Exploring Flavor in Cocktails & The Impact of Aroma

Here’s something pretty fascinating:

Even though there are lots of combinations of flavors that a lot of folks would agree go great together, science still isn’t really clear on why these combos appeal to us. Scientists have theorized that foods that share some of the same chemical compounds will naturally taste good together. But studies have shown that that is not always the case, and in certain cuisines around the world, foods which don’t share any of the same compounds seem to work best together. You can read more about the studies here.

So what’s a creative cocktail creator or chef to do? Quite simply, the answer is experimentation! Somewhere along the line, I started to believe that there are certain flavors that go together and others that do not. The end. But that’s clearly not the case, as some of the world’s greatest bartenders and chefs prove all the time, with their wildly delicious, yet unexpected creations.

There’s really no right or wrong, just some common combinations that make for great starting points, and then also your personal preferences. We all enjoy different flavors and in different quantities. For example, my mother dislikes cilantro, but I absolutely love it and use heaps in my homemade pico de gallo. However, both my mom and I can agree that chocolate and coffee are a magnificent combination. So are there certain basic combinations that have more universal appeal than others? In some ways, I think so. Today I’m sharing a cocktail that I believe has fairly universal appeal, while being just a touch more interesting than a basic gin sour, using our sense of smell to open up new flavors, and of course a little visual jazzing up, as I love to do!

Why do so many of us love Sours?

A gin sour is a magical thing. Just the right quantities of junipery, botanical booziness, sweetness, sourness, and a creamy foam to soften all the edges – it’s a thing of beauty. Whether including an egg white foam (or even aquafaba foam) or not, the Sours category of cocktail recipes are some of my absolute favorites. I return to the template again and again when making my own recipes (more about recipe templates in an upcoming post!) and I think that the simple combination of these three tastes, when balanced and enhanced by one another, is universally appealing.

So while we may not all agree that a sour made with say, chocolate liqueur (sweetness) and balsamic vinegar (sourness) is an enjoyable flavor pairing, we do agree that their primary tastes (sour and sweet) are a hit. Think of my example above about my mom and I and our differing opinions on cilantro. She might dislike the specific flavor of cilantro, but we both agree that chocolate and coffee (sweet and bitter) work together, and we also agree about lime and simple syrup (sour and sweet). So flavor and taste are pretty complex things, but when we use an understanding of the basic tastes, we at least have a solid road map in our quest for delicious pairings.

How does our sense of smell affect what we taste?

I have been experimenting a lot recently while thinking about the affect our sense of smell has on what we taste, since some say it’s 80% or more of our perception of flavor. This is why when you have a cold, and your nose is congested, food can seem tasteless, or taste different. When garnishing a cocktail, I’m often thinking about scent, and how a garnish’s aroma can be the perfect way to punctuate the flavors of the drink.

I love pink peppercorn, and it’s wonderfully unique, citrusy, sweet yet pungent flavor. It lacks the characteristic bitey punch of black pepper, and when freshly cracked, opens up a beautiful aroma of citrusy spice. If you don’t have some at home, I highly recommend picking up a bottle with a grinder top. Pink pepper is a great tool to have in your home bar for making syrups or when you want to add a bit of nuance to the sour flavors of a cocktail. In my opinion, it pairs especially well with grapefruit, and somehow draws out the delicate floral side of grapefruit’s flavor and aroma. Just a little pinch of freshly cracked pink pepper transformed this cocktail for me and made it much more memorable. The bright, citrusy spice highlighted the flavors of grapefruit and lemon in the cocktail and lent a feeling of completion to the taste for me. I also opted to include a couple dashes of lavender bitters to intensify the impression of clean, floral flavors. When in combination with one another, these flavors create a harmonious, elevated drinking experience that takes the cocktail from basic gin sour, to really, really delicious gin sour! 🙂

I went all out on presentation here, choosing a glass that would really showcase the foam, and using butterfly pea flowers in my simple syrup for their gorgeous color. I don’t find that butterfly pea flower tea adds any significant amount of flavor, so I use it mostly as a coloring in my drinks. Lastly, I’ve topped this beauty with a big pink carnation, which offers a slightly spicy aroma of its own, adding another aromatic element and acting like a visual cherry on top. I’ll definitely be talking more about how visual elements play into taste and flavor in an upcoming post, but on to the recipe!

If having a better understanding of flavor pairing, garnishing, recipe templates, or making your recipes more memorable are subjects that interest you, sign up below for updates about my new online Creative Mixology course, launching in June! We’ll be doing a deep dive into these areas and many more, and giving you all the tools you need to explore your own creativity and design unique cocktail recipes that truly stand out.

Gin Sour with Grapefruit, Pink Pepper, and Butterfly Pea Flower


  • 2 oz Malfy Gin Rosa (grapefruit flavored gin)

  • 1 oz lemon juice

  • 1 oz butterfly pea flower infused simple syrup*

  • 1 egg white

  • 2 dashes lavender bitters

  • Pink pepper

Instructions: Add first 5 ingredients to a shaker (without ice) and shake hard for about 1 minute to build foam. Add ice and shake until chilled. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass or coupe and top with freshly cracked pink peppercorns. Garnish with an edible carnation, if desired.

*To make the syrup, simply use all equal parts. Steep 1/2 cup of butterfly pea flowers in 1/2 cup of hot water for 5 minutes. Strain out the flowers and add 1/2 cup of white sugar. Stir until sugar is dissolved.

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