Guests seasoning their own drinks was once commonplace. Prof Charles Spence asks if it could become so again.

The worlds of food and drinks share so many qualities, rituals and practices, but one of the more striking differences is their approaches to seasoning. Diners in restaurants are commonly encouraged – and equipped – to season their food at the table, while the equivalent rarely happens in bars. But this wasn’t always the case.

A few centuries ago, European gentlemen (and, for all I know, ladies too – though references never seem to mention them) would never think of leaving home without their own personal nutmeg grater. Apparently, the dandies of the day would think nothing of adding some freshly-grated nutmeg to their hot wine to help improve its taste.

At the time, nutmeg was one of the world’s most expensive spices, originating from the tiny Spice Islands of the Indonesian Archipelago. (Indeed, at one point in history, the Dutch swapped one of these islands with the British for New Amsterdam – a small island off the north east coast of North America that would one day become New York.) As such, the conspicuous addition of nutmeg may have served as much as a ‘Veblen good’ as anything else, allowing people to ostentatiously display their wealth for all to see. Seasoning was, in other words, 17th-century bling.

Nowadays, nutmeg has fallen out of favour, save for its use in festive food and drinks (think pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving). Should you wish to revive the ritual, you can still find inspiring examples preserved in museums; a number of the graters are fabulously fashioned from silver and shell.

Seasoning drinks may, at times, have been about status, but it had a functional side to it too. Early spirit makers would commonly add spices and botanicals to their wares to disguise the taste of their distillate – think gin – and much of the wine that was drunk in centuries gone by was apparently so rank that it needed adulterating to make it palatable. Nutmeg was undoubtedly a wiser choice than sweetening one’s wine with lead, which was also once common practice. Indeed, it has been suggested by some commentators that Beethoven’s deafness in later life may have resulted from his fondness for lead-seasoned wine.

None of this is to say that modern bartenders don’t season drinks. Cocktail bitters have long been a bitter seasoning and a finishing touch to many a classic cocktail. Indeed, bartenders use all manner of other finishing ingredients – salts, sprays, spice gratings and dustings to name just a few – to find balance, enhance or to pep the senses. The difference here is that this happens behind the bar, not in front of it. The seasoning falls within the bartender’s orbit, not the customer’s.

We all taste differently

But allowing guests that final opportunity to personalise their drinks (beyond their initial order) makes sense given the different worlds of taste in which we live. Such differences extend all the way from our taster status (affecting our likelihood of enjoying bitterness and alcohol, at least initially) through to our tolerance (not to mention enjoyment) of spice, which builds up as a result of our taste buds’ exposure to chilli (or rather capsaicin). Perhaps more relevant though in drinks is our liking of sweetness.

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Here, the population splits into three, roughly even groups, namely sweet-likers, sweet neutral, and sweet-dislikers. The former group tends to like drinks more the sweeter they get. The middle group tends to increase their liking to begin with but then plateaus off beyond a certain level of sweetness, while the latter group actually starts to dislike drinks as they become sweeter.

Ultimately, sweetness is not easily dialled up or down in the finished – and served – cocktail. Here is where hot and cold drinks part ways – it’s not as if bartenders can throw down a sachet of sugar like you might receive for a tea or coffee. Instead, this catering – be it to sweetness, acidity, bitterness, or spiciness – to tastes tends to happen at the point of order and production.

The descriptors in your menu enable guests to gravitate towards something that is likely to meet their own taste profile. In the world of classics, there are off-the-peg options too – Manhattans for example, come as Sweet, Perfect, or Dry. Then there’s the classic with a clause: “I’ll have a Margarita, but make it extra sour.” The cocktail enthusiast might throw out their own favoured ratios – a 3:1 Dry Martini for example. Outside of a few examples – eggs and steaks come to mind – this level of personalisation isn’t so common in restaurants. Perhaps it’s this degree of tailoring to taste at the point of order that precludes the need for any post-production embellishment.

But it’s also worth considering what a guest-led intervention could bring to their tasting experience. There is something called the ‘IKEA effect’ – the name given to a cognitive bias by which people tend to like things more that they have had a hand in making. This observation was noted in one food study, where people who thought they had had a hand in finishing a part-made meal rated it as tasting better than one that they thought someone else made, even though it was actually the same food in both cases.

Also worth considering are the more ritualistic elements that can sometimes build up around such behaviours, and which again may add value in terms of the guest’s experience. If you are looking to create a cocktail that your bar becomes known for – which, who knows, could one day be a modern classic – it couldn’t hurt to create a ritual around the serve. Might it even be possible to one day see cocktail bitters taking their place on the table, in the way a restaurant does salt and pepper? 

Although it seems unlikely we will see the return of the personal nutmeg grater anytime soon, there is certainly an argument for empowering your guests to personalise their drinks. As such, there are a number of reasons to season.