order to certain foods, when eating in a certain order or simultaneously allows us to get the full impact of their flavours. This is because each ingredient is composed of chemical compounds that make them taste and smell a certain way, and ingredients pair well when sharing key aromas. As 80% of our flavour experience is defined by smell, this makes a lot of sense. Our sensory experience of flavour perception occurs both through the nose when we inhale aromatic volatile compounds, as well as in the mouth and back of our throats as we exhale.

Our taste buds can only differentiate between five key flavours: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami, while our nose does most of the leg work. That’s why you’re always advised to pinch your nose when eating something you don’t like, especially for very complex aromatic profiles like coffee, as your taste senses are dulled and reduced.

Olfactory adaptation


Being exposed to certain flavours and smells for a prolonged period alters the way that following flavours are perceived. This has been demonstrated perfectly with dishes by Heston Blumenthal, one of which being a two-flavoured cinnamon and vanilla ice cream, presented with one squeeze bottles containing cinnamon sticks, the other a vanilla pod. By smelling one or the other, the ice cream subsequently tastes more strongly of the flavour that is smelt most beforehand, as the nose has adapted to that aroma. This is easily reversed by smelling the other scent. You can try making this ice cream and recreating this experience at home by sifting through Heston’s book, ‘Heston Blumenthal at Home’ https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1408804409/ref=asc_df_14088044098506308?smid=A3P5ROKL5A1OLE&tag=googlecouk06-21&linkCode=asn&creative=22206&creativeASIN=1408804409]. This experience sheds some light on the success of certain food and wine pairings.

Combining flavours can also alter the dominance of one component, such as cheese and wines. In some studies, they found that the cheese enhanced or decreased certain flavours in the wine rather than the wine having much effect on the cheese-tasting experience.


Sequencing flavour experiences

In practice, tasting usually occurs a sequentially. But how does that affect flavours? Is there one order better than another?

Think about the layering and orientation of a burger, a chocolate topped biscuit, or ice cream sundae, that encourage you to take a certain sequence while eating. It may be a case of highlighting the contrast between what’s pleasing to the eye and what’s pleasing to the palate, or to distribute ingredients such as salt throughout the dish. Take McVitie’s chocolate digestives. They expect you to eat it chocolate side-down, but we (and probably most people) eat it chocolate side-up, even though the tasting experience may be better eating it in the intended orientation. But we may want to see the chocolate side as it enters our mouth, as it has more visual appeal.

Fruit juices after toothpaste

Why does the usually sweet orange juice taste unpleasantly bitter after brushing your teeth? It’s something that’s probably baffled most of us, without us thinking that there is a scientific explanation behind it. The cause of this is SLS (sodium lauryl sulphate), a detergent and foaming agent found in toothpaste, which blocks the sweet taste receptors in the mouth. Yet if you were to eat an orange before brushing teeth, you wouldn’t have this problem due to a lack of chemical reactions between the two substances, which is where that temporal ordering of sensations really comes in handy.

In the case of the orange juice, it’s not a chemical reaction, but a change in receptor sensitivity that alters the way the following flavours are perceived. This happens with other flavours, such as chilli and menthol. We’re sure most of us have experienced the burning rage of too much chilli in a dish, that just consumes the taste of everything else (and if you haven’t, you’re extremely lucky!). That’s a perfect example, but it’s something that may be noticed most with sweetness.

Did you know that you can buy taste modifiers? The Miracle berry of West Africa is a well-known taste modifier, which contains the glycoprotein miraculin, resulting in the suppression of our sour receptors once eaten. So, for about an hour, anything you taste that is usually bitter or sour is perceived as sweet. You can get them in tablet form [link: http://mymberry.co.uk/#mberry-tablets], and they’re often marketed as weight loss and diabetic tablets, because making things sweeter can allow you to cut more sugar out of your diet. When life gives you lemons, instead of screwing up your face, just add miraculin and enjoy their new sickly sweetness!

Cross-cultural aspects of flavour matching

There are also cultural differences in ways that flavours are combined.

Western cuisine tends to harmonise flavours (pairing those that share similar flavour compounds), while many Asian countries like India and South Korea combine flavours that tend to be dissimilar.


All this science behind flavour pairings and perception wows us because people perceive different flavours in our gin all the time. Some taste the sweetness of the pomegranate, some pick up on the warmth of the spices. We hear it constantly at our tastings, where people discuss amongst themselves what they can taste, and almost fight over whether it’s the black pepper coming through or the yoghurt. We have to step in sometimes and remind them that everyone’s taste buds are different, and some flavours come through strongly to different people. Now we know that the food eaten before or with our gin can also impact what flavours are being perceived too! We’d love to hear what flavours you pick up on most when you taste Crazy Gin. Let us know if you have a go-to flavour pairing, and if you’re struggling to find something that works for you, take a look at our Crazy Gin flavour map and see which ingredients pair well! You can read more about flavour pairings here [link: http://blog.foodpairing.com/2016/03/the-secret-behind-great-ingredient-pairings/?utm_source=Foodpairing+Newsletter&utm_campaign=4f25167343-onboardingemail%232_automated_aromaandtaste&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_81d71add23-4f25167343-670727409] and here [link: https://flavourjournal.biomedcentral.com/track/pdf/10.1186/s13411-017-0053-0?site=flavourjournal.biomedcentral.com].

Learning labNaomi Spence