Of all the foods on the planet, few are as divisive as cilantro; you either pile it on or you avoid it at all costs. In 2012, researchers published a paper explaining one reason for cilantro’s polarizing properties. “We think people who dislike it have receptors that make them unable to detect a good-smelling component of the herb, and certain inborn genotypes of the bitter taste receptor also partially determine how much people enjoy cilantro,” writes Danielle R. Reed, Ph.D., associate director of Monell Chemical Senses Center.
When you think about it, Campari elicits a similar behavior. Many of us have had the experience of downing Negroni after Negroni, while a friend can’t stand even a rinse of the bitter. So we asked the scientists at Monell what could be the cause of this taste divide. The short answer? Genetics.
“We have 25 different types of bitter receptors, and the sensitivity of many, if not all, of these receptors is tuned by variations in the underlying genes,” explains Leslie Stein, Ph.D., Monell’s director of science communications. One person will perceive a compound called PROP, which activates the bitter receptor called T2R38, as unbearably bitter, while to another person, PROP tastes like water, Stein explains.
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This could explain the mysterious case of Campari, though it’s hard to know for sure because we don’t know what bitter chemicals it contains. And, as with cilantro, there could also be an odor component involved, Stein says.
Campari’s bitterness could explain other things, too, like why some people say Campari tastes like medicine. “Bitterness is medicinal in many cases,” Reed, the director of Monell Chemical Senses Center, says. “For example, think of caffeine, a bitter compound in coffee that’s also a medicine used to treat migraine or a poison if taken in too high a dose.” Or the flavor may remind you of medicines you took as a child. “Many bitter liquid medicines are flavored with herbs like Herba Santa, and there may be flavor notes in Campari that strike an old chord in your memory,” Reed says.
Whatever the cause of some people’s distaste, they may be able to learn to like Campari, or at least enjoy it more. Preferences change as we age and deepen our world experience. “Few teenagers love opera, but many older people do,” Reed says.
Then there’s the fact that the ability to sense something doesn’t really play much of a role in our preferences. Our ability to see or hear plays little role in what colors we like or music we enjoy. Similarly, what we are capable of tasting or smelling actually plays a minor role in determining what we like, and our taste preferences evolve over time. Think about it: Maybe you chugged Miller Light in college but now prefer craft IPAs and Miller makes you ill (perhaps thanks to those memories of spending the next day on the bathroom floor).
“My guess is that if you took someone who ‘hates’ Campari and served it to them every day before dinner while sitting on the terrace of an Italian villa, they would learn to associate the taste and flavor with happy moments and love it,” Reed says.
Or, since that experience may never happen, try using a quarter-ounce or less in a cocktail and mixing it with different spirits or liqueurs to see what that does to the flavor profile, suggests Allen Lancaster, master cocktail craftsman at The Bar at The Spectator Hotel in Charleston, S.C. “Also, a unique and fun experiment is to add a pinch of salt to the cocktail. In very small amounts, salt can balance the bitterness,” he says.
And if all else falls, just keep drinking what you like.