Do you Like Whiskey? Maybe It’s Your Genes

It was when my future wife came to visit me in America for the first time that I learned she detested whiskey, or more specifically Scotch whisky, the most popular spiritous liquor of her native Portugal. After some questioning, I suggested she try some Kentucky bourbon. Liking it, she declared, “But this isn’t whisky!”

Some Scotch blowhards might agree with that statement out of snobbery, but my wife’s preferences come from a very different place. In the years since, she has become a casual fan of American whiskey, drawn to the sweet vanilla flavors imparted by aging in new white oak. In turn, she is turned off by the  bitter flavors sometimes found in Scotch, and the source of these preferences might have more to do her biological hardwiring than anything else.

In a 2014 Pennsylvania State University genetic study led by Professor John Haynes, the sensitivity of 93 subjects to bitter flavors was examined. First the subjects were analyzed for the presence of certain bitter-receptor genes, and then they participated in a taste test of different types of alcoholic beverages. The results indicated that participants with just one of the two genes rated any type of alcohol as 25% more intense, and that some drank only half as often as those without the genetic factors.

Humans have evolved with 25 different bitterness receptors, compared to just one receptor for sweetness, something biological science describes as a chemical detection system designed to keep us from eating things that might be harmful. Drinking whiskey is often described as an “acquired taste,” and for some that is absolutely true. Tweak those bitter receptors a little, and apparently the bar for acquiring that taste goes up.

So, the next time you try to introduce someone to whiskey and it doesn’t take, it might just be how they are predisposed to respond to the high alcohol content, the bitter flavors or both. Try switching to something sweeter, the way I did with my wife by nudging her towards bourbon, or perhaps by resorting to mixers. If strong alcohol is an acquired taste, then some people need to do more acquiring than others.


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