Whether you sip wine or whiskey, how you describe what you\u2019re tasting is inherently subjective. Personal experiences might lead someone from northern Europe to liken a flavor to lingonberries, a fruit unfamiliar to many in the Southern Hemisphere.\r\n\r\nHow, then,\u00a0can\u00a0professional reviewers\u00a0ensure\u00a0that\u00a0their\u00a0language\u00a0is accurate and understandable to as many\u00a0people\u00a0as possible?\r\n\r\nTo answer that question, researchers at Virginia Tech\u2019s\u00a0Department of Food Science and Technology\u00a0are\u00a0using\u00a0Natural Language Processing (NLP), a type of machine learning, to examine thousands of whiskey reviews.\u00a0The\u00a0goal is to build a lexicon of the terms used by whiskey reviewers\u00a0not\u00a0taken from books, articles\u00a0or pre-existing tasting notes.\u00a0Such a\u00a0list\u00a0could\u00a0help consumers understand how experts taste and describe whiskey. It will also provide a more comprehensive view of\u00a0the\u00a0flavors\u00a0that\u00a0experts perceive.\r\n\r\nThe project\u00a0is\u00a0the dissertation research of Ph.D. student Leah Hamilton.\r\n\r\n\u201cWe were talking about vocabulary, and how you define the words that people use to talk about flavor,\u201d\u00a0says\u00a0Hamilton. She decided to explore one of the thornier challenges in the field of sensory science: how to describe taste.\r\n\r\nTaste is highly subjective, and there's no agreed-upon set of words that people use to describe characteristics like flavor, aroma, appearance and mouthfeel, Hamilton says.\r\n\u201cTaste is culturally constructed: the way we taste food, what tastes good and what doesn\u2019t.\u201d\u2014Jacob Lahne, Ph.D., Virginia Tech\r\nTo build their library of flavor descriptors, Hamilton and her team selected reviews from two websites,\u00a0WhiskyCast\u00a0and\u00a0Whisky Advocate.\u00a0Both of the sites met their criteria\u00a0of how\u00a0their NLP algorithm works.\r\n\r\nAccording to Chreston Miller, assistant professor and data and informatics consultant, the program sifts through each review and extracts words that relate to flavor. The data will be analyzed by Hamilton and will eventually form the basis of her Ph.D dissertation.\r\n\r\nHamilton\u2019s project could be groundbreaking not just because it seeks to create a database of naturally occurring flavor descriptors, but also because those words can be problematic.\r\n\r\nHamilton and\u00a0the dissertation committee chair,\u00a0Jacob Lahne, Ph.D., say\u00a0that taste is hard to describe because our perceptions are driven by not just experience, but culture.\r\n\r\n\u201cTaste is culturally constructed: the way we taste food, what tastes good and what doesn\u2019t,\u201d says Lahne. \u201cBut also, the perceptual dimension seems to be culturally constructed.\u201d\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nIf\u00a0you ate birthday cakes with sour cherries throughout childhood, you might be adept to discern those flavors. You\u00a0also\u00a0might\u00a0be\u00a0fonder\u00a0of\u00a0sour cherries than someone who has never tasted them.\r\n\r\nPlus, how we discern and describe flavors,\u00a0what\u00a0Lahne\u00a0refers to as \u201cflavor responses,\u201d are influenced by the people around us. This is one of the reasons that guided tastings, reviews,\u00a0and tasting notes can be useful.\r\n\r\n\u201cTasting something with tasting notes, you may start noticing those things, and noticing them in other whiskeys,\u201d says Lahne.\r\n\u201cYou need to relate to things you have smelled or had before.\u201d\u2014Jamar Mack, founder, Kentucky's Original Black Bourbon Enthusiasts\r\nHaving an authoritative lexicon of whiskey descriptors might have unintended consequences. It\u00a0could make whiskey less approachable and inclusive.\r\n\r\nWhen Jamar Mack, founder of the nonprofit Kentucky\u2019s Original Black Bourbon Enthusiasts\u00a0(KOBBE), leads whiskey seminars, he encourages participants to find familiar flavors in the spirits they encounter. Prescriptive tasting notes can inhibit newcomers,\u00a0he says.\r\n\r\n\u201cIt\u2019s going to box people into, \u2018Here\u2019s what you should be smelling or tasting based on these words,\u2019\u00a0\u201d\u00a0says Mack.\u00a0\u201cYou need to relate to things you have smelled or had before.\u201d\r\n\r\nA lexicon of whiskey descriptors is the first step, says Hamilton. There remain more nuanced analyses to be made, like how certain words are used to describe pricier whiskeys or how slang comes into play.\r\n\r\nThese findings could be invaluable to those in the drinks business. Even if specific flavors get associated with more expensive bottles, do drinkers actually taste those notes when they sip? Might they simply anticipate them due to the price tag? And, perhaps most importantly, will they pay more for such subjective, ephemeral pleasure?