Cocktail aficionados may talk a big game, but when it comes to identifying certain liquors, average Americans can’t really tell the difference.
According to a new study completed by researchers at Drexel University published in the Journal of Food Science, the average person cannot discern between bourbon whiskey—a corn-based spirit—and rye—which is made from mostly grain.
Dr. Jacob Lahne, who led the study, started with 21 participants who were each presented trays with 10 mystery whiskeys – half filled with bourbon, the other half rye. The subjects were randomly instructed to only smell, not taste each libation—a procedure which matches testing for Scotch whisky evaluation. The participants were asked to group their samples by any criteria they wished.
A few days later, the subjects came back to the lab and were again presented with the same whiskey in the same order-- but the second time around, the spirits bore brand name labels. Participants were again asked to sort the spirits.
Once the subjects finished sorting, Lahne and his team used statistical analysis to interpret the results. The researchers determined that the average participant did not order his poisons according to mashbill (i.e. what the spirit was made from), but was instead swayed by product’s label and all the information available including years aged, alcohol content and the type of cask used.
For example, Lahne noted that most participants put Jim Beam spirits together. The distiller makes both bourbons and ryes but both have a characteristic peanut smell which Lahne surmised caused subjects to assume they were of the same mash.
“There is definitely a tendency for bartenders to talk about how some drinks should absolutely be made with bourbon or rye, and I think it’s clear now that there is more flexibility,” Lahne said in a press release.
“In a way it’s fun and exciting — it gives you a bigger universe to play with.”
According to researchers, this study contradicts the popularly held belief that the mashbill of American whiskey is what determines the spirit's smell and taste. For untrained consumers, the study says, “whiskey sensory properties are more associated with producer, age, and alcohol content”—in other words, attributes that can actually be read on a label.
Current standards for bourbon and rye have shifted over the years. Today a true bouron must have a mashbill more than 50 percent corn and rye must come from at least 50 percent rye grain. Bourbon is usually described as being sweeter and caramel-like, while rye is known for being earthier and sharper. But Lahne says the way certain distillers mass produce today has led to a closer relationship between the two brown spirits.
The Drexel team plans to dig deeper into how sensory attributes—like why Jim Beam smells like peanuts-- are linked to production variables like alcohol volume and chemical makeup.