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A Newly-Recognized Sixth Taste Casts a Fresh Light on Anise-Flavored Spirits

I’m old enough to remember being taught in school that humans could taste only four basic flavors: sweet, salt, bitter and sour. All relate to the perception of simple chemicals: sweetness of sugar; saltiness of metal ions in substances like salt; bitterness of some toxins; and sourness of acidity.

In the 1980s, however, the quartet premise began to crumble: The scientific community recognized umami—the Japanese word meaning “a pleasant savory taste”—as our fifth taste. (It relates to the perception of amino acid glutamate.) Now, researchers at the University of Southern California believe they’ve found a sixth. And it’s a strange one, at least for those of us who didn’t grow up eating salty licorice.

According to Science Daily, USC scientists found that taste-bud receptors can detect ammonium chloride, a chemical found in many waste products, which can potentially signal toxicity. Some say it tastes like window cleaner. But ammonium chloride is also a key ingredient in a popular Nordic candy: salty licorice.

“If you live in a Scandinavian country, you will be familiar with and may like this taste,” says Emily Liman, one of the researchers.

Some history: Both ammonium chloride and licorice root were used medicinally as cough treatments across the world for centuries, and at some point, someone thought to combine them. By the 1930s, ammonium chloride-spiked licorice was popular in Finland and many other countries. Today, according to the Disgusting Food Museum in Malmö, there are only six nations that love the salty licorice: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland and the Netherlands.

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But make no mistake. In large doses, ammonium chloride—which is also found in shampoo, cleaning products and batteries—can be dangerous. “Why do we have such veneration for a product that can harm us?” asks Vogue Scandinavia, which notes that once upon a time in Denmark, licorice products containing more than 5% ammonium chloride were required to be labeled “adult licorice—not children’s licorice.” In the E.U., the concentration of ammonium chloride in food is strictly monitored, although Nordic countries have special permission to add it to their sweets. Any potential danger does not seem to have dampened Nordic enthusiasm for it, though.

Hervé This, the food scientist who famously coined the term “molecular gastronomy,” has for years pointed to licorice to argue that humans possess more than five basic tastes. Unsalted black licorice is not precisely sweet, sour or bitter. This is likely why black licorice is such a divisive flavor among people who didn’t grow up eating it. After all, there’s a reason why so many Americans eat around the black jellybeans.

In the world of booze, this polarization has often played out in relation to anise-flavored spirits, which are reminiscent of licorice. They tend to be a hard sell for Americans. Ouzo, arak, absinthe, sambuca have their fans, for sure, but I know just as many people who are turned off by them. It’s notable, especially given that we’re in an era when super bitter amari have risen to popularity. Booze that reminds people of black licorice, however, has yet to crack the zeitgeist.

Personally, it took me years to finally embrace anise spirits. My conversion came while conducting research more than a decade ago for a Washington Post column on ouzo. During a tasting at José Andrés’ Mediterranean restaurant in Washington, D.C., Zaytinya, the beverage director told me: “It’s one of the hardest spirits to learn to like. You love it or you hate it. Or, like me, you are learning to appreciate it.”  

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In short, ouzo, like all anise-flavored spirits, is considered “an acquired taste.” But is there a more backhanded compliment, a more passive-aggressive judgment, a more of kiss-of-death phrase than, “Well, I guess that’s an acquired taste”? It’s also a bit parochial or even xenophobic. Depending on the culture in which you were raised, scores of so-called “acquired tastes” like anchovy, sea urchin, espresso, fish sauce, huitlacoche, kimchi, vegemite, lutefisk and more are not acquired at all. They’re de facto flavors inherent to local cuisine. I grew up eating Scrapple, for heaven’s sake—an “acquired taste” for anyone but a person born in the Philadelphia metro area.

“Open your mind. Grow up. Make peace with your childhood dislike of black jellybeans,” I wrote last year, in a piece entitled “How to Acquire a So-Called Acquired Taste,” about my love of pastis, the anise-inflected French favorite. “I’ve only come to appreciate the challenging flavors of pastis as I’ve grown older,” I wrote. “But now that I am a pastis convert, there is no going back.”

Little did I know that my own acquired taste would soon be revealed by science as a basic human taste. Consider this your sign to acquire it yourself.

You can follow Jason Wilson on Wine Enthusiast and click here to subscribe to his Everyday Drinking newsletter, where you’ll receive regular dispatches on food, travel and culture through the lens of wine and spirits.