Episode 047 - How to Give Tasting Notes
What’s Shakin, cocktail fans?
Thanks for joining us for another Bar Cart Foundations episode. These are the episodes where we zoom in on one of the most important topics or issues confronting home bartenders everywhere.
Today’s subject is tasting notes - how to think about them and how to give them in a way that makes you seem intelligent, but not obnoxious.
What are Tasting Notes?
People like to tell stories. We know this about our relatives who tell the same stories, over and over at family gatherings. We know this about that one person at the office who gossips about everybody anybody. And we even know it about the oldest human beings who scrawled hunting scenes and bestiaries across the walls of their caves.
Making up a fake story about a random set of facts can help us to remember things more effectively. Right? That’s how mnemonic devices work. And some of our earliest encounters with written language come in the form of being read or trying to read - you guessed it - stories.
Like stories, tasting notes have structure. There’s a beginning, middle, and end.
Think about it. In order to taste literally anything, you must first approach that thing, confirm what it is, decide if you want to consume it, figure out how to get it in your mouth, and then experience a hugely complicated set of sensory stimuli. That’s a lot of things going on before you have a change to whip out your journal and jot down some notes.
So, let’s slow things down a bit.
Tasting with the Eyes
As author Leeann Lavin mentioned during our interview last episode, there’s a popular saying among chefs that “we eat with the eyes.” Or, to put it another way, if you can see, your eyes are constantly gathering information about the world, and that visual info is normally where tasting begins.
You see your wine or your cocktail, identifying what color it is and how it’s being served, and that information triggers a set of memories called a “schema” that basically sets your expectations for that experience based on similar experiences from your past. This is why you see professional tasters conducting “blind tastings,” so that their objective experience isn’t impacted by what they’ve tasted in the past.
But for the rest of us, especially those of you just starting out, gathering that visual information can be really helpful. Is it a light red wine or a dark red wine? What’s that white foam on the top of the cocktail? These are clues that will prime your senses and help you understand where this tasting fits in with everything else you’ve experienced.
After you visually assess what you’re tasting, the next step is to cool your jets! It’s not time to take a swig just yet.
If you’ve had the pleasure of listening to my interview with flavor researcher Dan McCall way back in Episode 7 of this podcast, you’ll recall that flavor has a lot to do with aroma.
In order to get this full flavor picture in the brain, we need to make sure we’re triggering those “lock and key” mechanisms in the smell pathway, otherwise, we’re missing out on valuable information that could make our tasting notes richer and more interesting.
In fact, there’s a cool little mnemonic device in the world of formal wine tasting that can even help you to remember at what point in the tasting process you should take a moment to evaluate the aromatic properties of your drink.
It’s called “The 5 Ss,” and they are, in this order:
The second S - swirl - is really meant to prepare the beverage for your nose. If you think about it, most wines and spirits spend a significant portion of their life locked away in the bottle, away from the influences of air. So by swirling your liquid in the glass, you’re basically waking up your beverage and allowing it to show its true colors.
This might not be true for cocktails, per se, but if you’re looking to conduct a tasting of a wine or spirit, giving your glass a swirl before you take a whiff will definitely enhance the process.
Which brings us to another point about smell. If you’re tasting a high-proof beverage - really anything over 45% - it’s often useful to add a small amount of water to the equation to help counteract the alcohol burn and open up the flavor profile. This is an age-old whiskey tasting technique, but it can be applied effectively across the spirit spectrum.
The value of making notes on the aroma of a drink is that, in many cases, what you smell is going to differ from what you taste. And if the purpose of tasting notes is to tell a story, comparing similarities and differences between what you smell and what you taste makes for compelling dialogue. It’s one of the best ways to help build the plot of your flavor story.
Building Your Aroma Vocabulary
The one thing you can really do to change this is to start picking up everything and giving it a sniff. The produce section of the grocery store is a great place to do this, but you can just as easily do it with a nice hunk of aged parmesan cheese or a loaf of fresh baked rye bread. And it helps sometimes if you close your eyes and really focus all your mental energy on the sensation of smell. This blocks out other visual static and associations from messing up the process.
Taking The First Sip
After you make observations about the aroma of your beverage, it’s finally time for the most exciting part of the tasting process - that first sip.
And if you really want to make sure you’re getting the most objective impression of your drink, it helps to make sure you’re not inadvertently throwing more flavors into the equation. So tasting something soon after you’ve brushed your teeth, or chewed gum, or smoked a cigar are all bad ideas if you’re serious about telling the story of the subject at hand.
And despite what some tasting experts may tell you, there’s no one perfect template for how to taste something. But there are a few general bits of advice that can enhance the process:
- First, be sure to take in some air with your sip. Yes, you can take your sip and then do that obnoxious, comical thing where you slurp air into your mouth and aerate the liquid, or, you can be a bit more normal about it and just take in some air when you sip.
- Also, make sure you take in enough liquid so that all different parts of your palate get to engage with the flavor. This includes all parts of your tongue, your cheeks, the roof of your mouth...everything. BUT, don’t take a swig so large that it’s hard to swallow. Big swigs affect the way you breathe, and that doesn’t help the tasting.
- Next, move the liquid around your mouth a bit. You don’t need to treat it like mouthwash - and you probably shouldn’t - but just like swirling the wine or spirit in the glass will help open it up, agitating it a bit in the mouth without going overboard will ensure a well rounded tasting.
- Finally, as with many things, time is a key ingredient. When you swallow your sip, don’t go straight for another one. Flavor evolves on the palate, and it’s important that you focus on what happens as your primary flavors evolve into the part of the tasting known as the “finish.”
What’s the difference between the primary flavors and the finish? Well, it’s actually kinda like the differences between the smell (which many people call the “nose”) and what happens on the palate. You’re dealing with the same liquid, but you’re often picking up different aspects of the overall flavor. Another way to put it is that the finish is a flavor echo. Just like sound waves change as the bounce off of objects, creating that echo-like distortion, flavor is going to change as your brain has time to process what’s going on, and as new information becomes available in the absence of the liquid.
This is the part of the tasting where you can pick up some of the trickier parts of flavor - things like astringency vs. juiciness, spiciness, numbing or cooling. Basically, sensations that are crucial to flavor, but that don’t really fall into the taste buds’ domain.
Putting Flavor into Words
Our next question is - how do you take all this raw data and use it to tell a story? How do you take your first step into the realm of tasting notes?
If you’re just starting out, one really useful tool to have with you is something called a “flavor wheel.” And this is a visualization of some of the most common flavors in wines or spirits that starts general (in the center of the wheel) and then gets increasingly more specific toward the outer edges, helping you to identify specific flavor notes in your tasting.
So, for example, your first impression might be - “fruity.” And your flavor wheel can then prompt you to consider whether it’s a “berry” flavor, a “tropical fruit” flavor, or a “dried fruit” flavor. Then, once you decide it’s more of a “tropical fruit flavor,” you can use the flavor wheel to decide if it’s more of a pineapple, a banana, or a mango flavor.
Here are some links to a few different flavor wheels:
Telling a Flavorful Story
When you first begin to put your thoughts about flavor into words, it's helpful to remember that you're telling a story, and all stories have a few basic elements in common:
- A Plot
- A cast of characters
- A setting and context
- And a place in the wider realm of all the other stories that exist.
The plot structure is just like the tasting procedure we just described - start with visual cues, then move to smell, then observe the taste and finish. The flavors, of course, are your characters. And the cool thing about this is that sometimes characters are friends, and sometimes they have conflicts. The setting and context can be everything from the year on the wine label, the mash bill on your whiskey label, the type of glass your beverage is in, the food you’re pairing it with, and any other number of variables. And all of these features allow you to compare the liquid in front of you with all the other stuff that exists in the world and in your personal bank of flavor memories. Whether you’re simply comparing your red wine to other red wines, or your 18 year highland single malt with other 18 year highland single malts out there.
Pick Your Words Carefully
Ideally, you want to strike a middle ground between generalizing and being awkwardly (and inaccurately) specific.
In wine, “fruit forward,” is a perfect example of a useless tasting note that doesn’t advance the story. It wastes time. Most wines are fruity, let's move on to something more specific and interesting.
On the other hand, it is possible to go overboard and start reaching for tasting notes that make for interesting reading, rather than actually describing the scene.
Ah, yes. This young, medium-bodied pilsner produced by one of the preeminent brewing families in the country displays vibrant carbonation, which stimulates the palate, paving the way for a seductive malted character, underscored by insinuating german hops, and culminating in a dry finish that betrays its beechwood-aged beauty.
The above quote describes Budweiser.
Just goes to show that flowery language doesn’t always do justice to the subject at hand. Instead, sick with specific nouns and adjectives - and if something seems weird or off-the-wall, it’s not necessarily wrong.
If you have any feedback or questions about tasting notes or how to give them, please hit us up on social media or by giving the podcast inbox a run for its money!
Here are the attributions for the music used in this episode: