to use muscle memory to associate the right word (or words) with known compounds presented to us—often with the need for several repetitive presentations of pure compounds spiked, initially into a water or weak ethanol solution, and then in the true environment—a standard “true-to-type” spirit. Or repetitive group assessments of spirits in their portfolio. When everyone on the panel is in alignment with respect to understanding their own products so well, then collectively, they can note even quite minor differences in the overall flavor profile from one batch to another. An acceptable/ tolerable degree of variance can be in place but within a range that would not allow an untrained consumer to notice. Hopefully, by now, we understand that nosing of such samples alone is often insufficient to convey their flavor. Most accomplished assessors get this. Smelling retronasally is needed as well as orthonasal sniffing to truly assess an individual flavor and the flavor profile of the spirit. Let us all get that part down. The neatest thing about all this though is that experts differ from us only really in their command of the language of flavor. This illuminating and fascinating statement is covered in detail by Shepherd in his Neuroenology book.3
Everyday training—don’t just use your common sense to get you through the day! One of the best things you can do to improve your sensory acuities is to start applying your keen, though underused, senses to evaluating the everyday world you live in. Let your nose guide the way. Start sniffing the air and really tasting your food—try different foods—cooked and in the raw state and really “chew” and “mull” upon them retro- and orthonasally. You could learn where in your city you are, while being driven around blindfolded, by smelling the bakery, chocolate factory, sanitation plant, florist’s shop, etc. Learn the notes others describe, when eating or drinking together, such as, for example, when they say gooseberries, or this is like a “gooseberry fool”. Now—I just set a challenge—you need to go out and find out just what a gooseberry is (most in the US do not) and evaluate one or two so in the future you too will be in the know on that attribute. It is a flavor note that pertains to some wines and certain hops and maybe to some fruit flavored spirits. Go enjoy a food-fair and try something new. Repeat these muscle-memory building exercises frequently. We really let down our appreciation of the world by not truly using our senses to evaluate it. By the way gooseberries look like hairy grapes and are quite tart—and they smell, well, like—gooseberries. Try them sometime. So we will both know what I mean. Classes of instruction in the area can illustrate how different chemical species fall into categories so-as to extend the appreciation and vocabulary of flavor—helping build up a library of information in the brain for future reference when assessing or judging any food or beverage. Building up a primary aroma lexicon and then adding secondary tiers and so on led to online data listings of molecules and their properties and to flavor maps and well known
“flavor wheels,” which provide memory tools to assist in sensory evaluation. Again, these ideas being the food or fuel for another article on this vast topic. Some sensory trainers lead with—“break down the notes detected into animal, vegetable, fruity, citrus-fruity or mineral characteristics,” then with “what type of fruit (or animal etc.)?” and, next, with the quality of that fruit. “Is it reminiscent of unripe/ green flavor, fresh, overly-ripe, bruised, fruit-skin- or fruit pulplike, rotten or possessing old-like aging aroma qualities?” Think again of the banana example noted above. Or, if it’s an apple, is it a cooking apple type, a red or a green apple etc.? Then move onto the next flavor you sense—animal, vegetable, mineral? Groups such as the Aroma Academy of Scotland cover this approach in the notes accompanying their aroma kits, for example. Sensory training courses will do the same. Finally, here—context is important too. The smell of various fatty acids and butyric acid, for example, convey sweaty/rancid body odors like sweaty feet, or the end of the day on the crowded commuter train home or at the gym—which are regarded as unpleasant. Those same flavor notes are characteristics of classic cheeses including parmesan which you may enjoy sprinkled on your pizza or pasta that same evening. Or not! Neither situation may appeal of course. Good smell, bad smell—same smell?—different context or nuanced differences. Different personal preferences or sensitivities too. The setting is also important in sensory training and at competition/judging events. Odor-free, comfortable temperature, quiet environment? The size, and the shape of the glass (glass vs. plastic?) and the fill level and temperature of the liquid being served also matter. Rules exist as to how to conduct a session and oneself to best appreciate the samples set before you. Such rules are not always followed (personal observations). An interesting note by Shepherd (p.17 Ref. 3) may clue winemakers into understanding the need to swallow the wine rather than spitting it all out, while presenting the conditions to do so without getting inebriated quite as quickly as might be expected. When we taste the spirit, we are actually tasting spirit plus saliva and so as our saliva production varies during the day it should clue us into understanding why a wine or a spirit can taste different mid-morning or at lunch, in an afternoon session of judging or at dinner.3 Also a person’s saliva can be of an acidic, neutral or alkaline pH and so a sample will be perceived differently to a fellow imbiber because of this factor or variable. Different sniff rates may be needed to present to olfactory receptors maximal responses of the different components present based upon solubilities or sorption into the mucus.³ The linger of chili peppers—colorless, tasteless and odorless capsaicin can make judging a round where one or, worse, all the samples are “hot” quite a challenge. Capsaicin itself detected through the trigeminal sensory pathway. You will still be detecting the chili flavor through its other aromatic molecules—but talk about the need to readapt to fairly assess the next sample in the line-up. Training helps a lot here. As does the careful ordering of samples in a flight by the organizers. But that gets us into positional biases—oh my! What a fascinating place this flavor world is. No? WWW.ARTISANSPIRITMAG.COM
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