Alcohol and Flavor

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About
We experience the presence of alcohol in a food through our senses of taste, smell, and touch. The alcohol molecule bears some resemblance to a sugar molecule, and indeed it has a slightly sweet taste. At high concentrations, those typical of distilled spirits and even some strong wines, alcohol is irritating, and produces a pungent, “hot” sensation in the mouth, as well as in the nose. As a volatile chemical, alcohol has its own distinctive aroma, which we experience at its purest in unflavored grain alcohol or vodka. Its chemical compatibility with other aroma compounds means that concentrated alcohol tends to bind aromas in foods and drinks and inhibit their release into the air. But at very low concentrations, around 1% or less, alcohol actually enhances the release of fruity esters and other aroma molecules into the air. This is one reason that wine, vodka, and other alcohols are valuable ingredients in general cooking, provided that the proportion is small or the alcohol mostly removed by long cooking.