Perceptual Qualities of Ethanol Depend on Concentration, and Variation in These Percepts Associates with Drinking Frequency

Alissa A. Nolden, John E. Hayes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

54 Scopus citations


Introduction: Ethanol, the pharmaceutically active ingredient in all alcoholic beverages, elicits multiple percepts including sweet, bitter, drying, and burning. However, quality-specific perceptual dose-response functions have not been previously reported. Also, individual differences in ethanol perception may associate with differences in alcoholic beverage use. Here, we describe the chemosensory profile of ethanol across concentrations in a convenience sample of mixed-age adults; secondarily, we explore whether individual differences in various qualities from ethanol associate with alcohol use behaviors. Methods: Participants (n = 100, 33 men) aged 21 to 55 (mean 33 years) tasted ethanol in water (4, 8, 16, 32, and 48 % v/v) and rated sweetness, bitterness, drying, and burning/tingling on four general Labeled Magnitude Scales. Demographic question and alcohol use measures (years drinking and reported frequency of drinking occasions) were also collected. Results: Intensity of most qualities increased as a function of ethanol concentration, although the dominant sensation differed with concentration. The dominant sensation for 8 and 16 % ethanol was bitterness (7.4 ± 1.0; 13.5 ± 1.4), whereas for 32 and 48 % ethanol, burning/tingling was the dominant sensation (29.7 ± 2.1; 44.7 ± 2.4). Variation in quality-specific intensities of sampled ethanol explained variability in the reported intake frequency for beer, wine, straight spirits, and number of drinking occasions. The number of years reported drinking (grand mean 10.5 ± 0.8) was not significantly associated with perceptual ratings for sampled ethanol. Conclusions: In a convenience sample of mixed-aged adults, the sensations from suprathreshold ethanol varied by concentration: bitterness dominated at lower concentrations, while burn dominated at higher concentrations. Exploratory analyses also suggest that differences in chemosensory responses across participants may associate with measures of alcohol use.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)149-157
Number of pages9
JournalChemosensory Perception
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 19 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sensory Systems
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience


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