A lot of things can be said for liquor, but one that will seldom be uttered is that liquor is tasteless and boring. Sure if you drink only the best premium vodka then you’re likely to have that problem, but there is a world of flavors both excellent and sublime that tickle the imagination and tantalize the senses.
For those not already familiar the western type of culinary practice now recognizes 5 types of basic flavors Sweet, Sour, Salty, Bitter, and Umami. Umami is the most recent addition and conforms to a richness of flavor found in many meats, fermented foods and things like soy sauce. For a long while it was thought that these flavors resided in specific areas on the tongue. This was disproved in 1974 but the myth still lingers today. Your tongue is capable of tasting a lot of different things depending on how the receptors on your tongue are stimulated.
One of the more interesting aspects of taste is the Pungent-Spicy/Coolness divide. Spicy foods like peppers that contain capsaicin create their unique sensation by activating the same nerves that give the body pain. Especially those that respond to heat or abrasion. Because the brain is getting signals from a heat/pain receptor it classifies the sensation as “hot”. Similar effects can be had from things like menthol or camphor as they target the nerves which detect cold. You are not actually hot or cold but the pain receptors in your mouth are being stimulated in that same fashion.
Alcohols like creme de menthe, aftershock, Fireball whiskey, Hot Monkey, and SinFire all take advantage of this type of sensation to add experience to their liquor.
Numbness as a sensation is a bit harder to achieve. To my knowledge there are not many drinks that attempt this but it isn’t out of the realm of the possible. Some varieties of asian chili peppers have this quality and chili pepper vodka has become very popular in the last few years.
Astringency, Metallic, and Calcium tastes are not necessarily good things in an alcohol but they are sensations of taste all the same. Astringency can be a dry feeling in the mouth. This is not comparable to dry wines which are simply unsweet, but more to the puckering sensation in the mouth similar to skin stretching as it dies out. One of the most common flavors to have this sensation are Sloe Berries used to make Sloe Gin.
Fattiness – Fat is the seat of flavor. In meat all of the most important flavor components come from the fat portions and a good amount of fat marbled into the meat is considered the mark of the best kinds and cuts. The feel of fat is another thing altogether. In the mouth it can feel thick and coating or it can feel oily and slick depending on the source and the temperature. It can also indicate a richness of certain types of flavor like bacon or tuna. This is similar to umami but instead of flavor here it is discussing feel.
Temperature: Alcohol is the perfect example of what the temperature of a drink can do to it. For example brandy is an aromatic drink that is best served warm when it is very good. The glasses traditionally used to serve brandy are large enough to sit comfortably in the hand and allow the drinker’s body temperature to heat the alcohol to the point where the aromatic compounds start to boil out of the glass. This is also the reason you may see people in snooty cigar bars or old movies hold their lighter under the ball of the glass. A small amount of heat can cause the brandy to blossom and release all of the wine grape’s hidden scents into both the air and the drink.
Whiskey or scotch, too can have this impact. One of the reasons true whiskey drinkers will take their drinks neat, (without ice) is that whiskey gathers many aromatic compounds both from the distilling and from the barrels used to age the drink. A cold whiskey will hold onto those compounds resulting in a much reduced experience.
In some cases chilling can have a beneficial effect. Because Alcohol has a much lower boiling point than water if the liquor is chilled then it will take much longer for the alcohol to boil out of the drink once it comes in contact with body heat. So for booze which has a much stronger alcohol taste the chill can keep it to a minimum while drinking. It can’t eliminate it entirely since alcohol also has a very low freezing point but it will do something to mitigate the taste of rotgut.
Almost all cocktails are served cold with the components being either shaken or stirred over ice. This brings the drink down to around -5C which is honestly the ideal temperature.