Best Practices for Building a Sophisticated Palate
At Angels’ Cup, our mission is to help people develop a sharper sense of taste. Coffee is our medium of choice, but we certainly enjoy good whiskey, wine, and an occasional cigar as well. That’s why we asked people who work in these fields about how they train their palates. Not surprisingly there are a lot of similarities to what we do in coffee.
There are many ways in which amateur and professional epicures alike try to expand their senses and improve their palates. The more refined a person’s tastes become, after all, the more enjoyment they receive from indulging in what might otherwise be regarded as “life’s simple pleasures.” Those who might truly be said to have embraced refinement enjoy a plethora of different flavors, scents, and sensations in every morsel. They can taste a much more widespread assortment of different flavors, and separate them out between different areas of the tongue to sample the way different ingredients are balanced. This is the best way to expand upon one’s existing palate, by savoring every sip and every bite, and by learning to pick out the way flavors are designed to intermix with one another.
Wine tasting is a time-honored tradition, one that is still enjoyed by wine connoisseurs today as it has been for centuries. If you really want to get serious about wine education, nothing beats a class like those offered around the world by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET). It’s similar to the Master Sommelier track but without the focus on table service. For those just dipping their toes in, the fundamental basics work as follows.
- Pour the wine to be sampled into a clean, clear glass. This is important, as the color of the beverage plays into the overall impression. Our understanding of how ingredients indicate taste, in advance, is an important and often overlooked aspect of sampling beverages in particular.
- View the glass of wine against a white background or light to observe the wine’s color and clarity. The quality of a particular wine can be evaluated, prior to tasting it, by examining the clarity of the beverage. More opaque wines have a simpler and more basic flavor, while clear wines are more sophisticated in their blending of a variety of flavors.
- Swirl your wine glass for a few seconds to let wine “breathe” and bring out the aromas. Wine needs to breathe, before it is sampled. Swirling the wine glass gently for several seconds helps to ensure that the flavors are evenly mixed, as intended. As with any solution, wine can settle with time, but a high-quality wine will certainly regain its full bouquet after being allowed to breathe.
- Sniff the wine delicately. Any first-year culinary arts student will tell you that scent plays as important a role in the enjoyment of a food or beverage as taste does. Without scent, taste loses a great deal of its depth and sophistication. One of the best practices for wine tasting is to gently inhale the aroma of the freshly breathed wine, prior to sampling it.
- Take a small sip of your wine. The human tongue is far more sophisticated than what we are often inclined to give it credit for. By focusing on a small amount of wine, you can put your taste buds to work most efficiently, and evaluate the wine’s flavor most effectively.
- Consider your impressions of the wine. It is important to illustrate your impression effectively. Take a moment to consider your impressions of the wine—how it smells, how it tastes, and how those two intermingle, along with your impression of its color and its clarity. This will allow you to portray a sophisticated profile of the wine, which other wine connoisseurs will understand and appreciate.
Expert Wine Tips
I’m frequently asked how one should learn about wine. While every approach is helpful, tasting is the most valuable. Even simple questions, like your go-to varietal on an average weeknight, are impossible to answer until you’ve tasted several different wines. If you prefer white wine, for example, do you seek out ones that are crisp and light, like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc? Or do you prefer wines that are buttery and ripe, like California Chardonnay? If you prefer red, do you seek out big, jammy wines, like Australian Shiraz? Or the more restrained profile of French Pinot Noir? Once wine becomes a passion, those hard-to-pronounce regions in Europe become much easier to remember — so long as you’ve tasted the wines. Those flaws that sommeliers can spot become obvious to you, as well — so long as you’ve tasted enough wine to encounter them. Tasting can be as simple as heading to your local wine shop when several bottles are open. Getting together with friends and asking each person to bring something different is another way to taste several wines in one sitting.
– David White Terroirist.com
When I was working at Robert Mondavi Winery, I used to enjoy their Essence of Wine tasting. This can be done by anyone, and if it’s a group, the more the merrier.
- Choose the variety that will be tasted.
- Example, Chardonnay, since it’s the most sold wine in the world.
- That makes this one so easy.
- Read tasting notes from others, already written who have firm credentials.
- They’ve been tasting so long, the “know” ahead of time what to expect.
- With a little experience, so will everyone else.
- For Chardonnay, there are few styles
- Cool climate (coastal appellations
- Green Apples
- Lean (no Malolactic fermentation)
- Inland climates
- Filbert nuts
- Barrel fermentation or aging
- Butter (gives a softer, rounder mouth feel)
- Taking the flavor adjectives above
- Cut these foods into small pieces
- Put them into a glass (wine glasses are great)
- Cover with a piece of paper
- Open your bottle of Chardonnay and pour into a wine glass
- Walk around a table, taking a sniff of the food
- Swirl the glass (to release the aromas)
- Sniff the wine and concentrate on finding that aroma
- Sip the wine and find the flavor
Works like a charm most of the time. Malolactic, so everyone understands it, simply explained.
A + B = C
Acid + Bacteria = Cream.
- The Acid is Malic, the same one found in Apples and lots of other fruit.
- The winemaker adds a Bacteria (Yeast)
- The conversion is from Malic Acid to Lactic Acid as an end product, which is the same acidthat’s found in Cream.
This makes wine creamy. It’s done to all red wines. It became popular in California and has created the buttery Chardonnay.
– Jo Diaz www.wine-blog.org
The idea for Angels’ Cup actually came from a blind whiskey tasting club called The Whiskey Explorers. It’s a bit pricy, but nevertheless a great way to learn about whiskey. Whiskey tasting classes are also excellent and not too hard to find. For those just getting started, here are some tips:
- Use the proper receptacle. There is a worldwide standard for whisky-tasting glasses called the Glencairn, which is designed to deliver the aroma of the beverage to be sampled directly to the taster’s nose. By choosing the right glass, you ensure that your impression will be based on an equivalent standard to that employed by other whisky-tasters around the world.
- Evaluate the appearance of your whisky. For the purposes of evaluating a whisky’s color, consider various natural golden, amber, yellow, and peach-colored hues. While not specifically aspiring toward poetry, your description should be as explicitly detailed as possible, but succinct—the color of a ripened peach viewed at sunset, for example.
- Scent the whisky with discretion. Many experts have long asserted that the scent of a whisky is the most important aspect in discerning its flavor—as well as its overall quality. “The palate confirms what the nose has already told you” is a popular idiom in whisky-tasting. When it comes to describing the scent of a whisky, give yourself some time to consider the memories that the smell unlocks. Smell is closely associated with memory; does it bring to mind your grandfather’s study, or an old, leather-bound book? Be liberal with your descriptions.
- Weigh your first taste carefully. One of the best practices of whisky tasting is to evaluate the overall impression of your first taste with care. For example, you want to consider whether the whisky is soft, whether its heat comes on with a gradual, rolling sensation, or whether it makes an immediate impression. Any sweetness in the whisky should be evaluated at this stage, along with the progression of stages in which the various flavors make themselves known.
- Try a second taste, with a few drops of water. Repeatedly sampling undiluted whisky will quickly numb your sense of taste, making it impossible to evaluate further samples of the beverage accurately. Whatever your normal impression, sample each variety of whisky a second time with a small amount of water. Try to evaluate the more complex layers and structure of the whisky’s flavors this time around.
Expert Whiskey Tips
You don’t always have to be tasting. Sometimes you can drink (or smoke) just for enjoyment, and not think about it. The essence of tasting is thinking about it, thinking about what you are tasting and what else it brings to mind. Taking notes can be helpful but it’s not essential. Always taste whiskey (bourbon is whiskey) at room temperature. Diluting it with room temperature water allows you to get past the alcohol to other flavors. Palate fatigue is real. Don’t try to taste too many different whiskeys in one sitting. (Four or five is about it.) The most important thing is experience. There are no tricks, no short cuts.
– Chuck Cowdery The Chuck Cowdery Blog
Here is the procedure our Master Distiller Steve Nally uses (in his own words). By way of background, Steve has more than 40 years in the whiskey business. He was the Master Distiller for Maker’s Mark for 18 years.
Procedure that I use to taste areas follows:
- Have the product at room temp this opens the product up to where you can get the full benefit of all the flavors of the product.
- Swirl the product in a snifter to release the aroma and nose it. Do this a couple of times to get the full profile of the product.
- Take a sip of the product you will taste it on the front middle and back of your tongue and will be able to pick out different flavors of the product.
– David Mandell www.bardstownbourbon.com
This is how you develop your whisky palate: Imagine yourself in your mother’s kitchen. Visualize the fruit on a summer day in a bowl. Strawberries? Cherries? Rhubarb? Watermelon? What does it taste like? You know. Turn to the spice rack. Cardamon, Kosher salt, pepper, sage, parsley? Don’t forget that pitcher of well water with a slice of lemon in it. What’s that in the oven? Apple pie. In the cupboard, boxes of cereal. In the bread box, rye bread. Now, take the tiniest of sips of your whisky. I mean the tiniest like the size of a quarter on your palate, hold it for twenty seconds and ask yourself what do you taste? Rye bread? Maybe some caraway seed in there too? Is there some strawberry lurking under it all. Swallow. What remains for flavors? Was your sip initially sweet and then once gone left you with dusty rose notes? Cereal notes? Black pepper?
Now let your mind go wild? Yeah, it does kinda taste like balsa wood, it is dry, that is what balsa wood would taste like if a person actually tried balsa wood.
– Jason Debly https://jason-scotchreviews.blogspot.com/
An area of palate sophistication which is too often overlooked, particularly by novices, is that of cigar smoking. Unlike many other forms of popular tobacco use which survive into the present day, the smoking of cigars is often done for the appreciation of the rich variety of flavors, and different cigars may be preferred depending upon one’s situation or surroundings.
- Familiarize yourself with the types of cigar available. In addition to the many flavors and varieties of tobacco, different cigars come in different shapes. One of the most popular cigar shapes it the corona, which is perhaps most well-known in the United States. Other cigar shapes include the pyramid, with its pointed head, and the distinctively shaped torpedo. Different cigar shapes have different flavors, due to the way the smoke is dissipated while burning.
- Cut your cigar properly. When removing the tip of your cigar, use a proper cigar cutter, such as a cigar punch or a V-cutter. Using an improper or dull cutter can cause your cigar to start unraveling. Biting off the tip with your teeth not only exaggerates the risk of unraveling, but also affects the flavor of your smoke by leaving a bad taste in your mouth.
- Light your cigar properly. Toast the foot with a flame that is kept as far from the end of the cigar as possible while still charring the tobacco. Also, despite many film and cinema impressions to the contrary, you should light your cigar with it in your hand, not in your mouth. By holding a cigar in your hand, you can see what you’re doing—which is particularly important if you’re using an automatic lighter, as it’s very easy to hold a lighter’s flame too close.
- Savor your cigar’s flavor properly. Take your time when smoking a cigar, and enjoy the flavor thoroughly. For opportune cooling in between hits, you shouldn’t hit your cigar more than once every one to two minutes. In between hits, let the smoke slowly circulate through your mouth, and enjoy the flavor of your cigar thoroughly. At the end of each hit, exhale your smoke: do not inhale the smoke from a cigar.
- Maintain an appropriate ash buildup. One half of an inch to one inch of ash buildup on the end of your cigar is considered appropriate, as it acts as a natural filter and is considered to affect the flavor optimally. Official cigar tastings will assume that some measure of ash buildup within this restriction is a given when the descriptions of various cigars’ flavors are being evaluated.
- Extinguish your cigar within the last inch or two of its length. Most cigars begin to turn bitter during the last inch or two, and as you continue to smoke down to the very last nub their flavor will only continue to worsen. Best practices for cigar smoking don’t involve last penny’s worth out of a cigar to be worth the increasing bitterness of its flavor at that point.
Expert Cigar Tasting Tips
Each person has a different pallet and taste (of course) but I tend to enjoy toasted, nutty with spice. The big thing is how you cleanse and prepare your pallet to be able to taste the flavors and subtleties. Never drink acidity or fruity drinks (ie Orange juice or tropical stuff). I like water, bourbon (with some smokes) and Pepsi.
– Brian Kurland http://www.cigarreserve.com
In between the farm and the consumer, coffee beans are being sampled by numerous professional coffee tasters called Q-graders. Q-graders are trained by the Coffee Quality Institute to grade coffees according to very specific and precise procedures. The result is that every coffee gets a score from 60-100, reflecting the absence of defects and the presence of favorable attributes such as sweetness.
- First take note of the roast. Darker roasted coffees will usually have a specific flavor profile regardless of where the beans came from. Expect tobacco, ash, soy sauce, and grilled meat flavors to come through most. Lighter roasts are more variable in how they taste. Some can be fruity, others will have chocolate, nut, and caramel flavors. Dark roasted coffees are often described as bold or strong, but don’t mix roast up with strength, that comes next.
- Gauge the coffee’s strength. Coffee’s intensity is determined by the concentration of coffee mixed with water. It can be described with simple terms, such as “strong” or “weak”. If coffee is too strong, you can usually solve the problem by adding a tiny splash of water to it. Weak coffee will be thin and probably have some tea like qualities.
- Evaluate the flavor of your coffee. How sweet is your coffee? Different coffees offer varying levels of inherent sweetness, absent additives. Is the coffee more herbal than sweet, or earthy? How acidic is the flavor? Is the flavor of your coffee crisp and biting, or relatively flat?
- How is your coffee’s body? Some enthusiasts refer to this as “mouthfeel,” for clarity. It’s literally a measure of how a coffee feels in your mouth. Is it light, heavy, or even syrupy? Does it have a milky smooth quality?
- Carefully consider the finish of your coffee. A coffee’s “finish” is basically its aftertaste, considered carefully for all of its own complex elements. Many of these elements are described similarly to the initial taste of the coffee itself, although finish focuses more heavily on subtle variations. Unique to the evaluation of your coffee’s finish: how long does it last? Some finishes disappear immediately; others linger for several minutes.
- Determine your coffee’s taste profile. The best coffees will have clearly identifiable flavors such as citrus or blueberry. To help keep the professional coffee community calibrated and communicating with the same language, the World Coffee Research Association produced the Sensory Lexicon and made it available as a free download. The lexicon lists many of the most commonly tasted flavors in coffee, as well as a reference item that can be purchased in almost any grocery store. For example, “Orange” is specified as “Tropicana Pure Premium Original 100% No Pulp Orange Juice”. “Fermented grass” is specified as “Fill 2-ounce glass jars half full with grass and seal tightly with screw-on lids. Leave in airtight container for 2 weeks to ferment. Serve in jar.” Yea, it’s pretty specific, and sometimes pretty gross.
Expert Coffee Tips
When you first get started developing a sharper sense of taste, whether it’s whiskey, wine, coffee, or beer, it’s all about maximizing variety. Being open to new experiences and learning what you like is a lot of fun. But you can drink 1,000 wines and still not know what Merlot tastes like. To get the most out of every tasting experience, you need to be organized and have a strategy. Here are three tips to help you take your game to the next level.
- Blind Tastings – Whenever possible, taste something blind and try to guess what it is. Embarrass yourself, it’s ok! It’s how we learn. Even if you have no clue what something is, write down its most notable characteristics. If it’s wine for example, note if it’s sweet or dry, oaked or not. The hidden benefit to blind tastings is that you almost always have to do them with a friend, so it’s a fun way to turn tastings into a social experience. You’ll also have someone to share/compare your experience with to see if you’re on the right track.
- Side-by-side Tastings – When you drink your first IPA beer, you know what IPAs taste like forever. But that’s not the end of the road. To take your game to the next level, try 3 IPAs at the same time. Look for the subtle differences in bitterness, hints of grapefruit, try to guess the specific gravity, alcohol content, note the sweetness. You’ll only pick up on the most subtle differences when you try things side-by-side. And don’t worry about being wasteful! Opening three excellent beers at once and not finishing them is less wasteful than opening three excellent beers on three different days, finishing every sip, but not fully appreciating and learning as much as you can from each one.
- Take Notes – In school, taking notes is an important study tool, it helps solidify long term memories. This alone is reason enough to take notes on the things you try. But more importantly, developing a sense of taste is really about developing a vocabulary. If you clearly taste apple in a coffee you try today, but then don’t pick up on apple again for two months, there could be 30 coffees in between those two experiences. Not only will you forget details like the region, processing technique, altitude, varietal, and roast profile, but you’ll forget if it was a red apple or a green, if the flavor bordered on pear. You’ll forget if it was paired with other flavors like cinnamon or caramel. Taking notes helps you.
Further Information on Palate Training
For more information on expanding your palate through sophisticated tasting and sampling methods, you should consider the following sources of information.
- The teachings of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus
- The international sampling of spirits
- Pairing wines and cheeses