On a recent vacation, I made a detour (as I always do when I escape Pennsylvania) to a liquor store. I left with a six-pack of a local double IPA and a bottle of Gran Classico, an Italian aperitif on the order of Campari. My purchases set me to wondering: Why do I seek out bitter flavors, and why do some people steadfastly avoid them?
The second question is easy. "A reluctance to eat bitter foods is understandable, as we all have an innate aversion to bitter tastes," explains Jennifer McLagan, author of Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor. "Many poisons are bitter, so our response when tasting something very bitter is to grimace and often to spit it out." It seems that people who prefer their coffee light and sweet are simply doing what nature intended.
So am I some sort of freak of nature? Perhaps, but that’s another column. Yet, in fact — and thanks in part to our rocky history with them — we’ve grown to appreciate and even crave bitter flavors. "Humans have evolved dozens of taste receptors that respond to different types of bitterness, as one small taste misstep could have spelled doom for our ancestors," writes cocktail scientist Kevin Liu, who goes on to say that we can actually taste 300 distinct forms of bitterness. And although that complex system of detection is the result of self-preservation, for the modern drinker it means layers of gustatory intrigue.
Bitterness is crucial to many drinks. A few dashes of Angostura bitters turn a glass of sweetened whiskey into a proper old-fashioned. A bitter element can add subtle depth or play a starring role, as it does in the big, bold IPAs favored by many craft-beer enthusiasts. And if you think you don’t like bitter one bit, you just might not have found the right type: With 300 of them out there, there’s an awful lot of drinking to do.