How To Exercise Your Tasting Muscles And Expand Your Palate:
Getting into spirits and cocktails can be intimidating when you take one look at an expert’s tasting notes; “hints of american oak, coconut, citrus: meyer lemons, tea, floral, darjeeling, second flush darjeeling,” it can all seem overwhelming. But what you should remember is that these guys are experts with years of training and a well-exercised palate.
Your palate is like any other muscle, it will improve with training. There are two ways to train. The first is to drink a lot. It’s fun and, all brevity aside, necessary too. The more flavors you experience and commit to memory (which is the hardest and most important part), the more you have to draw from when you’re trying to describe the flavor profile of a spirit. The second is to actively exercise your tasting muscles. Like any other muscles, this is done through training, repetitivity, and a bit of theory.
A great way to start exercising your tasting muscles is to set up a… well… tasting. Whether it be wines by the region, beers by the style, or rums by age, this is a great way to break down and understand the flavor complexities that differentiate each style. That might be a little more advanced than what we’re looking for. What we want is to first understand a single spirit. To do this it’s actually better to set up a tasting that encompasses a certain flavor profile using non alcoholic ingredients. For example, set up a tasting of citrus fruits with your friends and discusses how each one is sour, but in a different way. You’ll notice the sharpness of the grapefruit similar to a lemon, but totally different from the mild sweetness of a meyer lemon, which you’ll find to be more like an orange. So next time your drink is sour, ask yourself “what kind of sour?”
If you want to get a little more advanced, rather than doing a tasting of multiple ingredients, you could try a tasting of a single ingredient that has a specific flavor note. A great way to do this is to go down to your local health food store and pick up a bag of cacao nibs. What’s a cacao nib? Well the cacao bean is far too bitter to be enjoyed on its own. But broken into a little pieces, or nibs, the cacao bean can be much more palatable. It is, of course, still very bitter, but the smaller size limits the bitterness to a manageable level which allows us to experience all the other possible flavors. What flavors, doesn’t chocolate taste like chocolate? Well, yes and no.
If you eat enough cacao, you’ll notice the flavor changes from nib to nib. One nib will have those earthy, mineral notes common to most chocolate. Another will have surprising, fruity, sharp, sour citrus notes. And yet another will have those rich rum/vanilla extract notes characteristic of a good, quality dark chocolate. Do this enough and you’ll soon realize that something that you once thought of as a single flavor, chocolate, is actually an entire spectrum of flavors. So next time your drink has notes of chocolate, ask yourselves where it lies on the chocolate spectrum. Sure, it will be bitter, but is it fruity and sour? Earthy or does it have notes of vanilla? This is how you expand your palate bring your tasting prowess to the next level.
How do you like to exercise your tasting muscles? Tell us in the comments section below.