Lauren Friel | 11.26.2014 | Issue #5
Think about biting into an apple. Think about how sweet it is, how juicy it is. Think about the bitterness of the skin against the ripeness of the sugars, how long its flavor lingers on your tongue, how much it makes you salivate. Think about its flavor.
Now tell me about it. Sell it to me. Make me want it. Here’s the catch: you don’t know me. You don’t know if I like apples. You don’t know if I’ve ever had an apple, and I’m not going to tell you one way or the other. I might say I love apples. This might be a lie. What does it taste like? And no, you can’t say ‘apple.’
Sell it to me.
You have thirty seconds.
That last bit is unique to my position as the Wine Director for a busy restaurant. But the rest of it – the steady hunt for the true language of flavor – is a pursuit shared by sommeliers, chefs, bartenders, brewmasters, coffee roasters and anyone else whose craft depends on an ability to convince strangers why they absolutely, positively, must taste this.
I’ve been on the hunt for a while now, and I still stutter. We all do, somehow. So, in the interest of cultivating some kind of collective flavor-lingo intelligence, I’m calling in the reserves. Ezra Star is the general manager at Drink, the subterranean cocktail bar in Boston’s Fort Point neighborhood and recipient of the Tales of the Cocktail’s Best Bar in the World Award. Drink’s concept 86s the cocktail menu and the back bar and thus, all points of reference for guests. Want something to drink? You’re going to have to tell her about it first.
Lauren Friel: I want to talk about the way we talk about flavor. The language of it. I want to talk about how we think about it, maybe how we talk about it with our team. Is that different from how we talk about it with guests? Do we need to change the way we talk about flavor?
Ezra Star: A lot of the time at Drink, the most popular request we get it is, “Vodka, not too sweet.” For us, that could be anything. Vodka has absolutely no flavor, right? “Not too sweet” is a completely non-descriptive term for anything. So, really, they're asking for... anything. So, how do you figure out what they're actually trying to say?
How do you triage that situation?
What I often try to do is define their terms with them. If they say vodka, I say, “Oh, so you mean you're looking for something that's a lighter spirit, that's maybe not aged in wood.” If they say, “Not too sweet,” maybe they're actually saying “not syrupy,” because in the past they've gone to restaurants where they've had a cocktail that's been gross and sugary. Or maybe what they mean is refreshing. Vodka soda drinkers want something refreshing, right? Then you just say, “Are the bubbles necessary?” Re-evaluating and putting it in a context that they understand is often the thing that I'm hunting to do.
OK, so you said “refreshing.” What are some other broad words?
“Tart,” versus “citrusy.” “Citrusy” could be an orange, and an orange is actually sweet. My favorite request is for an "herbal vodka drink," which is... gin. I'm sorry. It’s an herbal vodka. But the fear is that is tastes like a Christmas tree, right? So you say, “Oh, I have just the thing for you. Is it ok if I use something that’s like an herbal vodka?” And then you can be like, “So, this is actually gin.” Afterwards.
So, you kind of trick them a little bit.
A little bit, but I think it's part of what they're expecting, you know? When you say this is one that's not very juniper-y, this is one that's much more influenced by lavender…
You say “floral,” maybe.
“More floral than herbal,” yeah. Things like that.
Do you think you run into this kind of necessity for translation as often as you do because you work at a place with no menu?
It definitely forces people to describe what they like. If you have a menu you just, like, pick the thing, you know? It's presenting words you already know for you.
It's just an existing-knowledge associative experience.
Right. So, you read the menu and you’re like, "Oh, I really like cucumbers, I want that cucumber thing," even though it has, like, four ounces of chartreuse and the cucumbers are just sitting on top. It's all about description. If I really wanted to sell something to somebody, I could say, "Would you like a light pink, slightly herbal, nice, cold, refreshing cocktail?" A vodka drinker would hear that and totally want it. But it's a Sazerac. It’s not too sweet, but that's not what they're looking for. It's a matter of contextualizing their perspective with their words.
Does it ever not work? One night in the dining room at Oleana, I was totally geeking out on Burgundy with this guy. Clearly this guy knew his shit, and I live for that, right? So, he asks me, "What do you really think about the 2009 vintage?" I kind of hesitated for a minute, because you can say, "Oh, it's a really ripe vintage,” and that's all obvious. But I just wanted it to be more descriptive.
So I said, "It's a bit burlesque. The vintage is a bit burlesque." Because to me, it's a little bit trashy without being totally slutty, but it's in-your-face and over-the-top. I said it, and I kind of freaked out for a second, because I just said this to a table, and I don't know if this is cool. But he totally responded. He was like, “That's exactly what it is. It's burlesque! You nailed it.” So, I'm feeling really good about this, and a week later I went to another table and said the same word to a different guy. He looks at me, and he says, "What the fuck does that mean?"
So I think, OK, was it the language that I used? I didn't read that guest well enough, obviously. I should have read that guest and known that he wasn't going to respond to the same language, but...
Ninety percent of making a drink for somebody is understanding who's in front of us. The moment they walk in the door – usually by the time they get to the bar – I mean, I've been doing this for so long that I know that person is definitely going to want a Manhattan. I already know what their third and fourth and fifth drinks are going to be. But you have to change it around. Make it personal. Make it so that they can connect.
We had a beer that we were all tasting once, and we were like, “You know what? This tastes exactly like a Jamaican woman holding mangoes in, like, a weird shop on the side of the street.” It’s so vivid, and when I say that I'm in that place. Or, Johnny Walker Black Label tastes like it needs to go with Indian food to me, because I had an Indian roommate who drank it all the time. That’s great, but what are the elements that I'm really experiencing? It's translating the idea and that image from your mind to the guest by using words they can access. Indian food's actually a great one. Coriander, a little bit of fennel maybe, a little caramel flavor, and there you go. You've got your Johnny Walker Black.
That's the thing. I feel like these are all things that we do as people who are on the front lines trying to translate these experiences to our guests. We're doing it every day, every night. But maybe we're not thinking about it as much as we should.
Well, I think… taste is seasonal. Right? I think that's a pretty obvious statement. So, if a guest is saying they want something “lighter” in the winter, maybe an aged rum is perfect, you know? That’s way more appropriate in the winter and fall than in the summer. In the summer if you serve that to somebody they're going to think it’s really heavy. Like, tasting gin in summer. Tasting gin in winter, spring, fall… Totally different. So, in the winter I like to turn the heat up slightly too high so our guests are over-warm, so I can just give them a taste of summer. So I give them a gin cocktail with mint added, and they're like, “Oh, it tastes ‘like summer!’” And it does, because I’ve created that environment for them. In the summer that cocktail also tastes “like summer.”
So, the way we're communicating becomes more than just the language that we're using. It becomes…
The place. That's essentially what taste is. It's trying to describe a place. Taste of place is something that's so often used – terroir, or whatever you want to call it. Basically, some element of what you're tasting may have existed somewhere else – or not. If it hasn’t, great. You've created it. If it has, then you can revisit it or expand on it.
Creating that taste of place becomes more than just what’s in the glass. It’s an experience considering things like you said – the time of year, the time of day, their age, whether they’re celebrating. What's the mood that already exists, and how much flexibility do you have with them in either shifting the mood or complementing the mood to cultivate a sense of place? And how do you communicate what you’re doing for them? Because you can't just put something in front of someone without explanation.
I think in the experience at Drink, because there's no comfort in front of them – there's no back bar, there's no television – it actually often works better that I don't tell them what I’m doing. If I just put it in front of them confidently, they think, “This person knows what they're doing. It's going to taste good.” I was taught a lot of what I do by this awesome Japanese guy. His favorite saying is, “The cocktail starts the moment the guest walks in the door.” That's how you know a good cocktail. The ambience, the time of year… Being able to read all of those little things and then find a way to bridge the gap between what they're expecting and what you're able to provide. Champagne is a great example. Nobody drinks champagne unless it's a special occasion.
Which just breaks my heart, because it's the greatest pairing with everything.
Yeah, it's the shit! Nobody wants it. But if you take the bottle and saber it in front of them, then they want that whole bottle. It’s because it's creating that moment. It's creating a place, it's creating that flavor in their mind, and suddenly they’re changing their view of what that thing is. Like, everybody wants a giant tiki bowl. You're like, “You don't want that. It's got three ounces of Campari, two ounces of Cynar and all the rest is just mud I found out back.” They’re like, "But I want a big bowl." Ok, great. Here you go. And they're like, “It tastes amazing!” And you're like... It's just on fire. You like it ‘cause it's on fire.
I think sometimes when I use language like “burlesque,” or “sultry,” or I say, “This is a really sexy wine,” with guests… maybe they're not really that into wine. Maybe they opened up the list and called me over and they don’t even know what they want. But all of a sudden it's the greatest thing they've ever had, and I wonder… I mean, I think the wine's great, but is it just because I used that word?
I think that's an important part of it, right? It's that trust as well. One of my favorite things to do with my staff is to get a box of crayons and give everybody a crayon. They can't let anyone know what they have. They're not allowed to say what the color is. They have to go on the opposite side of the bar and guess the color from descriptions. How do you describe a color without saying it? How do you explain that you have a red crayon? Or how do you ask questions to find out what color the crayon is? You can say, "What does that crayon feel like?" Or, “I have a really fancy car, and I'm in my forties, and I have the greatest Ferrari ever,” and you're like, "Oh! That's red!"
I try to show the opposite. I blindfold the staff, and I have them smell all of these really common fruits and things that we regularly reference when we're describing wine. These are people with great palates. But they can’t identify 75% of the smells. Like, pineapples smell like strawberries. Honey...forget it. People think honey smells disgusting when they're blindfolded. So, we're smelling all of these things that we say that we smell all of the time. But when we actually smell them, we can't identify them. So why are we still using these words?
Reading a wine description just makes me not want to drink wine. I spent so long not wanting to drink wine, I think, because there's this way of describing wine that just sounds like...honestly, like, why are you being such a snob?
Like, when we talk about the “attack” and the “mid-palate,” really what we’re talking about is the structure. Is it well structured? And I feel like you can nail that by saying "soft, velvety and lush," or, "powerful, complex and angular."
Do you feel like you have to lift it with your tongue? Or does it feel like wind across your tongue? Just break it down.
So it becomes a sensory experience and less of an intellectual one. You're thinking about it in terms of dynamic sensation instead of just describing it. But, I have the opposite experience from you, where I sit in on liquor tastings and I'm like, what the fuck are you guys talking about? All I smell is booze, and I can't smell anything else.
Pull your nose back.
I'm sure that's fifty percent of the problem, but I feel like the language that people use... I guess what I'm trying to say is, in my experience in talking to you, I think that a lot of that comes down to the way that you approach talking about this stuff. I think you utilize more accessible language. What do you do when you’re trying to foster a staff member’s communication about what they’re smelling and tasting?
The more senior apprentices almost always start offering the most intense cocktails possible. Like, the Penicillin is a great cocktail. Ginger, smoky Scotch, lemon and honey… “Here is the most intense cocktail I can think of.” Come on, where are you going next? What kind of experience is that? Just because they're so used to working with these elements, it’s intensity they’re going for. But one of the best cocktails on Earth is a Bee's Knees, and it's just lemon, honey and gin. And why is that? It's just simple. So, it's like speaking. The most eloquent words often fail when the most simple things are possible. Just simplify. Make it more accessible.
What do you think it is that has gotten people in our profession to a place where everything is so mystical and complicated?
I think it’s the same reason these apprentices are serving these insanely complicated drinks. We're so used to these things, so we want them to be more complex. I think pulling back from that and remembering that it's a glass of wine, or it's a cocktail...
It's a beverage.
Yeah. It's great to be able to describe something in a way that’s super complex, but that doesn't do us any favors. Simplifying, always. Returning back to the most basic parts of what it is. It's an experience, it's a taste and it's a place. It's what you're doing now. Understanding that is often the best direction to go.