Column: Your Palate Is Fine, It Just Needs Experience, Training

Ever been in a whiskey tasting where you’ve heard others’ remarks and thought, “How did she taste baked apples? And where did that guy get ‘cedar on the nose’ from when whiskey is aged in oak barrels?” If their remarks made you think less of your own palate, fear not. Yours may become just as good as an expert’s.

This remark from the excellent book, “Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey,” should cheer you up. “Tasters are created, not born,” (said) Hildegard Heimann, a professor and oenologist at the University of California at Davis.

When I heard that (I own the audiobook) I thought, “That’s me!” It’s been me since I began working at a fine dining restaurant at age 15. I had no idea that fresh asparagus was great—especially with hollandaise. I never knew that beef cooked medium-rare was inexplicably better than the grilled-to-well-done abuses committed by my father. Fresh pesto was so potently aromatic and powerful on the tongue that I literally didn’t know what to think at first, but I eventually loved it.

I later spent eight years acquiring a culinary vocabulary in fine-dining kitchens. Surrounded by experienced, culinary-schooled chefs, everything was described in vivid detail. A good example is how sauces were judged: by their color, luster, opacity, taste, texture and viscosity. Now apply that thinking and verbiage across the whole menu to understand how a whole kitchen argot develops.

whiskey tasting

Tasting whiskey can get better with a lot of nosing, tasting, talking and notetaking (image via Courtney Kristjana/The Whiskey Wash)

But nothing changed the way I thought and spoke about drinks until learning to taste wine. I’d learned the basics when I was a chef. But at an industry meeting of several hundred caterers a decade later, my eyes, nose and ears were opened wide. At every place setting was a small forest of long-stemmed glasses containing a variety of wines. As the tasting began, opinionated industry veterans shouted out their remarks. It was entertaining and enlightening.

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One guy said, “I got some grandma’s attic on the nose,” and a woman described a young Bordeaux as having “off notes of overripe cheese.” When another said, “I smell socks that need washing,” I realized this free-thinking drill was de rigueur to them. Wine had its own sub-language, and this is how oenophiles talked. Just as al dente asparagus with hollandaise rocked my understanding of food, their descriptions changed the way I’d nose and taste wine for good.

Fast forward a couple of decades to when I was learning to taste whiskey. Those settings were different. In groups, I heard things like, “Don’t say out loud what you’re tasting. That biases others’ thoughts. Let them think it through.”

Seriously? What if they can’t identify what they’re tasting? Who are they going to learn from? Who was going to say a whiskey smelled dank, like wet wood, or that beyond the ordinary caramel and vanilla notes lay floral, citrus and appealing chemical aromas? To me, hearing it from others was the group teaching part of the process.

Here’s where I step on some toes: I think it’s foolish to tell a room full of drinkers to say nothing about what they smell and taste. To say that everything others hear will bias their opinions is to imply everyone in the room is insecure about their whiskey thoughts.

Just because I say I smell purple iris (sometimes that same note is grape drink powder) in a whiskey doesn’t mean others will lie and say, “Um, oh yeah, I do, too,” to look cool. Realistically, some may think I’m full of it (while friends will say it out loud). Most often, though, others in the room will say, “Hmm, not getting that at all.”

All unique opinions are fun to hear, and all of it’s part of why whiskey tasting is enjoyable. Tasting should be engaging, not done in silence or silos. It’s hard to beat the banter of a bunch of friends sitting around a fire sharing opinions of the same whiskey.

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Let ‘em talk about it. It’s how we learn.

More from “Bourbon Empire”: author Reid Mitenbuler writes …

“Whiskey, like wine, shares specific phenolic compounds with seemingly unrelated items, which people can train their palates to detect, heightening their ability to enjoy the subtleties both kinds of drinks can offer. Appreciating and detecting these things can sometimes seem like a high art. The province of sommeliers and other members of some kind of culinary priesthood. But this isn’t the case at all.

“In fact, having ordinary senses is perhaps better than having exceptional ones. Super tasters—people who are genetically more sensitive to smells and flavors—aren’t particularly adventurous eaters, shying away from spicy or bitter flavors because of their acute sensitivity, according to some studies. And just as having sensitive hearing doesn’t make somebody a better music critic, an acute sense of taste or smell doesn’t automatically make somebody better at judging wine and spirits.”

I love those statements because they’re true and applicable to ordinary people who appreciate whiskey while lacking the ability (perhaps only temporarily) to dissect its countless flavors and aromas. Simply tasting more of it won’t help much in that pursuit, though it will help identify one’s brand preferences. Knowing what you like is just the start.

But also know this: Digging for those details is a blast—only if they’re what you’re after. If you’re the type who leaves it at, “I just know what I like,” stay there. Fine by me.

It is true that some are born wired with great palates. But while it’s nice to have good equipment, it’s another if that person doesn’t know how to use it. I have no doubt in scientists’ claim that women have naturally better olfactory senses than men. But how many women can pick up a glass of whiskey and dissect its properties without some training and experience?

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Peggy Noe Stevens, Brown-Forman’s first designated master taster, told me once that she knew her nose was good. But to become a skilled taster, she had to acquire the vocabulary of that company’s whiskey makers and sensory experts to make sense of what was in the glass.

“It’s a process,” said Stevens, now a whiskey industry consultant. “And it’s been damn fun to learn!”

More good news from “Bourbon Empire” for those who want to learn more: “(Heimann) and other sensory scientists stress that learning to taste just takes a little practice and attention to detail. They recommend that tasters simply keep notebooks and write down flavors and aromas they detect. Compare the notes to those reviewing the same whiskey, but don’t worry if the notes don’t particularly match up. Tasting notes almost never do.”

That’s true. And it’s why when we read tasting notes on a whiskey package, we sometimes roll our eyes and think, “Yeah, right. I bet she tasted that.” Yet indeed, that taster may well have combined nose, palate—and memory—to conclude that’s “what she got” out of that whiskey.

Specific memories play a huge role in identifying a whiskey’s peculiar makeup. This is especially true when it comes to aromas of places we’ve visited frequently throughout our lives. Not surprisingly, people’s homes, schools and workplaces are common sources of memory triggers; more so when those memories are pleasant. (Think Grandma’s kitchen and its link to baking spices present in long-aged bourbon.) Exact flavors, on the other hand, don’t often trigger equally strong responses because we taste only occasionally while actively smelling every waking moment.

So, the next time you think your palate isn’t as good as the next drinker’s, ignore the thought. A lot of nosing, tasting, talking and notetaking will help get you up to speed.


Steve Coomes

Steve Coomes is an award-winning journalist and book author specializing in whiskey and food. In his 30-year career, he has edited and written for national trade and consumer publications including USA Today, Southern Living, Delta Sky Magazine, Nation’s Restaurant News, Pizza Today, Restaurant Business, Bourbon + and American Whiskey magazine....