It is often thought that those who are good at tasting and picking out flavours have some kind of special, innate talent that the rest of us do not have. While it may be the case that some at the top end (international-class wine tasters, for example), do have naturally refined tastebuds, that doesn’t mean that most people are unable to improve their palate. With a bit of knowledge and practice, most of us can pick out flavours from cocktails. And if you know how to identify flavours in something you’re drinking, your mixology skills will improve too. Whether you want to mix cocktails in the bar of a luxury world cruise ship, or just drink them in your local backstreet bar, you’ll have something to learn from this article. It is easy to become accustomed to tasting the same flavours repeatedly, and that can prevent us from learning new ones. At the extreme end, take the example of a fussy-eating child. Some children eat only specific types of food because they’ve ‘trained’ their tastebuds only to want those. As adults, we often do something similar – we return to the same familiar flavours again and again, rather than take risks. This doesn’t really fit with the world of cocktails, which should be about excitement and decadence. See if you can add new and different flavours to your cocktails, and you’ll find you enjoy making them so much more. Tasting To improve your ‘tasting dictionary’ you need to start trying new things. So, if you always stick to the same few favourites, think again. The more things you taste, the more you’re likely to want to taste, and the better you’re likely to get at identifying flavours. Fruits, herbs and spices make up the basis of most cocktails. They are also some of the tastiest things to try when you’re building up your palate. Here are some of the more unusual flavours you could introduce your tastebuds to: Fruits:
– Pomegranate: This is a deep red fruit with large seeds, that is often drunk as juice and added to Middle Eastern cooking. The flavour is strong and fairly tart, but with plenty of depth to it. It has a much fuller flavour than citrus fruits, for example. As well as using pomegranate juice as a cocktail mixer, you could base a cocktail on a pomegranate liquer. – Starfruit: Starfruits are found growing in parts of Asia, and have a unique flavour that few people are familiar with. The flavour is slightly sweet and sour, and combines both citrus and apple-like flavours. In a cocktail, it mixes well with orange liquers and white rums. – Rambutan: This would make a lovely delicate flavoured cocktail. With a spiny skin, the inside is fresh tasting and similar in taste to a lychee, although the fruits are much larger. They are found in much of south-east Asia. It’s quite sweet, so marry it with sharp lime and vodka. – Mangosteen These are a creamy, rather than a juicy fruit and would make a good ‘alternative’ pina colada. They are dark purple in colour, but the fruit tastes like a combination of citrus and peach. – Dragon Fruit Another creamy fruit which has a slightly sweet and sour taste. They have pink skins with ‘scales’ a little like a dragon, and are found in Malaysia. They can have quite a delicate flavour, and would need to be mixed carefully with other flavours to avoid them being swamped in a cocktail. Try it with rum and perhaps some lime. Herbs and Spices – Cinamon This is a common spice used in cooking, especially sweet biscuits and cakes. It has a lovely warm, deep flavour that works well with lots of fruits, especially apple, and with thick liquers such as coffee or chocolate. – Coriander Coriander has a fresh, lemony flavour which can add a real uplift to both foods and drinks (rather in the way that mint does). It is not often thought of as a cocktail ingredient, but in can work really well and could be used to make an alternative ‘mojito’. – Kaffir Lime Leaves This herb combines lime flavours with other citrus and peppery tastes. They are quite an intense flavour, so should be treated with a little care! Good with vodka or gin, and with tequila.
– Star Anise Star Anise is used often in Chinese and other eastern cooking, and helps to give it a rich, dense flavour. It tastes very like liquorice, and can be used to add a strong kick of flavour to cocktails. Works well with white spirits and fruit flavours. – Cardamom Often used in cooking to add some delicate flavour to food, particularly in Indian dishes. It has a slightly smoky yet fresh and lemony flavour. Pair it with orange or other citrus flavours. All of these can be used to help you conjure up delicious new cocktails, along with many hundreds of others. When deciding what to combine some of these new flavours with, think carefully about how the cocktail will smell and look as well as taste (all three are very much linked in the brain). Don’t make the mistake of combining too many flavours in one glass: pick out one main flavour and add to it if you need to. Generally, fresher flavours work well together and darker, smokier flavours together. Be cautious, but don’t be afraid to experiment! ——– Alice Hayes is a freelancer who likes the finer things in life, especially if she isn’t paying. Hayes is based in South London and works in the travel sector and enjoys cooking, cocktails and amateur photography in her spare time.