Advanced Super Stimuli Basics

Superstimulus: A supernormal stimulus or superstimulus is an exaggerated version of a stimulus to which there is an existing response tendency, or any stimulus that elicits a response more strongly than the stimulus for which it evolved.

The cocktail, with all its highly abstracted components, is basically a liquid super stimuli.  If you need more visual and tangible examples of a super stimuli check out the Venus of Willendorf or for something newer and more contemporary; the sculptures of Botero.  If you need a tiny refresher, here it is.

You can really chase these things down some rabbit holes if you have the time.  Some people feel super stimuli are dangerous while others feel they are therapeutic. I guess all things in moderation.  The first time I had heard of the term was when the magicians in sleights of mind used various super stimuli to control your attentional spotlight during the magic trick.  Intuition tells me the cocktail uses them to dispel anxiety by controlling our attentional spotlights.  Because olfaction and gustation are so closely tied to memory, super stimuli, as found in cocktails, might also be used to cement important memories.  The ability to cement memories might explain the success of acquired tastes like Fernet & Jagermeister.

We can say most all cocktails are beverage super stimuli, but some are probably more super than others.

A 2:1:1 sour might be more of a super stimuli than a 2:1/2:1/2 sour.  If the second and third coefficients represent sweetness & acidity, the move from 1/2 to 1 increases their tension therefore changing the magnitude of response to the stimuli.  You cannot say a person will always get more pleasure out of one or the other, but I think you can make safer generalizations as the sample size of the imbibers increases. The stimuli will also probably get less “super” with each successive exposure.

So intuition tells me I can get more mileage out of a 2:1:1 than a 2:1/2:1/2. I think I can also elaborate that coefficient which represents sweetness and say a 2:1(400 g/L):1 is more of a super stimuli (to a large sample size) than a 2:1(250 g/L):1.

The g/L in the parenthesis represents grams per liter of sucrose as found in a syrup or liqueur. Something with 400 g/L is a typical syrup while something with 250 g/L is a liqueur like Cointreau (of course Cointreau also has tons of alcohol but I am trying to simplify some things).

Another super stimuli variable related to the sour is the amount of dissolved aroma.  In previous posts I’ve discussed this as the “sweet-tart” effect that dessert wine makers are concerned with.  Dessert wine makers claim that as sugar and acidity increase (the tension grows), dissolved aroma needs to as well or the taste will be hollow like a Sweet-Tart brand candy.  This means a sour with more dissolved aroma will be a greater super stimuli than a sour with less (holding sweetness and acidity constant). For whatever its worth, Intuition tells me that this is a variable that is easy to grow tired of.

Another super stimuli lies in the nature of the aroma.  I’ve talked about this in the past with grotesque juxtaposition as well as aromatic tonality that exists in the space between two known values.

If we abstract an aroma from the ordinary to the extraordinary we will be more attracted to it and therefore it will provoke a greater response.  This is often done via blending.  Different types of orange peels are often blended together to achieve an extraordinary tonal effect.  In gin, juniper is often partnered with angelica to alter tonality in pursuit of the extraordinary and its associated super stimulation.

So far I’ve only attempted to explain what is in common use but have I come up with any new techniques for creating cocktail super stimuli? Maybe.

I have long been in search of a way to categorize aroma and have settled on my gustatory convergence method where aromas are categorized in terms of gustation (sweet aromas, sour aromas, bitter aromas, umami aromas, etc.)

I think you could test what gustatory divisions an aroma converges with by pairing an aroma with various tastants and seeing what feels most seamless.

A super stimuli would result by using a properly aligned tastant to reinforce an aroma. This might already be common in food production, but not cross modally (olfaction to gustation).  Chinese restaurants know we are attracted to super stimuli so they reinforce their dishes with isolated MSG rather than using extra Shitake mushrooms in the sauce and making the dish more expensive.

The new idea is to infuse MSG in tequila to reinforce its aroma. This idea may parallel the acidity that is already incorporated to many gins post distillation.

Perfect tequila gibson

2 oz. MSG infused blanco tequila

.5 oz. bianco vermouth

.5 oz. dry vermouth

stir and garnish with a cocktail onion.


Classic cocktails that more clearly illustrate the super stimuli concept might be the Old Fashioned and the Gin Martini.  For an Old Fashioned of Bourbon, sugar, angostura bitters, and orange peel, the bitters and orange peel pervert and abstract inherent aromas within Bourbon thus provoking an exaggerated response.

For the Martini, as stated above, the aroma of juniper converges with acidity so the significant gustatory-acidity present in dry vermouth may create a super version of gin.  No wonder it became the most popular cocktail in a world.

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