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Do People Like the Taste of Alcohol? A Controversial Take

For most people, their first sip of alcohol is an experience unlike any other.

I was a teenager when I tried my first drink – a sip of Zima. For the uninitiated, Zima was this clear, carbonated malt beverage that came on the scene in the early 90s.

A girl at the party I was at put a watermelon Jolly Rancher into the bottle before handing it to me.

“It’ll taste better,” she said.

I remember sniffing the bottle’s rim and detecting clear notes of gasoline. The taste was no better. An aggressively carbonated hit of ethanol and phantom traces of watermelon.

It burned and made my stomach twist.

I winced, choked it down, and wondered, “How does anybody drink this?”

And then proceeded to painstakingly finish the bottle.

A bottle of whiskey with a puking face and a yummy face. The title reads do people like the taste of alcohol?
Do people like the taste of alcohol?

Do people like the taste of alcohol?

Studies have gotten really good at explaining why people dislike the taste of alcohol, but whether anyone actually likes it is harder to measure. 

There is a strong argument to be made that what people truly enjoy are the effects of alcohol. 

Alcohol gives our brains a massive dopamine hit. Our brains remember that effect, crave more, and learn how to associate different cues (such as smell and taste) with ingesting alcohol, which makes our brains light up with anticipation. It’s easy to confuse that excitement and craving, along with the satisfaction of that first sip, with “liking the taste.” 

Of course, some people claim otherwise, believing their enjoyment of alcohol is a matter of taste preference as with any other food or beverage. 

Let’s explore why it’s not that simple. 

How we “taste” alcohol:

When it comes to the “taste” of alcohol, there are three independent systems involved:

  • Taste
  • Olfactory (smell)
  • Chemosensory irritation (the “burn” of alcohol)

The “taste” of alcohol is closely connected to the experience of it – how it smells, the taste in your mouth, and the feel of the alcohol (fizzy, smooth, warm, burning) as you drink it. 

Humans perceive alcohol as a combination of sweet and bitter. Depending on which taste perception is more prevalent, you may like or dislike the taste of alcohol to varying degrees. 

Your tolerance for the taste of alcohol is based on several factors, including your tolerance for bitterness and tongue anatomy. 

For example, I am extremely bitter-averse. I cannot stomach coffee, even when it’s loaded with sugar and cream. 

Despite being a heavy drinker, I could never drink straight liquor or take shots. I would throw up instantly. Instead, I had to mix everything with something sugary to cut the bitterness. 

I am an outlier, though, because that should have worked in my favor. 

In a 2002 study, researchers found that 60% of participants with low sensitivity to bitter-tasting compounds drank at least one alcoholic beverage per day. Participants with higher sensitivity to those same compounds drank significantly less. 

Bitterness acts as a deterrent, and your sensitivity to it may determine how well you tolerate the taste of alcohol. 

So why then do people who innately dislike the bitterness of alcohol work so hard to consume it?

“Liking” The Taste of Alcohol Does Not Make Biological Sense

Researchers believe humans started brewing alcohol around 9,000 years ago. However, our relationship with fermented food started much earlier – approximately 10 million years ago when our human ancestors developed a genetic mutation that allowed them to metabolize ethanol, which they consumed via rotting fruit that had fallen to the forest floor. 

But the amount of ethanol in rotting forest floor fruit and the fermented byproducts we consume today are vastly different. 

The human genome never caught up. 

We evolved to safely consume the occasional piece of rotting fruit, not to metabolize large volumes of ethanol at a time. So when humans started intentionally fermenting food for their intoxicating effects, we created many problems for ourselves. 

Alcohol is highly inflammatory and toxic to our bodies. It is related to more than 200 diseases and is responsible for nearly 6% of deaths worldwide. 

Plus, it’s bitter. 

There’s a reason that humans are genetically averse to bitter things – to protect us from poison. Our taste system evolved to protect us from eating poisonous or rotted things (like spoiled meat) that could harm us. Chemicals found in poisonous plants like ricin, progoitrin, cyanide, and saponin are all very bitter. 

Research shows that primates and human infants automatically reject bitter stimuli. Human adults, however, make more complicated choices. 

Bitterness itself can be complex. Incredibly, we’ve evolved to accept the bitterness of beneficial foods like kimchi or yogurt and reject the strong bitterness of harmful things like rotting meat and vegetables. 

But sometimes, adult humans make the choice to consume strongly bitter things the body finds toxic, like alcohol. 

Scientists don’t think it’s because they like the taste, however. It’s because they enjoy the effects. 

What research suggests:

A 2019 study from researchers at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago found that our overt taste preferences for bitter or sugar-sweetened drinks are not based on variations in our taste genes. They’re based on genes that are involved in emotional responses.

I argue there are even deeper layers. There is a cultural and experiential component to drinking as well.  

So we consume things like beer and whiskey not because of their taste but despite it. 

Why is alcohol an acquired taste?

Alcohol is an acquired taste because most humans do not innately like it. Why? Because it’s bitter! 

When most people start drinking, they gravitate towards the sugary, fruity concoction, like grain alcohol mixed with fruit punch. 

We are innately drawn to sweet things, so we can hack our brains to get those first few drinks down by masking the alcohol with sugar. Hence my sad attempt to make Zima palatable by adding Jolly Ranchers to the bottle.

Even if you didn’t start drinking with the fruity stuff or punch mixes, chances are you did not start with straight whiskey or Jager bombs either. You likely started your drinking journey with a lighter beer, something with other flavor notes that you tolerated well enough until the effects kicked in. 

As your brain learns what alcohol can do and how it makes you feel, you’ll be motivated to develop a “taste” for it. This is usually when people can move away from overly sugary mixes or IPAs into stronger, stiffer drinks. 

We get there via repeated exposure. As you expose your taste buds to stronger alcohol mixtures, you’re better able to tolerate its unaltered taste, which you’re willing to do because you enjoy the buzz. 

You may argue that acquiring a taste translates to liking it, but if that taste acquisition is intrinsically linked to a perceived reward (getting buzzed or drunk), is it ever truly about the taste?

Why you prefer some alcohol to others:

Alcohol is ethanol. We don’t drink straight ethanol, however. We drink beer and wine with different flavor notes that appeal to our other senses. This is also true for distilled spirits. Additionally, environmental and cultural associations with certain beverages affect how we perceive them. 

So all of these variations come into play. 

It’s why we develop preferences for white or red wine, gin or tequila, and amber ales or IPAs. The external elements change how the alcohol tastes – the type of wood used to create the barrels, the soil, and the grape varietals. 

We develop specific alcohol preferences along those lines, but they are never truly divorced from how we enjoy the effects of drinking or the experience of drinking. 

How can it be when the taste of alcohol is intrinsically connected to its effect (getting buzzed or drunk) and the environmental and cultural context in which we do it (drinking in pubs or toasting at a wedding)? 

But as much as people say, “I love the taste of XYZ whiskey,” would they still drink it if there was no intoxicating effect or cultural norms didn’t dictate it (i.e., nobody else drinks whiskey around you)?

Why do alcohol alternatives exist? 

There are several alcohol-free alternatives to beer, wine, and liquor on the market these days. Bars now serve bespoke (and pricey) mocktails to teetotaling patrons. There are even sober bars. 

But why do they exist? 

Here’s an interesting thought experiment for you: if alcohol didn’t exist, would anyone make these products?

I argue no. 

Non-alcoholic beers, wines, and liquors only exist to recreate the experience of drinking without intoxication. 

Alcohol is an acquired taste that we have to actively develop. Would anyone go through the trouble of acquiring a taste for a version that didn’t get them drunk?

Again, I don’t think so. 

And yet these products exist.

I argue it’s because alcohol is deeply ingrained in the social fabric of many cultures worldwide, but not everyone wants to (or can) drink. It might be for health, religious, or addiction-related reasons, but it’s our way to collectively split the difference. 

To “drink” without drinking. 

I am one of the target demographics for these products. I’m somebody who used to drink but can’t anymore. Why? Because I abused alcohol, and it’s in my best interest to stay as far away from it as possible. 

Non-alcoholic beer and gin-adjacent mocktails are useful to someone like me for a few reasons:

  • I can take the edge off a craving for a beer at a party by enjoying a Heineken 0.0. The hoppy carbonation will be enough to scratch the itch.
  • If I’m at a bar or party, I can sip on a glass of alcohol-free wine to fit in with the people around me.
  • Ordering juice or soda at the bar is considered childish, so this is meant to be our replacement drink, a way for us to enjoy something “sophisticated.”

None of these reasons are about taste.

We could just as easily order a glass of water or a standard mocktail, but these complicated alcohol alternatives are better for pretending, which (again) is largely behavioral. 

What’s the final verdict?

When it comes to understanding whether people actually like the taste of alcohol, I believe it boils down to a few key points:

  • Most people do not innately enjoy the bitter taste of alcohol. They have to develop a taste for it over time via repeated exposure. 
  • We bother to do this because we like how alcohol makes us feel (at least temporarily). 
  • Genetic factors affect our taste tolerance for alcohol and how easily we can adapt to it. 
  • There’s little evidence to suggest we would actively choose the flavor of these beverages in the absence of their effect. 
  • It’s hard to gauge just how much of our affection for alcoholic flavors is rooted in our association with how it makes us feel. 

And so I land heavily on the side of skepticism that people truly like alcohol for the taste alone. In the grand scheme of things, however, does it even matter?

To glasses of whiskey on a wooden table. The title reads do people like the taste of alcohol?
Do people like the taste of alcohol?

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3 Comments

  1. What a well-written article on this issue. Your argument is very well delivered, and I believe this to be 100% true. Humans are not meant to like bitter tastes. Our tribal ancestors needed calories so food that has few calories is bitter and foods that have a lot of calories are sweet hence why we like sweet things. but now since we have so much food and people overeat the pleasurable sweet taste is now no longer a beneficial factor.
    Most People don’t like bitter but as you mentioned, they develop a taste for it over repeated exposure. So I would say this would apply to a lot of things like vegetables and coffee.
    Most people who drink alcohol for the first time don’t like the burning bitter taste but develop a taste for it for the sake of drunkenness.
    Most people who drink coffee for the first time don’t like its bitterness but developed a taste for the sake of its caffeine.
    Most people who eat vegetables for first time again don’t like the bitter umami/earthy flavour of veggies but develop a taste for it for the sake of healthiness.
    People always develop a taste for objectively bad tastes (usually bitter) because of how it makes them feel. Always because of an ulterior motive.
    But note that of course, there will be some that do indeed enjoy the taste and find it genuinely enjoyable naturally, but I would say they are the minority. Just remember you’d be going against human nature to like bitter things. It’s ingrained in us to like sweet things and not bitter. So of course the ones going against that human instinct/nature are in the minority.

  2. I strongly disagree with this. I dislike effects of alcohol, but I very much enjoy certain types because of the flavor complexity. As such I not consumed in excess, but for the flavor pallet itself. I’m not a frequent drinker, but once or twice a month i so because I am wanting the actual flavor. To say we drink for the effects of alcohol implies we have not control and any alcohol would do if we can stomach it, excluding the culinary aspect of it

    1. I have a gene that makes ethanol particularly bitter to me, but I still love the taste and texture of a frozen margarita or how wine pairs with meals. I’ve been drunk exactly once and rarely drink more than one drink maybe once a week. I hate feeling buzzed. I hate that cloudy feeling and don’t understand the appeal at all.

      So while the bitterness of alcoholic drinks is indeed kinda gross to me, it’s like any other delicious balance that requires other flavors to lift it.

      Yes a lot of people acquire their tolerance to the taste but even better to me is that some people are good mixologists and that means the booze is plain yummy — without the spike of tequila it is not the same. The fish really tastes better with a white. It’s all about the balance and flavor complexity.

      Don’t care how mocktails market themselves. Not the same. Many people really, truly do drink for the taste. Not all of us get that dopamine hit with alcohol. Thankfully.