Sweet Cocktail Drinkers of the World, Unite!

A study suggests that a preference for sweet wine and Appletinis is genetic—and that fans shouldn't be discriminated against



If you order Appletinis, fruity vodka drinks, or White Zinfandel, I'm sorry if I'm the first to tell you but the beverage elite hates you. Well, "hate" might be a strong word: "despise" is a better one. After you place your order, the sommelier or bartender simply turns around, smirks, and pours the offending beverage but not before surmising that you're one of the herd—a lumpen proletariat of drinking.

But just as Karl Marx once advocated for the rights of the politically disenfranchised, sweet cocktail drinkers of the world, you've found your champion in Tim Hanni—a tireless advocate for the banal tastes of the masses. He suggest that beverage snobbery is a little like foot-binding—an ancient Chinese practice whereby women's feet were broken to reduced their shoe size. Trying to force yourself to enjoy a bitter drink when you prefer sweet drinks is like fitting a size 12 foot into a size eight shoe. Seems obvious, but beverage professionals too often deem themselves, as Hanni says, the "final arbiter" of taste, insisting drinkers who prefer sweet beverages "evolve" their taste. (Ahem, guilty.)

For Hanni, this is where the beverage world got it wrong. And the beverage elite might very well be able to brush it off if it wasn't for that fact that Tim is one of them, one of 289 Masters of Wine (MW) in the world and one of the first two MWs in the United States. But then again, Hanni has been kicking beverage snobs in the pants for quite some time.

Now these sweet wines (and sweetened wines) are getting the boot even in situations where they were once common pairings.

Hanni was among the first wine and food professionals to advocate for a fifth taste—umami, also know as "savory"—earning him the title The Swami of Umami. (Umami is likely what makes bacon so darn tasty.) He also created the progressive wine list 25 years ago, shifting the format from region, varietal, and pricing to specific flavor preferences. Both umami and progressive wine lists have become rote in the culinary world.

And now this: Hanni, in conjunction with Cornell University's Dr. Virginia Utermohlen, released a study at the Consumer Wine Awards on consumer preferences that catalogs four "phenotypical" types of tasters, ranging from Sweet—which he reminds us is really, really hypersensitive tasters with a high concentration of taste receptors, who prefer sweeter flavors—to Hypersensitive, Sensitive, and Tolerant. According to Hanni, "Each phenotype lives in their own perceptual world." You can download a summary of the study at Timhanni.com.

This has led those with hypersensitive palates to flee wine in droves and choose cocktails instead, since wine lists, much like the Martini itself, have become drier and drier, fitting the profile of Sensitive and Tolerant tasters. Although "tolerant" may be a misnomer. Tolerant tasters can be the least tolerant of them all, creating wine lists that center around bold, tannic wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon with little or no sweet wine choices. These people, when confronted, may insist that sweet wine drinkers are simple or uneducated.

As Hanni points out, historically speaking it was not uncommon for sweet wines such as Sauternes to be served with a meal. Mulled wines, cups, and vermouth were also more common at the dinner table. But now these sweet wines (and sweetened wines) are getting the boot even in situations where they were once common pairings. At a recent wine competition I judged for Star Chefs, deemed the Sommelier Smackdown, many sommeliers were adamant that sweet wines shouldn't be paired with foie gras, which has been up until now a standard pairing.

Hanni also relates that wine was a more fluid category in the past—no pun intended, closer to cocktails than we might imagine. Above I've already mentioned mulled wine and cups, but he gives the example of the Kir—a wine-based mixed drink with Aligoté and Crème de Cassis, which fits the profile of White Zinfandel drinkers to a tee.

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This may explain part of the switch from wine to cocktails too: Behind a bar you can often doctor a cocktail to match the needs of a particular customer, and this personalization is essential for differing phenotypes. Hanni postulates that the Champagne Cocktail—made with a sugar cube, lemon peel, and bitters—is a response to this drying out of bubbly. Champagne is much less sweet than it was in the 19th century.

The point being not that hypersensitive wine drinkers should now have their own wine lists to the exclusion of others, or that they should abandon wine all together, but that Hanni may have it right. Just as workers were able to advocate for their rights to weekends, minimum wage, and political inclusion, so sweet wine drinkers deserve a place at the table and on wine lists. And by the way, sweet wine drinkers: We owe you an apology.