"Yeah, that's hellfire all right."
The detectives have raided a house and found some suspicious white powder or liquid. One of them puts his or her finger in it, then either sniffs it or tastes it. They pronounce it's heroin or cocaine or whatever. Or if it's phony drugs, they announce "Powdered sugar!"
Also done by drug-dealing baddies.
Seen in almost every 1970s Cop Show
The mysterious white powder (almost) never, ever, ever turns out to be a deadly poison that kills our hero outright, despite the fact that he's found something, doesn't know what it is, and is stupid enough to put it directly in his mouth.
This is Truth in Television
to the extent that certain drugs (opium, for example) have a distinctive taste or odor. Cocaine can similarly be identified not by taste, but by the way it instantly numbs where it touches. However, any modern police lab is loaded with all kinds of test equipment for just this kind of thing. Without it, it's just a cop's word on the stand. (And how reliable would that word be if they just deliberately ingested something mind-altering?) But if a chemical reaction proves it's really drugs, it's a lot harder for a lawyer to disprove, and a lot safer for the cop (see the Real Life entries). Not to mention the fact that a police officer could get in serious trouble if they were tested and found to have a drug in their system.
If the substance is blood, you're performing The Ketchup Test
. For any case of testing mysterious substances by taste or smell see Sniff Sniff Nom
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Anime & Manga
- In the anime version of Dominion Tank Police there's a scene where Brenten tastes some mysterious liquid, then is informed a moment too late that it's a urine sample. (The manga had no such gag, but it's exactly the kind of thing Brenten would have done.)
- In Great Teacher Onizuka, Onizuka needs more than a million yen to pay for a vacation trip and his buddy cop Saejima gives him bags of white powder, supposedly cocaine, that are apparently worth millions. Kikuchi immediately pokes his finger in the bags and tastes the powder, and says that it is just ordinary flour. Onizuka is angry at being cheated, but Saejima replies that "I never said it was cocaine! It is good flour! You could sell it to a bakery!"
- In a chapter of Gokusen, one of the teachers at the school discovers a mysterious pill. The protagonist, a Yakuza Princess grinds it between her fingers and tastes it, to the shock of her colleagues. Seeing their reaction, she claims that it's just an antacid, but identifies it to herself as drugs. Seeing how her Family are Neighbourhood Friendly Gangsters who supposedly don't deal drugs, it's kind of odd that she would be able to tell what the substance is/why she would think of doing this.
- In Rurouni Kenshin, Megumi drops a small packet on the ground when hurrying off to treat Yahiko, who was just poisoned by a ninja. Sanosuke picks up the packet and takes a small taste of the white powder inside. He discovers that it was opium, and angrily questions why she would have this in her possession.
- Played completely straight in episode 2 of Space Adventure Cobra: The Psychogun where Cobra tastes a vat of some glowing substance the villain has hidden away, and concludes that he is smuggling drugs.
- Urusei Yatsura: In a late chapter, Shutaro Mendo is trying to show his classmates why they should think that his pool -located next to the beach- is so impressive, and he shows them two cups filled with water (one of them picked from the pool). Ryuunosuke's father dips his forefinger in them, tastes each one and determines one cup is filled with Japan Sea water and the second is filled with Pacific Ocean water (hence, they are swimming in Japan Sea water as watching the Pacific Ocean, something that Shutaro thinks it is utterly and unspeakably awesome. His classmates disagree...)
- Luffy of One Piece does it once with a strange green powder he found near a hut in the desert. Not so much to identify it than to see if it can be eaten (it doesn't; it's an alchemical powder used to cause rain). Justified in that Luffy is perpetually hungry, his first approach to anything new is "Is It Something You Eat?", and he's a moron.
- Every time powder-form drugs turn up in Case Closed, Conan verifies its identity by tasting it. (And he really shouldn't be that cavalier about putting strange substances in his mouth, given how many times he's seen victims die to Finger-Licking Poison.)
- Judge Dredd once identified a shipment of illegal sugar by tasting.
- Alternate History tale Rex Mundi has agents of the Inquisition identify laudanum (liquid opium) this way.
Films — Animation
Films — Live-Action
- Spoofed in Terry Pratchett's Feet of Clay, where Constable Flint (a troll serving in the Ankh-Morpork City Watch) tastes a mysterious white powder he suspects to be Slab, a troll hallucinogen, and says, "Yes, this is definitely Slab wurble wurble sclup," and has to spend three days tied to his bed until the spiders go away.
- The same thing happens to Sgt. Detritus later in the book. Ironic especially since Detritus was the one who relayed the fate of Sergeant Flint and stated how dumb it was.
Detritus blinked at his finger, which was still white with the dust, and sidled over to Carrot. "Did I just lick dis?" he said.
"Er, yes," said Carrot.
"T'ank goodness for dat," said Detritus, blinking furiously. "'D hate to believe dis room was really full of giant hairy spide... weeble weeble sclup ..."
- Earlier, Vimes found a mysterious bag of white powder in his desk but explicitly refused to taste it, instead asking the on-staff alchemist to see if it was arsenic. Shortly afterwards Carrot did use this method. On a mysterious bag of white powder he'd just seen Vimes stuff a handful from into his mouth. It turned out to be sugar, Vimes having swapped out the bag for one from the canteen.
- And Then There Were None. The doctor puts a very-very-small amount of a mysterious substance on his finger and tastes it very cautiously. He is instantly able to tell it's cyanide.
- In Agents of Light and Darkness, John Taylor performs the fingertip touch-and-taste test on a statue, and confirms it's a human who's been transformed into salt. Only in the Nightside...
- Mentioned in Stephen Fry's autobiography Moab Is My Washpot, when he recounts the head boy at his prep school catching him with stolen sweets.
"How many times do I have to tell you," I howled, "I haven't been to the village shop!"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Sure you haven't. And what have we got here then?"
If the memory weren't so absurdly anachronistic, I could almost swear that Pollock ripped open one of the flying saucers and put his tongue to the sherbet like a Hollywood cop tasting white powder.
- In Rudyard Kipling's The Second Jungle Book story "The King's Ankus", Mowgli discovers some men who have died after eating poisoned bread. One taste (of the bread, not the men) is enough for him to identify the type of poison. Kipling justifies this as necessary for survival in a jungle full of poisonous plants.
- The Curious Misadventures of Feltus Ovalton has Percy about to do this to a packet of concentrated itching powder; fortunately, Feltus stops him.
- Maureen does this (cautiously) in Robert A. Heinlein's To Sail Beyond the Sunset while searching out-of-control teen daughter Priscilla's room, when she finds a bag of white powder. She concludes it's cocaine from the numbing effect (she did also find what she decided was marijuana). She briefly considers turning the stash over to the police in hopes they'll find her daughter's dealer, but decides it would be pretty close to impossible to convince the police the stash is her daughter's rather than her own, and flushes it.
- In Isaac Asimov's mystery novel Murder at the ABA, the protagonist finds a small pile of white powder in the murder victim's room, tastes it, and recognizes it as heroin. When he tries to report this discovery, the powder is suddenly gone.
- In Dorothy Gilman's The Clairvoyant Countess, Lt. Pruden works out the Syndicate's intentions by testing some heroin like this.
- The Scarab Murder Case: Vance uses this to find the opium in Dr. Bliss' coffee. Sergeant Heath packs up the coffee cup for a real analysis (which confirms Vance's taste-test).
- Hannibal does this in an episode of The A-Team.
- Bodie, Doyle and Cowley regularly do this in seventies action show The Professionals.
- Also spoofed in one episode of Police Squad! — presented with a bag of white powder, Norberg identifies it as a drug from a fingertip taste. Then, while the action continues in the foreground, he takes another fingertip, and another, and then a big fingerload, and starts rubbing it on his gums... When we next see him, he's high as a kite and draped around a piece of furniture.
- A variation on the trope occurred on Barney Miller when Barney suspects some brownies baked by Wojo's girlfriend have hashish in them. He asks Harris to test the brownies, which Harris does... by eating one, rather than sending it to the lab as Barney had expected.
- Has appeared a couple of times on LOST in the heroin-related subplots.
- Doctor Who
- The Doctor does this with blood, even identifying the blood group, in the episode "The Christmas Invasion".
- Ten developed a bit of a habit of um... licking things. Not necessarily always for diagnostic purposes.
- Eleven does this as well. With a shed. To calculate how long it's been since it was built.
- In the TV show Sisters, one of the sisters, Teddy, and her boyfriend come across some some drugs hidden in a shipment of clothes from her clothing line. The boyfriend open one of packages and tastes the drug. Teddy asks if it's heroin and he replies he doesn't know, that's just what they do on TV.
- The X-Files: Mulder does this all the time. He frequently touches some weird substance or its residue, and sometimes he goes that one step up and smells it or licks it as well. In "Eve", he does this with digitalis and his tongue goes numb. He performs The Ketchup Test on fake blood in "Revelations". Scully's face is a wonder to behold.
- Fraser of Due South does this constantly, much to his partner's irritation. Spoofed in one hilarious episode where the villain knows about Fraser's habit and sets a trap for him. Fraser finds a mysterious substance, sniffs and tastes it, looks confused, and keels over.
- Spoofed in Just Shoot Me!: Jack is about to take a bite of what he thinks is a diet pastry when Nina stops him, tastes the substance on top and declares it to be "Sugar, pure cane."
- The Drew Carey Show
- A version occurs in an episode where Drew is suspected of being a drug addict. The cop assigned to the case goes through his house, finding various evidence that means he could be an addict, and having it explained away by the peculiarities of Drew being Drew. Then he finds the coffee table in the living room covered in white powder.
Cop: And what's this?
Drew: It's icing sugar. I have donuts sometimes when I'm watching TV.
Cop: Come on. You know how many donuts you'd have to eat to make this much — (tastes it) Ah, it's sugar.
- On another episode, a bag of what appears to be cocaine is found. An employee tastes it and says, "Interesting. I have no idea what cocaine tastes like."
- Sam Tyler in Life On Mars not only identifies a sample of heroin but can tell from its colour that it's from Turkey... much to the suspicion of his police colleagues, as heroin is a new drug that's barely hit the street in 1973.
Ray: How do you know so much about it?
Gene: Because he's on it.
- This is very anachronistic. Heroin was a major problem as of the turn of the century, much less the 1970s. Heroin just seems to make a comeback every few decades... the 1930s, 1950s, 1970s, and 2000s have all seen big comebacks for heroin.
- In one episode of House, Thirteen does this when trying to track down what their patient's cocaine was cut with. Justified, however, in that Thirteen has a chronic case of death wish.
- ''Star Trek
- Star Trek: The Original Series: Kirk gives the taste test to a white powder he finds lying about on the "Arena" planet, but in that case it's potassium nitrate.
- On Deep Space Nine Sisko once gave Gul'Dukat back a bottle of poisoned wine. Weyoun took a swig and declared it "quite toxic". He then explained that Vorta are immune to most poisons.
- Averted on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. When Elliot is undercover as a white-collar drug dealer, he "tests the product" of a potential supplier by feeling the powder's consistency. Asked why he doesn't taste it instead, he claims that they do random drug tests at his workplace; he only sells cocaine, he can't risk using it.
- Beckett does the test and finds heroin in Castle. Castle comments on how badass she looked doing it.
- Jasper Carrott and Robert Powell taste some white powder in crime-drama spoof The Detectives. Then they taste it again to make sure. Cut to the pair driving down the motorway at approximately 5mph, screaming "Slow down! Slow down!"
- The Hyde persona in the British series Jekyll identified a soldier's age, diet, and number and breed of pets by smell and was also able to determine that he had cancer, where, and his life expectancy by tasting his sweat.
- On The Incredible Hulk David taste-tested some white powder he found on his foot after transforming back from being the Hulk. (Hulk had rampaged through a warehouse full of drugs.) Possibly justified in that he is a doctor.
- MacGyver tests a suspected drug sample this way, only to find out that it's keratin (powdered rhino horn).
- Played for laughs on The Goodies, with smell instead of taste.
Tim: Hang on a minute—(sniffs)—dang! That's certain substances, that is! How stupid... Graeme, have a sniff of that.
Graeme: Huh? Oh, that's—(sniffs — collapses, then gets up, looking completely spaced out)—hooh! Where'd you get the stuff, man? Cool, baby, cool...
- Gill Grissom gets called out on this twice in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation: early in the show, while trying to understand a woman's disappearance in a supermarket, he finds a yellow smudge on the floor and performs the fingertip dip taste test. Captain Brass, who was hovering nearby, winces in disgust and goes "Oh, that's sanitary." Luckily for Grissom, it was just mustard. But the second time he does it, much later in the series, it's Catherine who warns him that one of these days he'll really regret doing that.
- "Reverend" Jim Ignatowski of Taxi was apparently able to tell that the coca leaves in some cookies baked by Latka came from "Peru... southern Peru, 1974... before the rains."
- Chief Inspector Japp does this at least twice in Poirot — identifying cocaine in "The Affair at the Victory Ball", and heroin in "Evil Under the Sun".
- In an episode of Get Smart, a KAOS agent tries to poison Max with arsenic with a hot dog at a game. Before Max can take a bite, Hymie the android wants to try the hot dog. Reluctantly, Max give Hymie the hot dog. Hymie eats the whole thing and comments on the taste, including that arsenic is a bit bitter.
- Murdoch Mysteries: Although usually portrayed as the smart one, Detective Murdoch does it once with a white powder found at a crime scene. Constable Crabtree gets agitated and warn him that it could be poisonous, but Murdoch tells him it's just plaster.
- Subverted almost every episode of C.O.P.S. (well, every episode there's a drug test) with the baggie-test. Portable chemical tests the police have contain reactants that will change color in the presence of the primary component of the drug; if you've gone more than three episodes of that show without seeing the next contestant on "Is It Blue?" at some point, count yourself lucky.
- Occurs in Family Guy, when Brian gets a job working as a police dog. He gains a cocaine addiction as a result.
- A weird example from King of the Hill: When Hank suspects Dale topped off his mower's gas tank with water, Bill takes a drink from the fuel line.
Bill: No, this is soda, Hank. (licks the outside of the tube) That's just grease.
- Batman Beyond. It looks like Terry is going to do this, always dipping his finger into strange substances, but really he's using his suit's built-in analyzer.
- On American Dad! Steve's high school principal is shockingly good at this.
Principal Lewis: (does the fingertip taste test) Pure Peruvian marching powder. Grown on the Andes, north slope. I'd say it's about 80% baby laxative. Yeap, this junk means only one thing: Esteban Mortilla is back in business!
- Parodied in The Simpsons, when Chief Wiggum does this for no reason to the Mob's farm for rat milk.
Wiggum: It's pure.
- In an earlier episode, Mrs. Krabappel takes her car to a mechanic, who tastes the car's gasoline, noting that there's sugar in there.
Mechanic: "Your ex-husband strikes again!"
- Parodied in Gravity Falls, when Mabel samples the strange substance coating just about everything in an abandoned convenience store.
Mabel: Yep! It's dust.
- A variation from Totally Spies! where when the "lava" in a volcano doesn't seem to be as hot as it should be, Sam reaches down and tastes some, revealing it as marinara sauce.
- A variation appeared in The Amazing Spiez. The kids are investigating the cocooning of various scientists/important people and while on-site, Marc takes the liberty of performing this trope on the yellow substance used on the victim. His siblings are understandably disgusted and somewhat baffled but Marc is quick to inform them it's just honey. Now why the Smart Guy of the team in both this and the above example took the liberty of doing this is unclear.
- At least one Real Life police officer has been killed by doing this when the white powder turned out to be ricin, one of the top five deadliest poisons in the world.
- Likewise, when methamphetamines were becoming popular, policy in many jurisdictions was for police officers to fan the air in suspected meth labs towards their noses in order to pick up on the fumes. Given the nature of meth fumes, most of the drug officers in at least one jurisdiction that did this eventually contracted throat and mouth cancer.
- In chemistry, a brief fanning towards your nose is the recommended procedure if you need to smell something, versus shoving your schnoz directly into the beaker which can deck you. However, this should only be done if you have a reasonable expectation of the chemical, so you know what you're smelling is not (excessively) toxic. Smelling wholly unknown chemicals is like playing Russian Roulette.
- It's said one of Sherlock Holmes' real life inspiration pulled a trick using this. The Professor had two vials of urine, one from a diabetic, he dips a finger in and taste it — remarking that the diabetic is sweeter and forced all the students to repeat it. Then admonishes them for not paying attention. He had actually dipped in his pointer finger, but sucked on his middle finger. Truth in Television, even without the admonishment. Prior to the development of chemical assays for glucose in urine, doctors really did detect it in this way. The "mellitus" in "diabetes mellitus" means "honey-flavored."
- "It has to be chlorine". Indeed.
- If the substance thus tested were fentanyl (or fentanyl-laced heroin), that could be trouble. Fentanyl is a synthetic opiate 100 times as potent as morphine (Heroin is roughly two-to-three times as effective as the same amount of morphine). There's a fentanyl analog used for tranquilizing elephants. One drop of it on your skin could kill you in seconds, unless artificial respiration were immediately administered.
- Doctors and alchemists in older times often examined stuff by taste and smell — they didn't have much choice, as most of the more sophisticated methods didn't exist yet. This is probably one reason why people who dabbled in alchemy tended to get rather strange later in their lives. (Traditional alchemy is absolutely fascinated with mercury, and mercury fumes aren't good for the brain.)
- At least one nineteenth century scientist insisted upon tasting every substance he discovered, though it was known, even then, to be very dangerous. He was found dead surrounded by dozens of substances, and with no way of knowing which did him in. Another discovered a compound which was absurdly sweet, incredibly tasty. He threw a party in which all the guests joined him in taking shots of he stuff. They were all dead by morning.
- The first scientist has been urban-mythologized to be William Perkin Sr (creator of the first significant synthetic dye), who in fact died of pneumonia.
- You can learn quite a bit about an unknown chemical by smelling it, though you should use the "wafting" technique and fan the scents towards your nose. Esters usually smell sweet or fruity, sulfur compounds reek, and amines often smell fishy. Many working chemists also learn to identify common solvents by scent, and smell is often the first sense to warn you when something is boiling over, or has been left uncapped, or is reacting in unexpected ways.
- Most artificial sweeteners were discovered when chemists noticed that their new chemical tasted incredibly sweet (or more often, failed to wash their hands after handling the chemical and found that everything they touched tasted sweet).
- The psychedelic properties of LSD were first discovered through something similar to this — though in LSD's case, it's slightly more justified than normal, since it wasn't ingested, but absorbed and took effect by touch. Following the initial discovery, the same scientist, Albert Hofmann, took a more controlled dose. The effects were somewhat stronger than he had expected.
- The artificial sweetener sucralose (Splenda) is made by chlorinating regular sucrose, thus replacing three of the hydroxyl groups with chlorine. This discovery was made possible because someone misheard an instruction from their superior; they thought their boss told them to taste sucrose treated with chlorine, when in actuality they were merely told to test it (while researching sugar-substitute possibilities during the diet craze of The Eighties).