How to taste Gin – Part TWO
In TASTING GIN PART ONE, we covered a few tips and ideas on how to go about structuring a gin tasting, as well as discussing one vital point – the question of why you should even bother going to the effort. If Gin was designed to be the accompaniment to a casual Friday night wind down, why bring academia into it? We’d recommend reading that one first if you haven’t already, but if you’re already past the whys and onto the hows, buckle up, because here, in Part Two, we are sharing our advice on how to improve one’s ability to identify individual flavours, and how to articulate them thereafter.
We find that it is easier to look at tasting and flavour as a whole. It’s almost like being akin to a second language. Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor once famously said that “To have a second language is to have a second soul” and while we wouldn’t go quite as far as that (after all, the French are prone to laying it on thick…) there is a nugget of something in there. Detecting, recognising and articulating flavour is a way to unlock an entirely new and often hidden world. It is a way to observe and appreciate that there is beauty in the singularity of some tastes, and mind boggling complexity and nuances in the ones that merge multiple ingredients into one harmonious chord.
We feel that the best way to unlock this skill set is to engage with the process of learning a second language, typically defined in three parts. The first is memorising vocabulary, the second is understanding how to construct it into a sentence, the third is the cultural subtleties and context that are attached to some ingredients.
Let’s break that down further….
THE VOCABULARY OF FLAVOUR:
Smell everything you eat and learn what it’s called. Flavour detection is a memory game and making a conscious effort to smell and taste ingredients – from an apple, orange, or sprig of rosemary to a cup of coffee – and taking notes will be vital to improving your skills in discerning what is in a glass.
Shakespeare had Juliet harping on saying “What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” but the balding bard had no idea what he was on about (well, when it comes to tasting, anyway). Scientifically speaking, that’s just not true for flavour cognition. Your language crafts your reality. You might be able to detect something just as well whether you know what it is, but if you don’t know what it is called and how to articulate it, you will not be able to recognise it and it will not trigger the associations you have with that ingredient.
For example, when you smell something sweet and floral, it is just that. When you knowingly smell a rose that is sweet and floral – the exact same aroma – you also conjure up perfume, gardena, the vivid colours of freshly cut bouquets and with that all of the baggage (both positive and negative) that have attached themselves onto that in a lifetime of cultural associations and personal memories. It goes from being just a taste or and aroma, to being a taste or aroma loaded with subconscious significance, symbolism and emotion. To answer Juliet, when it comes to flavour, there is a lot in a name.
Learning the top 30 botanicals used in gin and memorising their flavour (or just revisiting them frequently) is the best way to be able to discern them in a glass, but more importantly will help you to fully understand the makers intentions or just why a certain combination works so well. You’ll be able to tell what’s in there and in doing so, what is right for garnishing in a G&T.
If you feel like you’ve gone through the ingredients and are starting to know them well and that you want to practice on something more complicated, go to homeware stores and smell candles. Often, they have three or four ingredients at most and they are labelled very clearly. It helps you train your ability to deal with multiple ingredients coming at you at the same time.
Botanical distillates like the BYO range, aroma kits and perfume essences are all handy for the super enthusiasts. Get the ones you feel will help you and repeatedly smell them until they are seared into your consciousness.
EMBRACING THE FLUFF (constructing sentences):
You’ve built the vocabulary and can pull out a few individual botanicals, now it is time to improve once more. One word answers will not allow you to thrive when using a foreign language, (nor just saying it louder and louder frustrated that no-one seems to understand what you are saying as most Brits do in Spain…) Singular words will not help you to paint a truly bold and bright flavour picture either. Constructing around the hard learned vocabulary of flavour is vital in not just being able to put it to use, it is key to improving ones understanding in general.
Never accept having just one word to describe a flavour you are trying to recall. If you want to improve the accuracy and pace with which you extract flavours, one word is not helpful. For those tasting in groups, writing tasting notes for others to read or developing recipes as a team, having just one word is, in fact, actively unhelpful, but that’s an essay for another day…
Adjectives that describe the impression that the flavour give, not the specificity of botanical are critical to improving the ability to recognise exactly what it is. By acknowledging the impression of the flavour, the nature of it or the timing of when it occurs, you will be able to determine what the likely ingredient is with far greater accuracy. After all, to use the same example as above, quite a few things smell like rose. By elaborating on what the flavour is like, you’ll be able to discern that the rose-like flavour is in-fact the perfumed yet spiced tones of Cubeb, the parma violet and dusty impression of orris root, the soapy pink hue of Lavender or something else altogether. Hell, the trained tongue might even be able to tell you that the rosey taste in your glass is, indeed, rose.
It is by embracing the fluff, the embellishments and what surrounds an impression that you can become better at identifying what it is. If describing this in or to groups, it is helpful to explain why or how you came to certain conclusions.
If you are wondering how you can practice this, get the thesaurus out and get comfortable with the words surrounding the five flavour groups: Citrusy, Fresh, Woody, Spicy, Sweet. Alternatively, we have invented an entire BOTANICAL TASTING WHEEL to help drinkers follow their words and impressions to find the exact botanical they’re experiencing, working their way in from vague to ultra specific.
It works from the inside out and starts with broad, overall impressions. It then uses adjectives to describe the sensation, before moving on to the specific botanical it reminds you most of. If you do this as a trio and embrace all three parts you will fine tune your skill set and your accuracy in detecting the correct flavours.
For example something citrusy that’s fresh and cooling and reminds you of lemon peel is almost certainly not lemon. Close, but no. The three parts in the wheel allows you to trace your way along the flavour until you eventually pinpoint what it actually is.
Take the above example; if you really feel that it’s fresh and cool but those adjectives are not there in the citrus section, then perhaps it’s better suited to being lemon verbena, or lemon thyme, lemon myrtle etc.. ? Most times, by questioning the adjectives you use, you can reach the actual ingredient that’s been distilled.
SUBTLETIES AND CONTEXT
Look at the Flavour Thesaurus, The Secret Life of Colour, the Science of Spice or other brilliant books that go into how one item is loaded with subtext and subconscious weight. It is by understanding these subtleties that you will be able to really harness your ability to use what you have understood to be in the glass and why you feel a certain way about it.
For example, it’s one thing being able to tell that there is rosemary in the glass and that it is fragrantly sitting alongside a warming fennel nip. Knowing that these two herbs are frequently used in Mediterranean cooking, however, transforms the quite bonkers choice of picking lavender as a G&T garnish from being an outlier to being the missing piece of the puzzle. Another might be the difference between knowing there is chamomile in the glass and knowing that most people will associate a sense of calm with that, and while they might not be able to tell that it it’s there, that this is the reason they are finding it soft and gentle on the nose.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
Just as with leaning a second language, honing your flavour detective skills takes time and patience. It can take years to memorise all the ingredients used in gins and a long time before they are possible to discern as individuals once presented as a group. Stick with it and you’ll get there!
The great thing about this one language, though, is that it’s far more enjoyable to discover than the tongue twisting nature of traveling in places, trying as hard as you might to say the right thing and being met with nothing but confusion. Here, at least, learning vocab is a trip to the market, a walk outside, pouring more gin to the glass and wondering if ghosted is an appropriate word to describe the impression of spice without the piquancy, or if, indeed, you’ve just lost the plot…
There’s no-one judging, there’s no other reason to do this than pure personal curiosity. No need to invent pressures, no need to stress about getting it right, so just enjoy trying to do a little here and there and you’ll see it’s hugely rewarding as a process and amazing just how much can be unlocked by engaging with the process.
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