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I perceive a similarity in taste and odour between spearmint and peppermint, and I describe both as minty. The smell, taste and cooling sensation of peppermint are reproduced almost perfectly by pure menthol. But spearmint, despite being very closely related to peppermint, contains very little menthol, and it apparently gets its character from R-carvone, which is also found in caraway, which exhibits a vaguely minty aroma.

To me, lemon balm smells primarily like lemon, and not at all minty. Wild watermint (from which peppermint is obtained by hybridisation with spearmint) smells, to me, vaguely minty but also disagreeably vegetal, like lots of inedible greens do. Likewise catnip. And most other mint varieties sold in garden centres for culinary purposes (pineapple mint etc) smell, to me, similarly like weak mint with unpleasant off-notes.

On the other hand, pennyroyal and hyssop both smell unmistakably minty and pleasant to me.

What, then, do the two best-known mints have in common that makes them identifiably minty? Is it anything inherent to their makeup, or is it just mental association?

I've seen some Americans describe wintergreen as a type of mint. Botanically that's not true at all, and wintergreen oil's chemical composition is very different from the mints. I'm from the UK, where wintergreen is very rare as a food flavouring, and its smell is primarily associated with medicines and liniments. I don't perceive it as having a minty quality at all. I can recognise that it's pungent and herbal, so it has similarities to (for instance) eucalyptus, camphor, pine, rosemary, juniper etc, and in that sense, it's vaguely like the mints, but no more so than any of those other plants listed.

So I believe that when an American describes wintergreen as minty, it's because a) for them, the flavour is associated with the herbal candies referred to as "mints", and b) in broad terms, it's in the same sort of category. Is it the case that I similarly consider spearmint and peppermint both to be "minty", just because I'm used to using the word mint for both of them, even though they're very different chemically?

Addendum: here to illustrate the chemical differences are gas chromatography analyses.

Peppermint oil is primarily eucalyptol, menthol, menthone, menthofuran, menthyl acetate and iso-menthone

Spearmint oil is dominated by limonene, carvone, myrcene, beta-bourbonene; the spikes for menthol, menthyl acetate etc are tiny

(I believe that the distinctive characters of eucalyptus and wintergreen come primarily from eucalyptol and methyl salicilate respectively.)

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    Surprised to see that spearmint and peppermint have so different chemical profile. I would anyway say that menthol should be essential to define "minty". And as you said, if someone says minty to eucalyptus, most likely s/he is influenced by candies called eucalyptus but containing menthol, too.
    – Alchimista
    May 4 at 11:45
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    Note piperitone. Probably very minty in itself.
    – Alchimista
    May 4 at 13:16
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    Don't worry, lots of native English speakers have very little understanding of the terms for the different mints! Thanks for pointing out piperitone. I noticed it, but I discounted it, assuming from the name that it was a pepper-like odour, but Wikipedia says it's got a strong peppermint aroma. But, like menthol, it's still a very minor component of spearmint... May 4 at 13:20
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    I feel like this question is its own answer.
    – FuzzyChef
    May 4 at 21:50
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    Butting in a bit late LOL I worked a few years for a major toothpaste manufacturer in the Quality Department and we considered "wintergreen" a different flavor family than "mint". The mints (peppermint and spearmint) both have the cooling mouthfeel associated to ligants to CRM1 receptor,s which the wintergreens typically don't have (note that artificially produced flavors might have menthol incorporated in the formulation, tho) Jun 8 at 12:38
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The mints in general - spearmint and peppermint - have the cooling mouthfeel associated to ligants to CRM1 (now named TRPM8) receptors. The various nuances in flavor are given by other molecules, like limonene and carvones in spearmint; and menthol, menthone and menthyl acetate in peppermint.

Wintergreens do not contain those ligants that provide a cooling mouthfeel, so they're not considered mints per se, but it is very common practice to combine wintergreen with mint (or just add menthol) when using it as flavoring, especially in products where the consumer expects a "cool" mouthfeel, as it enhances the perception of cleanliness (e.g. toothpaste, mouthwash, chewing gum, breath mints, throat lozenges...). This could be the reason why many people describe wintergreen as being "minty".

From a technical perspective (toothpaste manufacturing, specifically), wintergreen is not the same flavor family as mint. When transitioning from a wintergreen flavor to a mint flavor, the cleaning cycles for the processing equipment are far longer than when transitioning between wintergreen flavors or between mint flavors, as the acceptable levels for cross-contamination are FAR lower, since it is very highly unlikely that an average consumer can spot a bit of peppermint residue mixed in with spearmint toothpaste, but it is far more likely that they can spot a bit of wintergreen residue mixed in with any minty toothpaste

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    I consider my mystery solved at last, thanks! Regarding cross-contamination, I can well believe that. I find that Hoegaarden beer has a very subtle wintergreen nuance, and even that slight taste is right on the borderline of what I find palatable. I'll drink it, but I'm reminded of Germolene antiseptic salve while I'm drinking it. Jul 7 at 17:49

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