Arts and Culture

A man and a woman walk into a bar. They each order a shot of bourbon.

It sounds like the setup of a bad joke, but it’s actually the foundation of a question that has created controversy in Kentucky spirits circles for years: Do men and women taste bourbon differently? And if so, why?

The question could be applied to all food and drink. But at the recent Bourbon Women Association’s 2016 Anatomy Academy Blind Tasting in Louisville, they put it to the test.

Organizers created a blind lineup of 12 bourbons ranging in proof and style. All 33 men and 47 women who attended sampled and ranked three bourbons, giving organizers a database in which three people tasted each offering. They calculated scores and organized them based on sex.

The results were conclusive.

Susan Reigler is a biology professor, former food and beverage critic for The Courier-Journal and president of the Bourbon Women Association. She says that while men and women both favored higher-proof bourbons in the experiment, they preferred different ones.

For example, Pikesville Rye at 110 proof topped the women’s chart, while Elijah Craig Small Batch at 94 proof was the pick of the men. (The men also ranked a 139-proof bourbon as their second choice, which didn’t even make it into the women’s top five.)

In other words, women preferred complexity — or different layers of flavors — while men liked simpler bourbons.

“I think every time we have one of these tastings that seems to be borne out, because invariably our [female] membership choose higher-proof bourbons, more complex bourbons,” Reigler says. “It is very, very interesting.”

Michael Veach, a bourbon historian who co-wrote “The Bourbon Tasting Notebook” with Reigler, says he’s noticed the same thing.

“I think that if you pulled an average man and woman off the street, a woman would pick up more from the nose and from that first taste,” Veach says.

But why?

Reigler says the answer is simple biology.

Humans’ sense of smell is directly tied to our sense of taste — which is why you can’t taste even the most flavorful items if you plug your nose or have a cold.

“And women have 43 percent larger olfactory bulbs in our brains, so nearly 50 percent more neurons are going to the smell receptors in our brains,” she says.

Some believe this olfactory ability is essential for reproduction behaviors such as pair bonding and kin recognition, so throughout time and evolution, women have continued to have bigger bulbs.

bourbonBourbon Women Association

Don Katz is a Brandeis University neuropsychologist who specializes in mammalian taste.

“There are all sorts of hormonal influences on how things taste,” Katz says. “Which is one of the reasons that if you get pregnant, your senses of taste and smell kind of go haywire, because you’re suddenly changing hormones, which really play havoc on that.”

He says researchers have identified subtle differences in women’s taste perception over the course of their menstrual cycles, even if they are not pregnant or taking birth control. But Katz says there are also cultural influences that affect how things taste to us.

“While bioscientists like to downplay that stuff because it sounds fuzzy and psychological, the truth is that these social factors have an influence on how your brain actually responds to taste,” Katz says. “We studied that in my lab in rats, and it turns out that a rat’s social environment affects how things taste to it.”

Katz says culturally, women may be raised with the expectation that they can make more subtle distinctions — which would partially explain their preference for more complex spirits.

“So between hormones and our culture, I’d say that at the broadest level, everything tastes different to males and females,” he says.

Naturally, this answer comes with a caveat. Katz says we should recognize taste as one of our most subjective senses, one that’s heavily influenced by personal experiences and memories.

At Down One Bourbon Bar, Louisville bourbon experts Maggie Kimberl and Michael Veach conduct an unscientific test. Both try a glass of Wild Turkey Rare Breed — and both pretty much get the same notes (cherry and tobacco, namely).

But that’s not always the case.

Kimberl says one time, she and Veach went to a bourbon event together and tasted some really old bourbon. Veach asked Kimberl what flavors she was picking up.

“I got this kind of sheepish look on my face and said, ‘rubber bands,’” Kimberl says. “And he said, ‘If you say you taste rubber bands, I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong.’”

Sometimes, regardless of sex or what science says, what we taste can be downright mysterious.