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In a novel approach, flavor scientists turned to the Internet for help.

Jillian Kramer
July 31, 2017

We've got a bevy of words to describe our wine and beer beverages—think: crisp, fruity, tannic, earthy, or hoppy—but when it comes to other alcohols, we find ourselves at a loss. We know there's a difference between Appleton's signature blend and Bacardi's gold, but ask us to describe the difference in their tastes and smell and we writers may even struggle to find the right words. Apparently, it's a common problem—common enough that a team of University of Illinois researchers decided to develop a novel (and thorough) lexicon for rum.

The researchers, flavor scientists in the university's department of food science and human nutrition, had a tough task. After all, there are more than 1,000 different varieties of rum—and tasting even a few of them at a time can lead to something called sensory fatigue, or a state in which your tongue and nose can't determine the nuances in different alcohols. And when they all start appearing to taste the same, it's all-but-impossible to describe the various varieties of rum.

Typically, to create a flavor lexicon, a panel would taste the rums, recording the tastes and smells. For rum, "you would need to taste rums representative of all different categories," explained Chelsea Ickes, a doctoral student at the university. "With so many types of rums available, you would need to screen nearly all of them and then choose ones representative of different categories or classes, and evaluate those subsets of rums to create a lexicon." And with some 1,000 rums available, they'd need to try at least 50 or more, Ickes explained.

So rather than dull their senses and compose an inaccurate lexicon, the researchers took a unique approach: they turned to the Internet, reading rum descriptions provided by rum experts, rum enthusiasts' blogs, company websites, and product reviews for the more than 1,000 varieties of rum available, and then composed a rum flavor lexicon with what they found. The lexicon is the first of its kind to be made exclusively from web-based materials.

"Because so many people are [rum] enthusiasts, there are lots of reviews and descriptions online," Ickes said. "Instead of having a panel drink and evaluate all of those rums, we just took the data from people who are already interested in rum and who have taken the time to review, rate, and describe the products." Ultimately, the researchers' lexicon came from 17 websites and 57 companies, including some 3,000 individual reviews of the varieties.

What words would you find in the lexicon to describe rum? Here are a few: caramel, fruity, woody, sugar, vanilla, molasses, and smooth. Next, the researchers plan to use the lexicon to train sensory panels to analyze premium rums to see how they differ from less-expensive mixing rums.