When I went out looking for a fall cocktail I wasn’t really expecting to become interested in psychology. But you don’t always know what it is you’re actually investigating when you start a case. And that is what happened. I went looking for fall flavor and I found it. I found four spectacularly delicious warming things to toast the change of seasons with and four damn patient bartenders. Which I appreciated because, as always, I had a lot of questions.

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metaphorically significant cocktail

My first destination was Spur in Belltown. I’ve never had a bad drink here. I sat down at the black stone bar and Quiet Bartender gave my request for a fall cocktail a few moments thought before bringing me a Dixon Hill. It was beautiful. Apple brandy, suze, lime, and celery soda. Suze is (apparently) a french apéritif—a bitter with citrus undertones that could be likened to Lillet. Apparently Picasso painted a bottle of it once. Who knew. But it added a beautiful element to my drink. It was sweet and tart like a green apple but with just a hint of bitterness at the end. It’s a perfect metaphor for how I feel about fall! Beautiful, sweet, but with a hint of bitterness for the end of summer. I’m not sure Quiet Bartender did this on purpose but I was still impressed.

So, buzzed on the wonder of a good metaphor, I walked up to Rob Roy. I don’t know how else to describe it: this place is cool. Which is not really my jam honestly but I do appreciate the thing done well. Somewhat Miffed Bartender was suitably patient with my vague request and refusal to give him a base spirit. He made me a Fooled by the Night. At least I think that is the name because for some reason I only wrote down the ingredients. I can probably blame the drinking, right? But it was rye, triple sec, Meletti, chocolate bitters, and “orange oils.” I’m assuming they mean Meletti Amaro as that’s (I think) the most common of several Meletti products. The orange chocolate combination is, to me, more winter than fall, but perhaps hearkens to fall’s promise of Christmas. Maybe I’m stretching the metaphor.

So on I trekked to the Backdoor at Roxys. Dim lighting, candles, and a sort of New Orleans Speakeasy feel, or so I’m told. Suit Vest Bartender impressed me by being he first to go off-menu. He made me a Kentucky Cartel: bourbon, cinnamon tequila, and a Laphroaig rinse. It’s a Barrio creation (Capitol Hill) and the recipe description I found online had two additional ingredients: honey and old fashion bitters. At the risk of losing credibility as a critic, I will say that this drink was incredible. I suppose I love cocktails too much to ever make it as a critic anyway. Though I am leaning towards this as the best fall cocktail of the night. It had the spicy smell of fall leaves, the cinnamon warmth of a good Thanksgiving, and enough heat to drive away the fall chill in the air.

I’m also including an Honorary Mention in case there is any sliver of doubt remaining that I lack the necessary criticality to ever actually review anything. This one doesn’t go on the main list because (1) I made a separate trip later for it and (2) I accidentally gave Grumpy Bartender a hint. After loving the Kentucky Cartel I was walking in Capitol Hill and suddenly, there it was! Barrio! So of course I wandered in. Foolishly, the first thing out of my mouth was “is this where the Kentucky Cartel is from?” Yes girl, it is. And now Grumpy has a drink in mind, that he knows I liked. I’m sorry, I’m a terrible scientist. I have to mention this one though because it was so good. Grumpy went not just off the menu but made me something that I suspect he created. Possibly on the spot. Applejack, bourbon, cinnamon, simple, and angostura. It had all the warmth of the Kentucky Cartel but with that sweet fall flavor of apple brandy. Perhaps the only thing it lacked was a good metaphor. Which brings us to the psychology.

To me, fall has a magic that other seasons lack. There’s something in crisp cold air and that clear fall sunlight that makes me feel sweet nostalgia and just a touch of bitterness that summer has come to a close. It’s a beautiful bittersweet thing. It’s odd how similar this feeling is to the way the Dixon Hill tasted. How can a taste feel so similar to an emotion? Even the words are the same: bitter and sweet are both feelings and a tastes. So I started poking around and found that I am far from the first to notice the connection between taste and emotion. At one point the linguistic overlap between taste and emotion was assumed to come from borrowing taste words to express emotions, since they can be so difficult to communicate. A later theory is (I think) far more interesting.

It starts with a study that found that people with an unusually sensitive sense of taste were also more sensitive to emotionally charged stimuli. I think it implies that taste and emotion are part of the same system in the brain. They are both, at their cores, systems of reward and aversion that encourage specific behaviors. Taste makes you eat certain things and avoid poison, spoilage, etc. Emotion regulates behavior on a broader scale. So are they one system, two interconnected systems, or is one a subset of the other maybe? Another article argues that our emotion of disgust developed from the taste experience. Could all of our complex emotion come from our system of taste? It’s certainly possible that the ability to taste a bittersweet fall cocktail came first and from that feeling a while new level of emotional experience arose. That’s how it happened for me, anyway. I sat down to experience taste and ended up with a much deeper emotional reaction. My drink didn’t just taste good, it brought up my feelings about fall. About the turning of the season and the transition from summer. It made me think about experience and how it happens in the brain. It was more than I bargained for when I set out for a lighter, more recreational investigation, but I’m always happy to follow whatever winding path life presents to me.