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How does alcohol affect the flavor of your drink?

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Have you ever wondered why adding water to your whisky, lowering its alcohol percentage, opens up different, new and subtle flavors? Or why a glass of wine tastes less fruity than its non-alcoholic, juicy variety? Here's a little crash course in Foodpairing® science to help you get the answers to these questions.

Pour yourself a glass of wine while reading this article, by the end you will understand how you perceive its flavor! Take the time to smell your glass of wine. Can you describe what you smell? Nutty, fruity, rose-like odors?! Through our sense of smell, we humans are able to differentiate up to 10,000 different odors. Of course humans will not smell them all! There is such thing as a 'detection threshold'; the minimum concentration a aroma must have in order for a human being can perceive it. Odors are also known as smells, scents or fragrances and consist of one or more aroma molecules. Aromas are volatile and reach our sense of smell through the headspace, the air space above the surface of our liquid.

science behind smelling

We perceive aromas through the nose (orthonasal), but also through the mouth (retronasal). Each time we swallow, aromas go from the back of the throat up to the nose. This explains the odd behavior of wine judges; they don't swallow to avoid alcohol, but use those funny sounding techniques to get some air (and aromas) up to the sense of smell.

"There are many factors influencing which odors we smell in the headspace while drinking. It depends heavily on the physical characteristics of the different aroma molecules."

Water fearing vs. water loving aromas - Hydrophobic vs. Hydrophilic

Each aroma molecule behaves differently in the solvent depending on its physical properties. There are hydrophobic aroma molecules fearing water. They tend to flee when surrounded by water molecules. They will leave water and exit through the head space, right where we can smell them. The opposite are hydrophilic (water loving) aromas. Hydrophilic molecules feel at ease in water and will prefer staying in the liquid.

Alcohol (ethanol) has partially hydrophobic properties. This means hydrophobic aromas who fear water will feel more at ease in the liquid when alcohol is added.

"This means the balance of the liquid (water versus alcohol) will define which aromas we smell more than others. The more alcohol (having partially hydrophobic properties) the more hydrophilic aromas will move to the headspace."

The other way around, the more water, the more hydrophobic aromas will escape the liquid and move to the headspace. An aroma comparison of Gewurzstraminer wine with and without alcohol clearly shows the difference in flavor.

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As we can see on the chart, the non-alcoholic Gewurzstraminer has a greater amount of floral aromas than its alcoholic variety. Moreover, its fruitiness has become more substantial.

"Leaving the alcohol out, it forces the floral molecules to flee to the head space and make the wine smell more flowery."

The balance of the liquid (water versus alcohol) will define which aromas we smell more than others, defining our taste. Thanks to alcohol, our glass of wine does not taste like a fruity juice, but obtains a more subtle flavor profile, allowing us to combine wines with different types of food. In other words, alcohol not only creates good times but also defines the flavor of your drinks!

Think outside the box and use Foodpairing® to create surprising new dishes that really make sense in terms of flavor.