Distilled Knowledge: The Science Behind Drinking's Greatest Myths, Legends, and Unanswered Questions

Distilled Knowledge: The Science Behind Drinking's Greatest Myths, Legends, and Unanswered Questions


$19.76 $21.95 Save 10% Current price is $19.76, Original price is $21.95. You Save 10%.
View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Wednesday, January 23

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780789212689
Publisher: Abbeville Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/04/2016
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 680,581
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Brian D. Hoefling is a cocktail historian, instructor, and inveterate barfly. The founder of the Herzog Cocktail School and a specialist in custom cocktail courses, his writing has appeared in the Boston Business Journal . He lives in Boston with an impressive selection of rums. Visit him at herzogcocktailschool.com.

Leandro Castelao is an Argentinean illustrator based in Brooklyn, New York. He has worked with The New York Times , The New Yorker , Nike, and Google, among many others. In 2014 he was nominated for a Latin Grammy Award for best recording packaging. Visit him at leandrocastelao.com.

Read an Excerpt

Distilled Knowledge

The Science Behind Drinkingâs Greatest Myths, Legends, and Unanswered Questions

By Brian Hoefling

Abbeville Press

Copyright © 2016 Brian Hoefling
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7892-1268-9

Excerpt from Introduction

There's no shortage of scientific discussion about alcohol in this world. Pick up any bar guide, or talk to any barfly, and you're sure to eventually have a theory of solution chemistry or human ethanol metabolism trotted out for your benefit. Sometimes they're even true—but it can be hard to tell. Consider:

“You should never add water to whiskey.” (False. ) “Carbonated mixers get you drunker.” (True. ) “A hangover is a dehydrated brain.” (Partially.) (Sometimes.) (A hangover is a lot of things. )

The sad thing is, all of that information is out there. Scientists and industry professionals have done this research, but it's hard to know where to look to get the answers—particularly if you have a lot of questions.

I know this from experience. Drinking has a remarkable ability to stimulate my academic interest (along with conversation and the desire to drink more). I've been geeking out about cocktail recipes and booze history since college; it was only a matter of time before I started looking into the science.

Off and on, at odd hours over the course of several years, I tried to dig up information on alcohol “facts” I'd never heard substantiated. Most of the time, I was researching things that supposedly affect how drunk you get—carbonation, heat, Goldschläger, and so on. It surprised me that there was no one-stop shop where I could get my questions answered.

That was the kernel that germinated into this book. It took a couple of years and a fortuitous conversation with a dear friend, but “Somebody should write a book about that” finally turned into “I should write a book about that,” and Distilled Knowledge was born. If it saves even one person a few hours of frustrated Googling, I'll be happy.

What is this book?

Distilled Knowledge is an attempt to gather, in one convenient place, basic scientific information that pertains to alcohol at all stages—from first fermentation to the last dregs of your hangover. I hope to answer common questions, put disputes to rest, and perhaps prompt some of you to further research on your own.

What isn't this book?

Oh, so many things. It isn't a work of original scientific scholarship. I am not a scientist; I come at this topic from the other side—a barfly, like you. What you're holding is my best understanding of the science that's already out there. If you're obsessive enough, you can find all of this information yourself, by digging through libraries and scouring the internet—believe me, I know. I wrote this book so you won't have to do all that.

It isn't a cocktail book or a guide to bar techniques. There are no recipes in these pages (not even as Easter eggs for those of you who assume I'm being facetious—you know who you are). If you're looking for something like that with a scientific flair, I recommend Dave Arnold's Liquid Intelligence or Kevin Liu's Craft Cocktails at Home.

It also isn't the only book in the world that looks at alcohol from a scientific perspective. If you'd like to read more on the topic, but don't want to dive directly into the technical literature, Adam Rogers's Proof is an excellent next move. If you're one of those people who enjoys eating as well as drinking, Harold McGee's magisterial On Food and Cooking is an invaluable reference to the whats and hows of both.

How do I use this book?

Distilled Knowledge is structured so that it can be read straight through or consulted as a reference text. Each chapter is divided into sections that address particular topics. Where necessary, they're cross-referenced with other sections or the appendix for further reading. Say hello to the Distilled Knowledge marginalia gremlins, who'll be your guides in these situations.

I've tried to include at least a quick-and-dirty version of whatever background you may need in each section. That way, if you're jumping around, you won't have to go back and read prior sections to understand what you're looking at; and if you're going straight through, you’ll know which things you've learned will be specifically relevant to what you're reading.

Who should read this book?

Everyone, naturally! My goal is that people at all levels of expertise will find something in here to appreciate. But Distilled Knowledge will probably be most helpful to the curious amateur, the person who knows just enough about science or alcohol to know that he'd like to learn far more.

Excerpt from Chapter 5


Tasting a drink may seem like the simplest thing in the world. After all, we taste things all the time—how complicated could something be when we do it every day without thinking?

If you take one thing away from Part II of this book, let it be that the answer to that question is almost always, “very.”

A lot goes into a sip. Flavor incorporates both the taste sensors on your tongue and the olfactory sensors in your nose in a dynamic and evolving way that’s frustratingly difficult to study. The texture of the liquid, its temperature, an assortment of chemical reactions taking place inside your mouth, and the dozens of associations you have with different flavors all affect your perception of what you’re drinking. Even experienced tasters have difficulty disentangling the knot.

Still think a sip is a simple proposition? Buckle up—it’s about to get crazy in here.

Taste, Smell, and the Evolution of a Sip

Let’s start with some basics. Your tongue is covered with little domes and protrusions (“papillae” is the technical term) that contain your taste buds. There are more of them in other places—the roof of your mouth, your esophagus, and even your lungs—but let’s focus on the tongue for now.

In grade school, you were taught that there were four or five basic tastes (depending on your teacher and how old you are), and that they map to certain areas of the tongue. You were lied to.

Certain taste receptors are unequally distributed—the ones in your lungs, for instance, exclusively sense bitterness—but each of the basic tastes can be detected all across your tongue.

Believe it or not, exactly what the “basic tastes” are is a subject of debate. Today virtually everyone accepts a minimum of five: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and savory, although for a very long time science only accepted the first four. Some people argue that other things should be included, like fattiness or the burning and cooling sensations we get from peppers and mint [cf. Chapter 5, “Hot” and “Cool” Pseudo-Flavors].

In any case, we’re only talking about a handful of tastes. They’re the major ones, dealing with energy (sweet), electrolytic balance (salty), avoiding poison (bitter), and so forth. They’re like the foundation of a building: absolutely essential and probably not the thing of which the architect is most proud.

Let’s be generous, and assume we’re underrating the tongue. Maybe there are ten basic tastes, or even twenty. Heck, make it a hundred. It doesn’t matter. The number of tastes the tongue distinguishes will always be dwarfed by the vast universe of smells the nose can pick up.

How vast? Eighty million, in the worst case. More than a trillion in the best.

To be fair, that number includes both individual flavor chemicals like vanillin and limonene and various combinations of those chemicals. If we included combinations of tastes, the tongue would post better numbers too (albeit nothing in the trillions).

But it’s also true that combinations of odor chemicals are encoded as distinct smells, in a way that combinations of tastes are not. If you drink vinegar with salt and MSG it’ll taste sour, salty, and savory (and terrible). But a whiff of nutmeg doesn’t smell like pine trees and citrus and camphor, even though all of those things are in there—it just smells like nutmeg.

This vast array of odors is one reason bartenders will sometimes smell drinks as they’re making them. You can get a very strong sense of how a thing will taste with eighty million scent combinations.

But smell alone is still not the full picture. Even if we set the tongue’s contributions aside (which we shouldn’t), the brain processes aromas differently depending on their source.

Orthonasal olfaction, which is what you’re experiencing when something comes up through your nostrils, sends signals to your brain that get marked “nose.” Retronasal olfaction, in which the smells waft up through your throat into the back of your nasal cavity, sends signals that get tagged “mouth.” This is probably why you haven’t thought about tasting as smelling before—your brain’s been telling you it isn’t.

Your throat’s ability to “smell” is also part of the reason the finish is a distinct part of the sip. When that drink hits the back of your throat it’s got clearer access to your nasal cavity and you’ll get a big burst of volatile aromatics on the swallow. You’ll also get new sensory input from the taste buds in your pharynx and esophagus as your drink is going down.

Basically, if you take anything away from this section: don’t spit out your wine at a tasting—you’ll miss a lot.

Texture and Mouthfeel

“Mouthfeel” is a funny term. It describes a complicated set of only partially-related phenomena, which makes it easy to forget that the definition is right there in the word: what does my drink feel like?

One of the major factors that contribute to mouthfeel is viscosity, or how thick the liquid in question is. Depending on context, we might prefer a thicker or a thinner drink. If your English stout is thin and watery, for instance, you probably won’t enjoy it as much, while an American lager that feels heavy and thick is a terrible thing to bring to a barbecue.

In general, dissolved solids will make your drink feel thicker, as will things like oils and proteins. The differences can be subtle, but the mouth is a very sensitive instrument. The sweeteners used in diet sodas produce a less viscous mixture than the ones used in regular sodas, and the difference in mouthfeel is perceptible.

Another component of mouthfeel is astringency, which shows up in “dry” beverages like gins and certain wines. Astringency creates the feeling that all the saliva has been sucked out of your mouth (thus, “dry”), and that qualitative description has some basis in science.

Chemically, an astringent is something that can bind to proteins and strip them out of whatever solution they’re in. Ethanol, acetone, and tannins are known to have this power. Saliva contains lubricating proteins; strip them out, and it’ll feel quite different and a lot drier.

Mouthfeel is also affected by other things. Suspended solids (that is, ones that haven’t dissolved) can give the liquid a grainy texture, which is usually unpleasant. Bubbles of carbon dioxide gas are usually enjoyed for the tickling sensation they cause—though surprisingly, the effect appears to depend on more than just the tactile stimulation those bubbles provide.

Visual Pre-Tasting

Some flavors and colors are very strongly associated with one another. You may have heard something described as tasting “red” or “purple,” meaning that it had the same artificial cherry or grape flavor found in lollipops of those colors.

It’s amusing to describe something as tasting like a color in a case like this, where the color is just a convenient shorthand for a flavor we don’t have a better name for. (“Artificial cherry” is a lot clunkier than “red,” and they mean the same thing in practice.) But taste expectations based solely on color can actually affect the way we perceive food and drinks.

A landmark study that, depending on your perspective, was either hilarious or very depressing, found that a group of oenology students couldn’t tell white wine from red when food coloring was added.

The team at the University of Bordeaux—a place with a fairly good oenological reputation—asked a group of students to taste a red wine and a white one, and then to assess which wine was a better fit for a series of common flavor descriptors. The students matched the white wine to pear, honey, and other common white wine descriptors, while the red was matched to its common terms, like pepper and blackcurrant.

A week later, the researchers brought back the same group of students and had them try two more wines under the same formula. The difference is that this time, both samples were the same white wine: one had been dyed red with a flavor-neutral colorant and the students were given every reason to believe that it was a normal red Bordeaux. Remarkably, they described the colored white wine using the red wine terms.

So was all that stuff about the power of smell pure nonsense? I wouldn’t go that far—but it’s pretty clear that it can be overridden sometimes.

The case of crème de violette may be instructive here. It’s a floral, almost perfumey liqueur made from violet petals. It’s also very purple, and a percentage of people who try crème de violette will taste cloying artificial grape because the association with the color is so strong. A second sip with their eyes closed will change this fast.

Psychology of Taste

Let’s paint a little picture. You’re young. (But not too young. Don’t drink underage, friends.) You’ve got a bottle of whatever you can get your hands on—it’s bourbon, you think, but you don’t really know what that means yet. It’s a hot summer evening, and you and your sweetheart have gone down to the lake to watch the sun go down. You could not be more in love.

At least, that’s where your memory takes you when you drink that same cheap bourbon from your youth.

Why is it that we form these kinds of strong associations with certain sensory experiences? That a whiff of the wrong perfume can make us miserable, or a sip of the right kind of rotgut can be sublime? It’s all in the nose.

The olfactory bulb is unique among the sensory organs, in that it has direct connections to the amygdala and the hippocampus—regions of the brain involved in emotion and memory. Given that our sense of smell exists, in part, to tell us what’s food and what’s poison, it makes sound evolutionary sense that it would be plugged right into our visceral response system in a way that our other senses aren’t.

That this connection makes smell the most evocative sense is a beautiful byproduct of evolution. Tasting, being heavily olfactory to begin with [cf. Chapter 5, Taste, Smell, and the Evolution of a Sip], gets the benefits of this effect.


Excerpted from Distilled Knowledge by Brian Hoefling. Copyright © 2016 Brian Hoefling. Excerpted by permission of Abbeville Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Metabolism of Alcohol
A Nightcap


Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews