The Myth of Flavor Zones

Even science books lie sometimes

It’s always a blow to our trust in humanity when we learn we’ve been lied to our whole lives.  Even more so when it was by the very people we trusted to shape our hearts and minds, and tongues. The idea of the flavor map of the tongue is total bunk. A quick internet search will produce gobs (a highly scientific unit of quantity) of results, but here’s one from Live Science to get you started.

Since taste is obviously an important part of our enjoyment of whiskey, it’s a good thing to have at least a cursory understanding of how we perceive taste. The basics are simple, the tongue can perceive all tastes across the tongue. There are some variations, but these are more linked to differences between individuals rather than any intrinsic tongue topology.

This misconception was propagated by a poorly understood work written in 1901 by German D. P. Hanig. The graphic we all recognize was an attempt by others to generalize his research that did show slight variations. The problem was that those variations are not so well-defined, nor are they exclusionary, nor are they significant. The first cracks in universal belief in the map came in 1974 in a paper written for Perceptions & Psychophysics by Virginia Collings, which basically says the above backed with a whole lotta numbers. After this paper came out, more and more people started to look at this more critically, and we arrive today where no one supports the flavor map idea.

The problems with the flavor map are legion. First, the traditional map doesn’t even include all the flavors we are capable of detecting. That makes any map of the “four” flavors woefully inaccurate, even if the idea of zones was valid. It leaves out “umami,” a Japanese word that translates loosely as “tastes like chicken.” More or less. OK, it’s a meaty, protein flavor. Another problem lies in the fact that we have taste buds all around our mouth, not just on the tongue. So once again, the tidy graphic shoved down our throats (sorry, couldn’t resist!) would be wrong even if the basic concept were true, which it’s not.

Just be aware that anyone telling you their product “directs the spirit onto the tip of the tongue, where sweetness is perceived,” is spouting total marketing BS. One of the biggest perpetrators of this is specialty glass manufacturer, Riedel! It’s a shame that even Maker’s Mark touts the flavor map in their mobile app. Let’s get it together, people!

For further reading:
New York Times article
US National Library of Medicine article
Aroma article