Tongue Map and How We Taste Whisky

False facts are all around us. And one that has been with us for almost 80 years is the "tongue map." That little visual we were shown in our textbooks as children is not quite as true as we've been led to believe.

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Show Notes

A long time false truth dispelled

False facts are all around us. And one that has been with us for almost 80 years is the "tongue map." That little visual we were shown in our textbooks as children is not quite as true as we've been led to believe.

Join me as we talk tasting history, learn how to we taste, and apply that to how we approach experiencing whisky and writing our tasting notes. Cheers!

Listen to the full episode with the player above or find it on your favorite podcast app under "Whiskey Lore." The full transcript is available on the tab above.


Beginning of the Transcript

Here is an interesting way to start a whiskey podcast. With a short passage from the first book of the Bible. See if this sounds familiar:

"And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die."

— Genesis 2:16–17

In thinking about this well known verse from the Bible, can you name the fruit that was hanging from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?

Did you say “apple?”

Would it surprise you that nowhere in the Biblical canon is an apple ever mentioned as being the fruit in this particular tree?

Well how did apples end up with such a scandalous reputation?

It could all come down to a Latin homonym. You see, the Latin word for evil is malum, which just so happens to be the same word used in Latin for the word apple. Or could also be a chicken and the egg scenario. Maybe the Latin words evolved from the telling of this tale of original sin?

Interestingly enough, there is probably a greater chance it was a fig tree rather than an apple tree. Remember, when the couple discovered their nakedness after eating the fruit, they covered themselves with fig leaves. So a fig tree had to be somewhere nearby.

Maybe apples were just a sexier thing for artists to paint? Or maybe some fig grower was trying to take a bite out of the apple market?

Whether it was a linguistical coincidence, an artist’s fancy, a farmer’s frustration or more likely just a creative storyteller juicing up the tale, the apple has cemented itself in our minds as the centerpiece of the story.

But this is far from the only case of historical fill in the blank. Reader’s Digest actually put together a list of 51 facts that are actually false. Let me share a few:

What does a Viking helmet look like? If you said like a bowl with horns sticking out of the sides, you have confused Vikings for actors in a Wagner opera. It was a German that made us think these northern invaders wore horns on their helmets.

SOS does not stand for Save Our Ship. It was simply adopted because in Morse code it is simple to click out three dots, three dashes, and three dots.

Back to the Bible, what about those three wise men? Did you know that nowhere in the bible does it state the number of wise men? So, how did we get to three? Most likely it was based on the number of gifts. Remember, they brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. So somehow we have assumed that it would be impossible for wise men to figure out how to carry more than one item.

Remember that oddly romantic story about Van Gogh and his severed ear? I’m sorry to disappoint, but Van Gogh cut off his ear during a heated argument with a fellow artist Paul Gauguin. And while the ear apparently did end up in the hands of a female, it was a prostitute, not a girlfriend. And no one knows if he knew her or if she was just a very unlucky random recipent of a severed appendage. And no one could ask Van Gogh - he apparently had no recollection of the incident.

Would it surprise you to know that Ben Franklin did not have a burning desire to make the turkey America’s national symbol? The misunderstanding comes from his viewing of the original sketches of the Great Seal. He found the rendering of the bald eagle so bad, he said it looked like a turkey. At which point he began pontificating about the bad moral character and lazy nature of the eagle. He suggested that a turkey had more symbolic value than a bald eagle. In reality, the only thing Franklin lobbied for was a rendering of Moses and the Red Sea for the back of the Great Seal of the United States.

And false facts go well beyond just history:

Salt doesn’t make water boil any faster, so while you won’t save any time, you will help your blood pressure.

For you coffee drinkers, you’ll be glad to know that even though caffeine is a diuretic, the water in your coffee counteracts dehydration - so while coffee will never be a thirst quencher, it is fairly neutral..

For brandy and whiskey drinkers, I’m sad to tell you that alcohol does not physically warm you up. In fact, it might cool you down slightly, as your body temperture is actually higher than the liquid. Most likely it is the feeling of comfort and enjoyment of the whiskey and maybe the tingling sensation of the whiskey that gives you the warm fuzzy feeling.

And while it may be some comfort to know that alcohol does not actually kill brain cells, it can damage them.

False facts are all around us. And what is surprising is that with the amazing amount of information and science that is just a mouse click away, we somehow continue to pass on these little inaccurate gems.

It’s been said many times, “don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.” But I say, where is the fun in that?

Finding out how we arrived at these false facts can lead to even greater stories. And discovering the truth can help rescue us from dead-end thinking and help us discover powers we never thought we had. And in the world of whiskey, this is no more apparent, than in the art of tasting.

Whiskey lovers prepare, because I’m about to throw out a cornerstone belief that you’ve most likely held since grade school. A false fact that originated in your school textbooks and that continues to be trumpeted in whiskey tasting classes and during distillery tour tastings to this day.

Hold on, because we are about to turn everything you know about tasting on its head.

It was 1942, and a Harvard psychology professor named Edwin G. Boring was looking to further the research on how humans taste. Picking up on a 41 year old study by a German scientist named Dr. David Pauli Hänig, Professor Boring (his students must have loved this name), found a graph that showed how the sensitivity to sweet, bitter, and sour varied between the tip, sides, and back of the tongue.

Professor Boring reworked the study and released his own version graph with the addition of salt as an additional taste. Well, younger school children aren’t quite ready for the concept of graphs, so textbooks opted to turn the professor’s work into a tongue diagram, showing tastes located on specific areas of the tongue. This has become known as the tongue map.

I’m guessing you’ve seen it. Sweet on the tip of your tongue, salt and sour on the sides of your tongue and bitter in the back. In school, you may have done experiments using a Q-tip to dab flavors around your tongue to prove this concept. The only problem is, the oversimplified tongue map has led to a world of assumptions and misinformation. Let’s see why the tongue map is basically useless for whiskey tasters and how we’ve been led down the wrong path.


Stepping back in time - the science of taste didn’t really take off until 1867. And it almost got off to a calamitous start. It seems that two different scientists in two different labs, in two different countries both claimed the discovery of taste buds within a couple of months of each other. Coincidence?

Well luckily it didn’t turn into the Hatfield’s and McCoys. The mishap occurred when a Sweed named Dr. Lovén published his findings in a poorly circulated Swedish medical journal. A couple of months later, German Dr. G. Schwalbe published a similar study. Sources suggest there wasn’t any way the German doctor could have had access to the Swedish doctor’s findings.

Dr. Loven played it off, suggesting that he was happy the other scientist had come to the same conclusion. Dr. Schwalbe continued to try to stake his claim as the true discoverer of the taste buds, but cooler heads prevailed and apparently over time, the two became friends and science was advanced.

In 1875, a study of the oral cavity by a medical student name Hoffman concluded that the middle of the tongue contained practically no fungiform papillae, the little bumps on your tongue that house taste buds, leading to an assertion that very little decernable taste could be detected in the dorsal center of the human tongue.

Then in 1901, Dr. Hänig began his study of our perception of taste and how the tongue interacts with them.

Just like your school science class, he went about dipping different flavors on different parts of the tongue. He used sucrose for sweetness, quinine for bitter, diluted hydrocholoric acid for sour, and salt for saltiness.

He discovered something he called the “taste belt.” Apparently there was an increase of sensitivity to certain tastes around the tip and edges of the tongue. He plotted out a graph showing how bitter increased at the furthest points back, sweet was more prevelant at the top or front of the tongue, and sour seemed to increase in-between the two.

The problem with his visual is that he forgot to plot out the degree of sensitivity on the sides of the graph. In other words, the graph showed the lines jumping from the top of the graph to the bottom of the graph, creating an assumption that when the line gets to the bottom of the graph, this indicates an absense of that flavor. However, if you take the time to translate his German text, you’ll find that in reality the degrees of difference were minute. In other words, just because there is a slightly increased sensitivity to sweet on the tip of the tongue, this does not mean that all other flavors are absent.

So, Hänig’s hypothesis does hold a truth, but his misleading graph was about to trip up a future scholar.

Known as “Mr. Psychology,” Edwin Boring, or Gary, as he was better known, was a well respected Harvard professor who focused his energies on experimental psychology.

In his book Sensation and Perception in the History of Experimental Psychology, Boring replotted Dr. Hanig’s graph. In this version, he went from tip to base. Unlike his predecessor, he did label the side of the graph with the word “sensitivity” and put hashmarks, but again left out any kind of level of sensitivity.

It is not clear who translated the Professor Boring’s graph into a visual representation of the tongue with its different zones, but somehow this science made its way into textbooks and the false fact was delivered to generations of childen. And it was all based on assumptions made from poorly documented scientific graphs.

Do you want to disprove the tongue map?

Try this experiment at home. Put some salt in your hand. Wet your finger then dip it in the salt. Put the salt just on the tip of your tongue and let your lip push the salt into the tip of your tongue. Salty, isn’t it?

There have been scientists refuting this all or nothing tongue map for years, but they don’t seem to gain any traction.

One such researcher, at the University of Pittsburgh, not only affirmed Dr. Hanig’s findings of a minute difference in flavor intensities around the taste belt, but she also furthered his findings with an additional discovery.

In 1974, Virginia B. Collings concluded that not only do we have taste buds on our tongues, but we also have them on the soft palate of the roof of our mouth and on the epiglottis, the flap that keeps food from going down your windpipe.

So with the long held belief of exclusivity rights to different tastes on different parts of the tongue basically debunked, where does this leave us? As whiskey tasters, understanding how we taste can have a powerful impact on how we approach a whiskey. So, let’s take look a closer at how we really taste.

First, look in a mirror and stick out your tongue. Imagine if you will, hundreds of little bumps called papillae. Each of these papillae contain around six taste buds.

Taste buds contain sensitive microscopic hairs called microvilli. These hairs send taste profile messages through the nervous system to your brain. Taste buds are replaced every two weeks. As we age, some taste buds no longer recreate themselves. So children can have up to 10,000 taste buds, while adults average between 2,000 and 5,000 taste buds.

Taste buds don’t always have an equal response between all five of the primary tastes. Yes, I said five, umami or savory was added to sweet, sour, salty, and bitter in 1908, however, it was excluded from most Western based taste profiles until the mid-1980’s. Umami in part comes from an amino acid called gultimate and the best example of the flavor is most likely MSG. By the way, MSG headaches are another false fact, according to scientists.

There are two cranial nerves that extend from your tongue to your brain, one in the back and one in the front. It has been found that if the frontal nerve is damaged, sweet flavors still are detected through the back nerve, which dispells the theory that sweet tastes only come from the tip of the tongue.

So do we all have the same abilities as tasters? Well studies have shown that a quarter of the population have what are called super-sensitive taste buds, while another quarter have diminished-sensitivity with their taste buds. Outside influences like smoking have been shown to inhibit the replenishment of some taste buds. And sometimes a precieved limit in tasting ability, is not a weakness in taste buds, but a lack of experience with defining specific flavors.

But if we just consider the tongue when it comes to tasting, we are ignoring a greater truth. Taste buds do not live in isolation. With their connection to the involuntary nervous system, they can be influenced by both the sense of smell and our emotions. Ever wonder why a pungent smell can cause you to become nauseus? Or why when you smell something savory, your mouth starts to water? In fact, it may even be possible that a happy feeling that a particular brand’s packaging puts off, or the color of the liquid, can mentally and physically influence how we taste and smell that whiskey.

And if that is the case, then what we refer to as flavor can be influenced by smell, texture, temperature, visual presentation, as well as taste.

So let's dig deeper into our sense of smell and get a better understanding of how it can “color” a taste.

Try an experiment next time you do a whiskey tasting. Try holding your nose and writing down tasting notes. Then do the tasting with your nose free to work as it normally does. What you’ll notice is that with an impaired sense of smell, the taste of the whiskey isn’t as lively. It flattens or becomes less dynamic. Think of it like looking out of one eye. You lose the three dimensional world when you focus with just one of your two eyes.

But unlike a shut eye, a closed nostril does not completely shut off your noses ability to interact with a taste.

When a whiskey enters your mouth, the vapors of the whiskey travel to the back of your throat and up the nasopharanx which is your mouth’s connection to the nose. This process, known as retronasal olfactory smell, or smell through the throat, is what takes your taste buds definition of salty, bitter or sweet and further defines its flavor profile so you can distinguish a green apple from cinnamon and vegetal earthy peat smoke from ashy peat smoke.

Have you ever noticed that food tastes a little more bland when you have a stuffy nose? This is the result of diminished retronasal smell and it is a good reason to save your tasting notes for days when your head is clear.

So while we have lost the tongue map as a cheatsheet to discovering different tastes, we now know that our nose has a major impact on our ability to distinguish flavor, and that even our emotional responses and external stimuli can also influence what we taste.

I experienced this first hand recently when I went to the Bols Museum in Amsterdam. Bols has been distilling a spirit known as genever since the 16th century. Genever is infused with botanicals to give each spirit its own unique characteristic. Genever is basically the forerunner of gin.

At the beginning of your tour, you are given a small bottle with a liquid inside. Then you are told to enter a room where you are to look into a mirror and then hold the liquid on your tongue when told. At the moment, you are told to put the liquid in your mouth, suddenly different colors are projected on your face. With each color change, the liquid actually changes flavors. If I didn’t experience itself, I might not have believed it. Simply a change of color can influence the flavor you experience.

So how many flavors are there? Well, according to The National Center for Biotechnology Information, “assuming 5 basic tastes and 10 levels of intensity, 100,000 different flavors are possible. Taken together with the senses of touch, temperature and smell, there are an enormous number of different possible flavors.”

Well, what does this all mean for those of us that are learning how to taste whiskey? Let me give you some guidelines.

  • When writing down tasting notes, be aware of and notate your surroundings and your mood.
  • As for blind tastings, know that while they have their value, sight and emotion also play a part in our flavor experience. And while removing sight from the experience may strip out some brand bias, it doesn’t necessarily tell a complete story of our experience.
  • Don’t be concerned if you can’t spot flavors as easily when there are lots of distractions or the tasting event is rushed. Try to relax and enjoy the event for what it is. And don’t expect the same experience of tasting when you get the bottle alone or in a more comfortable setting.
  • When nosing, hold your mouth open and breathe through your mouth and nose to fully engage the senses.
  • Don’t hesitate to take a starter sip before doing your nosing. As much as your nose helps your tongue, your tongue can also help your nose.
  • Breathe in through your nose when taking a sip of the whisky to get your sense of smell fully engaged.
  • Don’t just focus on your tongue when doing a tasting. Work the liquid around your mouth to get your nasopharynx engaged as well. See if you can spot where flavors are more intense on your tongue. And know that different whiskies have different intensities on approach, while you’re holding it in your mouth, and on the finish.
  • Notice the viscosity of the liquid as it sits in your mouth. To me, a heavier mouthfeel is a pleasent experience and most likely improves my opinion of the flavors, simply by a positive sensation.
  • Pay attention to how long a whiskey feels and tastes good in your mouth and put that in your tasting notes.
  • And if the whiskey is too hot for you, don’t hesitate to dilute it. If you are experiencing pain, it can affect how you taste the whiskey.
  • Notice the flavors on the finish (or what most people call the aftertaste) and how they linger. Also notice, bitter doesn’t always happen on the finish. Also realize that even after you have swallowed, your body is still tasting.

And as for reading other people’s tasting notes, remember that they have a completely different mouth and nose. They have access to and knowledge of flavors you don’t and vice versa, they have different likes and dislikes, they may be in a good or bad mood, and you have no idea what conditions they were experiencing during their tasting. Always remember, their ratings are completely subjective and there is no such thing as a perfect whisky.

Having a better understanding of how we taste and smell, and the impacts outside influences have on our whiskey tasting can help us pay attention to all of the important factors of having a great whiskey tasting experience. Now aren’t you glad you let the truth get in the way of a good story?

So next time someone starts extolling the virtues of the tongue map during a tasting event, just recall Ben Franklin’s annoyance with bad poorly drawn birds, Van Gogh nasty temper, the German impression of Vikings, and Adam and Eve’s conveniently placed fig tree, or your new understand of the flavor detection process - and remind that person that just because it's in a textbook, doesn’t necessarily mean it's entirely true.

I’m Drew Hannush, and this is Whiskey Lore

Whiskey Lore is a production of Travel Fuels Life

Research, stories and production by Drew Hannush

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So for the longest time, people have been asking me to start doing tasting notes online, to help them find the best whiskies.

After listening to this episode, you see why I’ve hestitated in doing that.

But we all need to improve our sense of smell and taste, so watch for instructional tasting videos from time to time by subscribing to Whiskey Lore on Facebook, Instagram or YouTube. Look for the links on Whiskey-Lore.com.

And until next week Cheers and Slainte mhath