A Tale of Five Senses: What it takes to become a tasting expert

May 23, 2021 4:00 AM

We spoke with spirits trainers, perfumers, wine, tea and coffee tasters to find out one thing: How do they do it?

While most professions require mental concentration or physical work, a few rare ones require the two senses to be working right: the sense of smell and taste.While most professions require mental concentration or physical work, a few rare ones require the two senses to be working right: the sense of smell and taste.

By Reya Mehrotra

American wine critic Robert Parker is often referred to as ‘the world’s most prized palate’ for his wine reviews and ratings. Having won many awards over his decades-long career, the wine critic is a formidable name in the industry today. A career that he has carved out on the back of his five senses.

In fact, not just wine tasting, other similar professions like coffee, tea, whisky and chocolate tasting and aroma smelling, too, require a professional to utilise all their five senses to give an unbiased review. It might sound easy to some, but the truth is it takes years of experience and hours of training to become an expert. We spoke with sommeliers, coffee and tea tasters, spirits trainers and perfumers to know what goes behind working with the ‘senses’.

Pop & pour

Like the wine they hold, sommeliers get better as they age in the profession. The art of sipping wine, in fact, is a process that follows the five Ss—see, smell, swirl, smell again and sip—shares wine taster Sumit Jaiswal, who is also assistant vice-president, marketing and exim at Grover Zampa Vineyards, Mumbai. He says that wine tasting is not just the job of the taste buds, but the eyes and nose as well. “Visual analysis is done to check the colour of the wine. First, factory analysis is done to check the condition of the wine. Swirling the glass agitates the wine and helps it get in contact with oxygen, so that the aromas open up and the wine tastes better. Second, nosing is done to analyse the varietal aromas—each and every grape variety smells and tastes different. Most people can easily differentiate between the basic wine aromas—fruity, floral, vegetal, spice, etc. The last step is taking a small sip and ensuring that the wine touches all parts of the palate (each part of the tongue will taste the wine differently) and then you either spit or swallow,” explains 39-year-old Jaiswal.

Of course, a strong sense of taste helps, but Jaiswal, who has been working in the industry for 15 years, says the skill can be developed through training. “People generally have a strong sense of olfactory memory. It can be developed too. The more you taste different types of wines, the better you can differentiate between different aromas and flavours over a period of time. One can also use aroma kits to sniff the aromas in small glass containers and enhance the senses,” he says. For the senses to work right, it is important to not let them be distracted, so sommeliers do not wear strong perfumes or eat strongly-flavoured foods (even black coffee) before wine tasting.

But how can one be sure that one’s taste would appeal to the masses? The answer, Jaiswal says, is a well-balanced wine that finds the right balance between sweetness, acidity, body, alcohol and tannins (in reds).

Each country has its own distinct taste when it comes to the choice of wine and it does not take long for sommeliers to adapt once they are familiar with the palate of the population, believes Delhi-based Magandeep Singh, India’s first French-qualified sommelier who trained around 17 years ago in France. “We make a list of wines—sweet and dry, heavy and light—for people with varied preferences. For a food-loving country like India, getting the taste and aroma right is not an issue,” the 41-year-old shares.

Wine tasting may be a relatively young profession in India that evolved only a few years ago, but that does not limit the scope of a sommelier. “Apart from the pandemic, work was there throughout the year. Hotels and restaurants need to know what sells and customers need to know what to buy. A lesser- and wisely-curated inventory would mean lesser costs and so sommeliers are in great demand in the hospitality industry,” says Singh.

While retail shops hire sommeliers throughout the year, part-time employment works best for hotels, as they need to keep their stock moving and fresh. For wineries, gin or vodka companies, tasters might be involved on consultancy basis to get the recipe right.

Cup tales

For Guwahati-based Parag Hatibarua, his profession ensures his daily cup of tea. Hatibarua has been in the tea trade for nearly 33 years and learned the tenets of tea tasting when he joined J Thomas and Company, the largest and the oldest tea auctioning firm, in 1993. “I taste daily as a part of my professional regimen. I have been fortunate to work with a wide variety of teas from across the world, so that keeps me excited and the thirst going,” the 54-year-old says, adding with a laugh, “And in the evenings, whiskey tasting, quite like tea tasting, keeps me wanting more!”

Tea tasting, like other tasting and smelling professions, is an organoleptic exercise, involving sight, feel, smell and taste. As a professional tea taster, Hatibarua has been tasting more than 2,500 cups daily for many years now. But here’s a twist: tea tasters do not drink all the tea they taste. They sip and then spit it out. “We suck in the tea and air at the same time, so that the tea hits our palate, our taste buds, which are at the back of our mouths and joint to our nasal cavity. This allows us to determine the taste and smell, both very important for tea tasting,” he explains.

So what’s his favourite tea? The time of day decides that, he says. “Morning would be an Assam CTC, mid-day would be a light oolong, like a tie quan yin, and afternoon would be a higher-elevation second flush Darjeeling,” shares Hatibarua.

Even though India has been a tea-loving nation, he calls us a ‘young tea-drinking nation’. “More than 54 countries produce tea. Unfortunately, in India, we mostly deal in bulk black tea, CTC and Orthodox, and a miniscule percentage of green tea. India is predominantly a black tea-producing country. There are more than 3,000 types of tea across the globe, and the taste of each tea could differ. We are a young tea-drinking nation, (it’s been) barely 200 years since tea was first commercially planted, while China has recorded history of tea more than 3,000 years ago,” he explains. Currently working as a director with Eastern Tea Brokers (a tea and produce brokering firm) and as south-east Asia director with International Tea Masters Association (which offers training in the tea industry), Hatibarua is also chief adviser and mentor to several tea startups both in India and abroad, as well as chief consultant for plantation companies in the country.

Just like tea, coffee tasting too requires great precision. But more important than anything else, one needs to be a coffee lover. Take, for instance, 27-year-old Visakhapatnam-based Chandrakala Avugadda. She is a quality manager and trainer (barista and coffee roasting skills) at Kaapi Solutions India Opc Pvt Ltd (a beverage equipment solution company) and a Coffee Board of India-certified coffee taster. The process is more than just a sip, she says. “Coffee tasting/cupping is about liquoring coffee by adding hot water, checking the aroma and tasting to find the cup quality by checking different taste parameters such as aroma, flavour, body, acidity, mouthfeel and aftertaste,” she explains.

Before a tasting session, Avugadda follows certain rules: she doesn’t eat anything at least two hours before the session for better evaluation, doesn’t taste coffee when too hungry, uses neutralisers like water, buttermilk, etc, for better-tasting perception, among others.

Avugadda has observed a careful shift in the country from it being a tea-loving nation to an office-going coffee-loving culture. “With this shift, there definitely is a lot of scope in the coming decade for coffee tasters. As consumption has increased with growing consumerism, the quality has become better as well, and quantity of produce has increased,” she says, adding, “Exposing oneself to and tasting more and more types of coffees is the best way to constantly improvise one’s olfactory and sensory skills.”

On the scent

While an aroma can mesmerise an ordinary person, a perfumer will deconstruct it into its constituents—that’s how scientific their job is. Unlike tasters, who eventually and over time, get the knack of the job, perfumers are naturally gifted with a heightened sense of smell. But their nose alone does not qualify them for the profession-their creativity does. That’s how they decide and create new combinations and fragrances.

French perfumer and author of the book The Little Book of Olive Oil (2001) Nicolas de Barry believes perfumers are more sensitive when it comes to the senses. “We are more sensitive to the olfactory aspect. The talent to evaluate and create fragrances is instinctive… an art. But as with any art, you have to learn how to use your talent. To appreciate a perfume, one has to educate the nose, as one would do to appreciate food or wine, or any art,” the 72-year-old shares. The perfumer, who lives in Candes-Saint-Martin in France, cites the example of a tourist at Taj Mahal who will appreciate its architecture, but those with a keen sense of smell will also recognise, for example, “the jasmine bloom in the garden below the mausoleum”.

De Barry says he likes to work mostly in the morning because he finds his sense of smell is more efficient then. He also has his own magic do-it-yourself formula to enhance the sense of smell. “Soak cotton wool or small pieces of paper in essential oils (rose, jasmine, sandalwood, etc) and number them without knowing the origin. This way, you will recognise them little by little and enrich your olfactory memory. It can be complicated by associating them together,” says de Barry, who has been a perfume designer for 25 years and trained in perfumery with the famous Edmond Roudnitska, French master perfumer, in Grasse, France.

The nose of a perfumer can commit hundreds of scents to memory and can distinguish between ingredients that would smell identical to the untrained nose, says Bengaluru-based Malvika Kalauny, senior manager, fragrance development, Skinn, Titan’s perfume company. “The trick is to associate each with a memory. The more experiences you have in life, the more memories you create and that’s how you remember raw materials when you start because it reminds you of your grandmother or a shop or bakery or a certain country road,” says Kalauny, who has been in the profession for 20 years.

If smelling more than two fragrances at a time, one needs to take a break and wait, advises de Barry. “The best thing is to get out of the workplace where the scents are present and breathe fresh air. Also, wait until the olfactory system (nasal and cerebral) is rested before going back to work,” he says.

That’s the spirit

Behind every successful bar is a spirits trainer. Mumbai-based Evonne Eadie, national reserve brand ambassador at Diageo India, specialises in single malt whisky. With over 12 years of experience, the Australian’s training journey began working in bars while she was on a gap year in London. Later, she also worked in several areas of hospitality. But it was while she was in university studying marketing that her passion for cocktails and whisky grew.

While most professions require mental concentration or physical work, a few rare ones require the two senses to be working right: the sense of smell and taste. When on certain days, the senses are diminished, work takes a backseat. On such days, Eadie avoids creating new cocktail serves and relies on past experience and recipes, which she knows are balanced and delicious. “Smell accounts for around 80% of taste, so anything that affects that sense will have an impact on your ability to create recipes, balance serves or analyse a spirit. If I am sampling spirits, then I try not to have anything too powerful in flavour prior. So that means no coffees or hot curries before. This ensures I haven’t dulled my senses and will be able to isolate the maximum flavours in the liquid,” says the 34-year-old, adding that communicating or understanding the flavours after tasting is important and that develops with experience.

Tasting more than one flavour a day can mix up flavours, too, for tasters. For that, Eadie suggests a few hacks like having soda water, a few slices of cucumber or a citrus sorbet between courses to cleanse the palate before moving on to the next. Few pairings she has devised include Johnnie Walker Black Label serves paired with chargrilled dishes. “This amplifies the smokiness the guest experiences, so you can add a bit more sweetness than you would if you were serving the drink on its own,” she says.

Every person’s palate is different and so Eadie ensures there are tasting notes that accurately represent what is in the glass for the consumer to be able to choose something that appeals to their taste. Like artists, she believes that those cut out for tasting are naturally gifted, but like other crafts, this too can be enhanced. “Regardless of where you start, practice always improves your ability,” she says.

How to taste

Liquor

  • Avoid having strong and flavourful dishes a few hours before tasting
  • Describe the flavour by communicating it

Tea

  • Suck in the tea and air at the same time
  • Analyse its taste and smell
  • Spit it out

Wine

  • Visually observe the colour of the wine
  • Swirl the wine glass gently from the bottom to let its aroma rise
  • Smell the aroma to make out its flavour
  • Taste with a small sip, but ensure it touches all parts of the tongue as each part has a different sense of taste

Chocolate

  • Smell the aroma by rubbing on thumb
  • Hold it close to the nose to smell the aroma and cup it with your hands, so that the aroma does not escape
  • Snap a piece of chocolate from the bar to know its texture
  • Place the piece in the mouth, but do not chew
  • Press it between the tongue and roof of the mouth, so that it melts and you know its texture
  • Taste for flavour and notice how it unfolds in your mouth

Coffee

  • Add hot water in coffee
  • Check the aroma and taste for flavour, body, acidity, mouthfeel and aftertaste
  • Do not eat anything at least two hours before the process

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