Taste testing above the trees

It’s been a privilege to inhabit many homes during our first few months of sabbatical. On the downside, of course, traveling to new places often means leaving community behind. And our temporary displacement may mirror a more general problem: whether due to professional mobility, technological paralysis, or broader changes in values and lifestyles, studies in the US and abroad report increasing loneliness and isolation, even (or maybe especially) among young adults.

AtT - 2
Reid at Baconwood Festival, 2009

Reid Spice moved to San Francisco on the tail of the dot com boom. Through participation in Burning Man and other intentional communities in the area, he developed a serious talent for nucleating connectivity among like-minded folk, exploring various ways to push back against isolation in our modern world. Oliver has known Reid since the early 90s, and we’ve shared in many of his adventures; we’ve particularly loved his most recent project, Above the Trees: a festival in the woods encompassing art, music, talent and knowledge. As described on the event site:

…the fun twist is that all of this content is provided by you, the community, with every individual contributing on some level to create an amazing participatory experience. whether through classes or decoration or food or games or costumes or volunteering for the event itself, everyone plays a part in sharing something of themselves and being inspired by the awesomeness of those around you. above the trees is a summer camp for adults where everyone’s a camper and a counselor.

For its sophomore run, the late-2015 event at California’s Camp Sylvester included natural sculpture with Nina Madjid, cheese tasting with Leah Wingard, birdhouse building with Andy Turman, Grant Patterson’s art installation Big POV, and a variety of live concerts. We tried something a little different this year, merging our interests in drinks and data.

Asterisked (*) photos credit: Aaron Brodeur

Building on our recent explorations into cocktail culture, we hoped to crowdsource some insights into mixology from this year’s Above the Trees crew. For our event, Beverage Lab 2015, we asked attendees to deduce the ingredients in three cocktails. But as a twist (so to speak), we first offered a chance to taste-test nine mystery ingredients which would later appear in one or more of the drinks. Using numbered plastic tubes and eyedroppers, twenty-seven participants tasted and rated (0–4) how sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory they found each sample. Aside from physiological taste, we also asked how intense and awesome they found each sample—potentially more subjective judgements, but important in appreciating a cocktail. We left space for comments, and some took the opportunity to guess each sample’s identity.

We were interested to see if our testers experienced taste with any measurable consistency. Fortunately, along with provoking strong innate behaviors in most mammals, sweet taste is strongly linked to the binding of sucrose (sugar), which is conveniently quantified on every nutrition label. So as a control, we compared sweet ratings to sugar content. Our results were encouraging: average sweet ratings correlated significantly (p < 0.0001, R² = 0.96) with sugar content, indicating at least some tastes were consistent and predictable in this setting.


Average 0–4 ratings for sweet (left) and bitter (right) tastes, plotted against sugar (g/oz) and alcohol (%) content, respectively. Circles represent mean ratings ± standard error of the mean, with significance vs lowest-rated sample determined by Dunnet’s multiple comparison test, analysis of variance (ANOVA), n = 27; *p < 0.05; ***p < 0.001; ****p < 0.0001. Lines represent linear regression fits, with goodness of fit (R²) and nonzero slope significance (p) above left; Aperol (x, italics) not included in righthand fit.

Aside from sugar, we wondered if another important cocktail component—alcohol—might also predict specific tastes. In fact, the only significant correlation for alcohol content was bitter rating, consistent with past reports that most people sense alcohol as strongly bitter. Interestingly, this correlation became insignificant when we included Aperol, an Italian amaro that rated most bitter of all our samples; of course, bitter taste may arise from multiple elements in a cocktail, including but not limited to alcohol.

In the absence of analytical equipment, it was tough to quantify other potential taste stimuli, such as citric acid for sour or glutamate for savory. But rankings confirmed our qualitative predictions, with lime juice rating most sour and mezcal—a smoky agave-based spirit, related to tequila—most savory. All samples rated less than 2 out of 4 for salty, a less common taste in cocktails (barring the Bloody Mary); in contrast, all but cucumber water rated 2 or higher for intense, pointing to the concentrated nature of each ingredient on its own.


Average 0–4 ratings for sour (left) and savory (right) tastes, ordered from highest to lowest. Columns represent mean values ± standard error of the mean, significance vs lowest-rated sample by Dunnet’s multiple comparison test, ANOVA, n = 27; *p < 0.05; ***p < 0.001; ****p < 0.0001.

Having established consistency in at least some responses, we generated a taste profile for each sample; read on for details, download complete data here, or skip to the cocktail experience.


Sample data for four of our nine samples, showing average 0–4 ratings for each of seven taste components. Columns represent mean values ± standard error of the mean, significance vs lowest-rated component by Dunnet’s multiple comparison test, ANOVA, n = 27; **p < 0.01; ****p < 0.0001. Inset (bottom left, gray): distribution of bitter ratings, suggesting a split population. Download complete data here.

  • Participants found gin (Gordon’s London Dry, above, top left) to be distinctly bitter and intense; over 75 % rated it 3 or 4 in intensity, and we received a few comments of disgust. Over a third identified the sample as gin, with ~10 % guessing vodka; other comments included juniper and variations on fire.
  • Mezcal (Montelobos, above, top right) was simlarly bitter and intense, but also savory compared to gin (p < 0.05, one-way ANOVA). It was the most savory and salty, and least sweet of all the samples. Nearly half (46 %) described it as smoky, and nearly a third identified it as mezcal, though 10 % again guessed vodka.
  • Aperol (above, bottom left) was identified correctly by one participant, with another 19 % guessing its relative Campari. It was strongly bitter (75 % rated it 3 or 4), and most bitter of all the samples. Interestingly, another 25 % ranked it only 0 or 1 for bitter (above, bottom left, inset): no one took the middle ground. This effect called to mind the supertaster or hypergeusia phenomenon, by which ~25 % of people express an insensitive bitter receptor gene variant. A split population in bitter responses was evident for only one other sample, suggesting genetic variability could be tuned to a specific bitter element in Aperol. Our data did not support more thorough analysis, but the phenomenon could be interesting to follow.
  • The most popular, though also most novel, was Swedish punsch (Kronan, above, bottom right), a spiced cane liqueur we loved on our summer abroad. Over 60 % rated it 3 or 4 for awesome, the highest average and a significant increase over half the other samples (p < 0.05, one-way ANOVA); several (19 %) specifically described it as good. With the second-highest sugar content, it was rated second highest for both sweet and savory; some (15 %) also described it as smoky, or guessed it was bourbon or tequila.
  • Vermouth (Noilly Prat Original Dry) elicited variable and balanced ratings: average scores for all five physiological tastes were low, between just 2.1 (bitter) and 1.1 (sweet). It was also the least popular sample, with 93 % rating it 2 or lower for awesome. Tasters seemed confused by this sample, with 22 % leaving question marks in the comments; only one identified it correctly.
  • For Cointreau, sweet was the only physiological taste rated over 2 on average. The flavor was clearly distinctive, with 30 % describing it as orange or citrus; a few guessed triple sec, a related orange liqueur.
  • We also included three nonalcoholic ingredients, starting with freshly muddled cucumber water, which rated 2 or lower on all scales. It was the least sour and least intense of all the samples. Over half identified it as cucumber; other common comments were fresh and melon.
  • Passion fruit syrup (BG Reynolds) had the highest sugar content of any sample; appropriately, it was primarily sweet (96 % rated it 3 or 4), and sweetest among the samples. It scored lowest of all samples in bitter, savory, and salty tastes. One identified passion fruit, while 43 % called it fruity or guessed another species (pineapple, mango, watermelon, starfruit).
  • Key lime juice (Nellie & Joe’s), predictably, scored mostly sour (86 % rated it 4/4), with the highest sour and intense ratings of all samples. We thought this might be the easiest sample to identify, but more (39 % vs 32 %) actually guessed lemon than lime.

When cocktail hour finally arrived, we mixed three drinks, and solicited guesses as to the ingredients in each. We warmed up with the Archangel, a greenish, mellow mixture of gin, Aperol, and cucumber water (complete recipes at bottom). Our second drink, the Hotel Madison—vermouth, lime, and Swedish punsch—was more challenging, as no one else had encountered punsch before. Our final cocktail, ArchangelFifty Shades of Maguey, was a brain-buster containing mezcal, Cointreau, Aperol, lime juice, and passion fruit. Poor record-keeping prevents us from congratulating the best guesses here, but you know who you are.

Sadly (though predictably), cocktail hour became a bit unstructured, and we failed to collect empirical data for the actual cocktails. Still, the value of balancing distinct taste elements to create a smooth drink is intuitively obvious, and we wondered if we could still Hotel Madisonvisualize it. Taking the simple—though probably limited—assumption that tastes are additive, we weighted the profile of each ingredient by amount added, and summed the results to create a profile for each cocktail.

However approximate, our results were intriguing. The low ranges of physiological tastes elicited by each mixed drink—0.8–1.9 for the Archangel, 0.9–2.0 for the Hotel Madison, and just 1.2–1.9 for the complex Fifty Shades—were narrower than for any individual ingredient except vermouth: mixing appeared to balance out the strongest elements of the individual samples. For example, Swedish punsch was one of the sweetest ingredients, but scored lower than most for sour and bitter tastes; in the Hotel Madison, lime juice and vermouth diluted the sweetness while building up the missing elements. 50 ShadesAnecdotal evidence also indicated some elements—particularly awesome—might be synergistic: for example, the Archangel was well received, despite being dominated by two ingredients (gin, Aperol) rated under 2 for awesome on their own.

Above three figures: Additive profile for each cocktail, showing weighted 0–4 ratings for each of seven taste components. Columns represent sum of mean component values for each ingredient, multiplied by its percent composition in the drink. Top: Archangel, containing 43 % cucumber water (chartreuse), 43 % gin (blue), 14 % Aperol (red). Middle: Hotel Madison, containing 54 % Swedish punsch (yellow), 27 % dry vermouth (azure), 18 % lime juice (green). Bottom: Fifty Shades of Maguey, containing 40 % mezcal (brown), 20 % Cointreau (orange), 7 % Aperol (red), 20 % lime juice (green), 13 % passion fruit syrup (purple).

We look forward to building on our preliminary data in future cocktail-making, and at next year’s Above the Trees…


Ethereal and refreshing

  • 2 cucumber slices
  • 2¼ oz gin
¾ oz Aperol

Muddle cucumber in a mixing glass.
 Add gin and Aperol, then fill ⅔ with ice and stir to chill.
 Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Hotel Madison
A 1930s classic featuring our 
favorite Swedish liqueur

  • 1½ oz Swedish punsch (Kronan)
  • ¾ oz dry vermouth (Noilly Prat)
½ oz lime juice

Shake with ice and strain.

50 Shades of Maguey
A fluorescent favorite with flavors of France, Italy, Mexico, and South America

  • 1½ oz mezcal (Montelobos)
  • ¾ oz Cointreau
  • ¼ oz Campari
  • ¾ oz lime juice
  • ½ oz passion fruit syrup

Shake with ice and strain into a lowball. Garnish with a lime wheel.

Top credit: Andy Turman


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