Alcohol: One of many ways to flavour

Alcohol transports complex aromas exceptionally well, and aroma enriches our experience by awakening memories, feelings and appetites. But we need not ingest alcohol to experience it and alternatives abound, opening up many exciting new possibilities.

We can find a whiff of alcohol rewarding, having evolved from insects, tiny early mammals and more recently apes for whom mouldering fruit is a valuable lifeline. Our evolutionary heritage also means we are equipped to digest small quantities without a hitch.


Nearly all perfumes are based on an alcohol solution, and for good reason. Alcohol is a versatile solvent able to break down oily compounds and preserve organic ones. And it also evaporates quickly at room temperature, so sending aromatic compounds whirling into the air.

Alcohol also mixes with water, so we can use it as a flavour-enhancer in mostly made of water, which we need to live. Beer and wine are water with a flavour-enhancing 5-15% alcohol, while spirits have 35% or more and “fortified” wines and cocktails are usually in the middle.

But we can harness alcohol’s aroma-enhancing properties using tiny quantities. A splash can be enough, like a dab of perfume. And we do not need to ingest it to appreciate its aromatic contribution. Professional wine-tasters spit out their samples.

So the current low-risk guideline of no more than 14 UK units (140ml) of alcohol is more than enough to make full use of alcohol’s merits as a flavour enhancer, for both food or drink. The risk of overstepping the mark can be more easily avoided if we leave it out of our diet entirely.

And eliminating alcohol need not diminish our enjoyment of flavour. Water is an extraordinary solvent too, able to deliver a huge range of aromas with no added health pitfalls. We can significantly enhance our experience by simply paying more attention as we eat and drink.

Life is getting easier if we choose to avoid alcohol, with a growing range of “unleaded” versions of traditionally alcoholic drinks, allowing us to blend in easily and have the positive placebo effect with no risk. Mocktail recipes abound for the adventurous.

We can also enormously boost water’s flavour-bearing capacity without adding alcohol to it. Heat makes water a much better solvent and also makes it evaporate far faster, making aroma airborne, as with alcohol. So warm drinks are typically far more aromatic than cold ones.

Hot water’s heightened extraction and evaporation is the driving force of cocoa, tea and coffee. Both they offer a huge range of flavours, aromas and oral sensations rivalling their colder cousins. We can also get a benign buzz from caffeine and the mildly sedating effect of theanine in tea.

Communities of enthusiasts and vendors give us easy access to good information and supply. There are tens of thousands of teas and coffees, all with fascinating history, science, culture and innovation to explore. So too cooking and home-made drinks.

Limiting our alcohol consumption to safeguard our wellbeing does not limit to our access to the life-enhancing world of taste and smell. It can, in fact, make us value it more and be more open to new experiences which are at least as enjoyable and eye-opening.