Tasting Notes are Bullshit. Your palate knows you better than anyone could. This is a pretty sensationalist title but what difference between that and companies shouting at you that their whiskey is the smoothest, their gin that can inspire moments of tropical havens or their vodka tasting like an iceberg. What good are these errant thoughts of marketing companies designed to play on wishful thinking or ideal living when you are stuck with the palate that you are born with and have trained to like certain things through simple repetition and experience.
The truth is that tasting notes are a necessary evil to give people an idea of what they are getting themselves into but the heavy skew towards disruptive flavour notes and memory based recollection has led ultimately to the alienation of many people who would otherwise investigate the burgeoning category of ‘craft’ spirits or drinks, in general. All of us can recall a time at a bar overhearing some person attempt to melt either a first date or a bartender’s ear about their vast ability to detect minute impressions and notes held so secretly by their New Zealand Savvy B, hated that person and looked down on your flavourless beer and breathed a deep sigh of relief.
Friends, it doesn’t have to be this way. I promise. Let’s look a little closer at how your body generally perceives flavours and then tie that back to why tasting notes exist in the first place as a means to guide rather than overcomplicate the whole process of having a drink with friends. Let’s discuss taste first.
What is generally categorized as “taste” is basically a bundle of different sensations: it is not only the qualities of taste perceived by the tongue, but also the smell, texture and temperature of a meal/drink that are important. The “colouring” of a taste happens through the nose. Only after taste is combined with smell is a food’s flavour produced. If the sense of smell is impaired, by a stuffy nose for instance, perception of taste is usually dulled as well. Try eating or drinking something you are extremely familiar with whilst holding your nose and a lot of the enjoyment is going to be diminished.
Like taste, our sense of smell is also closely linked to our emotions. This is because both senses are connected to the involuntary nervous system. That is why a bad taste or odour can bring about vomiting or nausea. And flavours that are appetizing increase the production of saliva and gastric juices, making them truly mouth watering. Mouth watering maybe but not sexy definitely. People who have an aversion to the smell of Parmesan Cheese often can’t explain it but it’s potentially because it shares many of the same properties as vomit/baby sick and the recollection of such traumatic events veers your brain away from wanting more of it. I mean, I get it.
Now that we are on board with the idea of emotion, experience and flavours you have come into contact with in the past adjusting how you perceive liquid in a glass or food on a plate; we can at least understand why brands often lead with these grandiose experiences of sipping cocktails on beaches in the sun or guffawing your way through pints of the black stuff in quiet pubs with your nearest and dearest. It’s a not so subtle attempt to arouse desire in your proverbial loins. Ooooh.
At a base level what is it we taste then:
Based on the information that is transported from the tongue to the brain, there are thought to be at least five basic qualities of taste. The basic tastes are:
What we perceive as sweetness is usually caused by sugar and its derivatives such as fructose or lactose. But other types of substances can also activate the sensory cells that respond to sweetness. These include, for example, some protein building blocks like amino acids, and also alcohols in fruit juices or alcoholic drinks. Caraway is an interesting botanical that is found in Stillgarden Social Gin. Once distilled it imparts an inherent sweetness into spirit even though sugar does not make it through the distillation process.
It is mostly acidic solutions like lemon juice or organic acids that taste sour. This sensation is caused by hydrogen ions split off by an acid dissolved in a watery solution. Fermentation can also often have a souring effect, think Sauerkraut or yogurt (Lactic Acid). As you can see the world of alcohol creation is pretty romantic in its terminology.
Food containing table salt is mainly what we taste or recognise as salty. The chemical basis of this taste is salt crystal, which consists of sodium and chloride. Mineral salts like the salts of potassium or magnesium can also cause a sensation of saltiness.
Bitter taste is brought about by many fundamentally different substances. In total there are about 35 different proteins in the sensory cells that respond to bitter substances. From an evolutionary standpoint, this can be explained by the many different bitter species of plants, some of which were poisonous. Recognizing which ones were indeed poisonous was a matter of survival. The evolution of the food and drink world has taken an odd turn in that people now hunt out this feeling at often obscene levels massively Hoppy IPAs or Insane Hot Sauces with Scoville’s in the millions are prime examples.
The “umami” taste, which is somewhat similar to the taste of a meat broth, is usually caused by glutamic acid or aspartic acid. These two amino acids are part of many different proteins found in food, and also in some plants. Ripe tomatoes, meat and cheese all contain a lot of glutamic acid. Asparagus, for example, contains aspartic acid. Chinese cuisine uses glutamate, the glutamic acid salt, as flavour enhancers. This is done to make the savoury taste of foods more intense. This is basically the reason that once you pop you can’t stop with Pringles: MSG. If you like truffle cheese chips try throwing some MSG on top of them and prepare yourself for an uninterrupted trip to flavour town.
God love you if you have read this far and I suppose you’re going to want a summation of what it all means to you. The premise of all of this is that the weight people put in tasting notes being what they SHOULD find is a beyond broken ideal, sure you might find orange peel or juniper in that gin but the first rains of spring are going to be really hard to decipher if you’ve grown up in Dubai. In essence, it’s fine to explore food/drinks and not be in line with the perception of so called experts’ tasting notes as long as the product resonates with you. Knowing a little more about how all these factors influence your ability to dissect flavour might help you have a little more faith in yourself when you like a Gin for reasons your friends can’t understand — it’s because none of us experience life the same way.
All the best,
Taste benefited early humans by indicating which foods were safe for consumption. Sweetness signalled foods with calories for energy, while sourness could indicate the presence of vitamin C; bitter foods were potentially poisonous, whereas salty foods contain important minerals and other nutrients.