Spirits Flavor 101 with Tracie Franklin
Q&A: An interview with Spirits Professional Tracie Franklin
The world of spirits is vast and varied. Understanding your innate flavor preferences is the first step to start enjoying the diversity of the industry. To help us on this journey, we sat down with Spirits Professional Tracie Franklin.
Before we jump into learning more about spirits and flavors, I’d love to learn a little more about your journey to becoming a Spirits Professional? What got you started on this path?
A: As a touring singer, whiskey was one of the only spirits that I felt comfortable sipping when I knew I had to perform. This led to me start learning more about the different styles and techniques used to make whiskey. When I left my tour and settled in New York, I decided to bartend in between gigs and this opened my eyes to vast array of spirits that exist. I became a member of the US Bartenders Guild and began studying with ambassadors, distillers, and teachers from around the world. Today, I share the knowledge and passion I have for spirits as a whiskey educator and spirits professional.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
A: It’s a great day when I’m able to watch someone’s eyes light up when they are first able to discern a particular flavor in their spirit, or when an explanation I’ve given helps someone finally understand distillation or fermentation. I love making spirits more approachable and hope to do that through Sip+Tipple.
Now let’s dig a little deeper into how we can start to understand our palates. In this space we often hear flavor described using terms like oaky, leather or velvet. I can’t recall a time when I had a drink and thought, “Hmm . . . that was very velvety.” What do those words actually mean? How does something taste velvety or silky?
First, let’s breakdown flavor. Though most people think flavor and taste are the same thing, flavor is actually the combination of tastes, smells and sensations you experience when eating or drinking.
Taste is the recognition of the five basic tastes; Sweet, Sour, Salty, Bitter, and Umami (savory). Since we’re only able to distinguish five tastes with our tastebuds, we need our sense of smell and physical sensation to create what we think of as flavor.
Scientists say our sense of smell contributes 70-90% of what we think of as flavor. Try holding your nose when you take a bite, and you’ll understand how important your sense of smell is to flavor.
As for sensation, some foods are unrecognizable without their physical sensations: the spicy burn of peppers due to capsaicin, lemons sour tingle of citric acid, and even the slight burn you get from the ethanol in your favorite spirits. Flavor is the union of taste, smell, and sensation and this is why we wanted to use descriptive words for flavor categories.
Sip+Tipple descriptors are meant to describe the experience of flavor which includes how the spirit will taste, smell and feel on your palate. Are the elements gentle and nuanced or are they bold and rich? Something with Leather as a descriptor will have flavors that are rich and complex while Silky will imply that the flavors are more integrated and smooth.
What draws one person to a sweet or fruity tipple, while for some anything sweet or fruity is an immediate no?
Beyond biology, the environmental factors that influence our palates include cultural, geographic and social impacts. The spices, textures and aromas you’ve been exposed to throughout your life create familiarity, and sometimes, a fondness that overrides your DNA. Exposure makes a difference.
The power of evolution has also influenced our sensitivity to flavors. Bitter aversion kept us safe from poisonous plants, desire for saltiness provided essential minerals, and our obsession with sugar increased our calorie intake.
We often hear people say something is an acquired taste. Does that just mean you should continue to drink something until you acquire a taste for it? That doesn’t sound very fun.
A: I always recommend trying everything once and if it’s not to your liking, give it a few years and try it again. Our tastebuds and preferences are constantly changing, and you may find that you enjoy a flavor you one disliked.
If you are determined to enjoy a specific spirit, try drinking it in a cocktail that you love. Cocktails dilute and alter the flavor of spirits as they interact with the cocktail ingredients. If you enjoy the spirit as an ingredient in your cocktail, you can work through other cocktails which have a larger portion of the spirit until you find that you enjoy the spirit on its own.
Ok, last question. What advice would you give our members as they embark on this journey of exploring Black-owned spirits?
As spirits enthusiasts, our goal is to appreciate flavor whether or not it’s our preferred tipple. Start by acknowledging your sensitivity to specific tastes or sensations and your appreciation for various aromas or flavors. Then find the commonalities in a spirit. Enjoy spicy tingles and the smell of fresh cut grass? Try an un-aged Rhum Agricole (sugarcane rum). Want to be ambitious and expand your palate? Try a new spirit in a cocktail style you already love. There are many ways to appreciate the variety in spirits and understanding your palate is the starting point for an endless adventure.