The Sweetest Wine

Eric Lis

As it turns out, wine really might taste better when you drink it out of the skull of a fallen enemy.

Our expectations have a lot to do with our taste. As is famously said, the first bite of any meal is with the eyes (as far as I know, the most famous person to ever say this was Kryten the mechanoid, but someone else probably said it first), and every chef knows that presentation is an essential part of preparing a meal. You can completely change a meal by changing how it’s presented, and we know this… it’s the reason why things like the Settlers of Catan cookbook exist, where the only thing that distinguishes the recipes is how they’re served. All of that being said, there can be a huge distinction between our “knowing” something is true and someone actually demonstrating it with evidence, and as it turns out, this particular belief has been experimentally tested, and I my opinion, it’s been done in the funniest way possible.

Back in 2002, a team of researchers published this paper, where they tested whether the perceived flavour of a food could be altered by whether or not it was in a container which the consumer thought was appropriate or inappropriate. They served orange juice, hot chocolate, and beer to participants in a glass, mug, or bottle. Each drink was rated as more pleasant when it was served in the appropriate container, which the authors took to mean that a beverage is perceived as being most pleasant when its container is consistent with expectations.

Food probably tastes better when served in something familiar or that we strongly associate with it. This makes a certain amount of sense, because our brains are very good at forming associations between things and the association between “glass” and “juice” might easily mean that we pay more attention to, and therefore have more appreciation for, the flavour of the juice when it’s in a glass. Our body also adapts to anticipate things based on cues; there are many cases of people suffering drug overdoses from taking the same amount of a drug as usual, but in a different environment, and the different environment apparently fails to cue the body to be ready for the drug. By the same logic, our brains recognize that some containers might be less typical for a food, but more associated with excitement, and again, the food would then be perceived as better. If you’ve ever heard someone say that ice cream tastes better in a cone rather than a cup, this might explain that. In the study above, we probably wouldn’t have seen any effect of excitement because neither a mug nor a glass would seem to inherently make hot chocolate more exciting. I would wonder, though, what would happen if you gave someone the same amount of scotch in either a whiskey glass or a shot glass. I would wager that the serving in the shot glass would be perceived as hitting harder while the serving in the larger glass would be perceived as smoother and more relaxing. I found this such an interesting possibility that I actually went looking online to see if anyone had ever performed an experiment along these lines, but couldn’t find anything like it.

What this really makes me think of, though, is the old fantasy cliché of making a drinking cup out of the skull of an enemy. This isn’t purely a fantasy cliché, either, but rather a tradition seen in a number of cultures throughout history, most famously various peoples of Mongolia and certain Celtic tribes. I always thought it was strange, simply because skulls have so many holes in them that it would be too much of a bother to plug them all up, but I would have to admit that the finished product would be an attention-grabber. What this research on beer and hot chocolate tells us is, a drinking skull wouldn’t merely be a way to intimidate people and remind them what happens to your enemies. By virtue of being the “special cup” used only for ceremonies, special occasions, and particularly important intimidate checks, anything drunk out of a skull probably genuinely does taste better, because of the associations that the drinker has to the skull. Although as I think about it, this would probably only hold true if someone believed that the skull cup was something truly awesome. In contrast, if someone found a skull cup totally revolting or terrifying, it would likely have the exact opposite effect, and make whatever was inside taste much worse than one would expect.

So when you’re drawing up the background and character portrait for your next blackguard or orcish warlord, remember that a drinking cup made of a skull isn’t something purely for show. Whether it’s filled with wine, blood, or, apparently, hot chocolate, whatever’s inside probably really does taste better. And if that thought doesn’t get you into character to play a blackguard, I can’t think of anything else that will. 

More than four years ago, Dr. Eris Lis, M.D., began writing a series of brilliant and informative posts on RPGs through the eyes of a medical professional, and this is the one that appeared here on April 17, 2016. Lis is a physician, gamer, and author of the Skirmisher Publishing LLC OGL sourcebook Insults & Injuries, which is also available for the Pathfinder RPG system