White Label

US on-trade guide to flavour making


The Science of Taste

Tasting something as rich as a bourbon is a whole lot more complicated than it might at first appear. While all of us with fully functioning odour receptors and taste buds mostly know whether we like or dislike something, knowing exactly how we sense a mouthful of bourbon, or what language to use when talking about it, or even why we’ve plumped for a bourbon rather than a scotch, is a whole new ballgame. In this respect, everyone experiences exactly the same kinds of problems – self-doubt, frustration and joy – when it comes to identifying flavour. Let’s see why.

Olfactory Truths
We taste and recognise flavours in several highly evolved steps. When we see and smell bourbon, we are instantly informed by past experiences of tasting it or something very much like it, thereby activating dopamine-reward centres in the brain. Desiring what we see and smell, we taste it.

Our noses are filled with hundreds of taste or odour receptors, activated before and during actual tasting. Our mouths are by comparison relatively primitive, being covered in a currently agreed set of basic primary tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and savoury, the individual taste buds scattered willy-nilly about the mouth.  Consequently, a tiny bit of the reward of sipping bourbon comes via tasting with the mouth. The main joy of taste is experienced via smelling through the nostrils (ortho-nasally) and then even more significantly via the back of the nose (retro-nasally) as we drink.

As a whole – the ortho-nasally sensed odours, the primary tastes in the mouth, and especially the retro-nasally gathered smells – are processed or imaged by the brain as flavours. How exactly remains to be properly explained.

Talking Flavour
That the many aromas and tastes of a bourbon actually exist are in no doubt. However, the process by which we identify and share these as flavour is clearly complicated.

While we instantly know whether we like or dislike the taste of something, the difficulty of putting a name to the flavour emanates from the fact that we often associate aromas with our own private experiences, perhaps episodes experienced as far back as childhood. We don’t have a name for the aroma because we’ve never had a name for it. And if we did, then we’ve forgotten it. We know the invisible object exists, but the nearest we can get to speaking about it is to recount the experience.

However, as with almost anything, practice makes almost perfect. We can be trained to recognise flavours. There’s plenty of research to show this to be true – and that the average person is perfectly capable of identifying up to four aromas in one go. Those with a nose for the job can manage three or four times as much – again with training. Plus, whisky producers have long been in the business of providing guides – flavour maps or wheels – which help tasters identify, compare and contrast, and speak about aromas. Practice makes almost perfect. Enjoy it.

Flavour in Context
There’s more to flavour than biology and training. You’ll know this from those times when exactly the same meal tastes different, depending on the context in which it’s enjoyed – or not, as the case may be. The same is true of tasting bourbon. It may be the location, your mood, what you’ve just eaten, the time, or who you’re with. Keep in mind the fact that rather than it being about your ability to taste, it’s more about that ability being affected by the context in which you’re tasting. We are influenced by the external. This is true of everyone, novice, enthusiast and master distiller.

One way To Taste a Bourbon
When we taste – as opposed to drink – we are analysing flavour. In this respect, we are judging a given bourbon on the basis of character, balance and taste.

Nobody tastes whiskey in exactly the same way. However, generally speaking, all will note its colour, and then nose, taste and either spit it out or swallow. While the ritual can look and feel slightly impenetrable, that’s not the point: with a bit of training, some tips, we’re all perfectly capable having a go. Let’s have a look at the whiskey in front of us:

Appearance: Hold the glass up to the light. Note the bourbon’s colour and its viscosity. Colour’s a clue to many things, but it does not tell you how good it tastes. The darker the colour, the longer, possibly, it’s spent in the barrel. Spin the whiskey in the glass. The heavier its ‘legs’, the stronger it is.

Nose: Nose mouth open. Let the smells carry you away, create memories. Search for the smells of spice, honey, of caramel, vanillas and various fruits – perhaps, even, meaty notes.

Taste: Take one sip, swallow or spit. Your mouth set, take a second sip. Let the whisky travel everywhere in the mouth. Think about how it feels – possibly dry or creamy, and whether it’s sweet or bitter. Try identifying any fruity, spicy or smoky aromas.

Finish: Swallow and measure in your mind how long its flavours last. The finish on some bourbons are long and sweet. Some are brief. Others are sharp and peppery. The finish rounds off the experience. How does this one feel to you?

Water: Add some water and nose and taste it once again. Water opens up the bourbon, often allowing fruity aromas to come to the fore.

Going to the Source
There’s no right or wrong when it comes to flavour. The main thing is to simply enjoy – enjoy the taste and fun of trying to break the taste down into flavours.

However, as you practise and so get better at identifying certain flavours, the next natural step may well be to begin thinking about how those flavours were created. In this respect, all you are doing is asking a simple question: I’m tasting, say, ‘coconut’, ‘apple’ and ‘caramel’ etc. in my bourbon, and know it’s not actually made of coconut, apple or caramel etc., so how did they get to be here in my bourbon? Ask the question and you go beyond simply identifying flavours. You begin to find out how distillers go about making flavour.