Updated: Aug 20
You're sat in a cocktail bar that has been hyped up by friends and people on the internet. This swanky cocktail bar is bustling with atmosphere, and it's got lots of great reviews. There's just one small problem. You're not familiar with any of the drinks and you have no idea which ones you would like. The menu is full of ingredients and flavours you're unfamiliar with and it's proving pretty daunting. It can feel embarrassing asking lots of questions too.
So what should you do? Well what you shouldn't do, is order something at random. This has a high probability of returning something that won't be to your personal taste. Whilst a lot of bars would be happy to swap the drink for something you will enjoy, sometimes we don't want to cause a fuss and we want to experience the drinks of the bar without having to just stick to what we know.
The key to ordering (and receiving) great cocktails in a bar is to know your palate. Knowing what flavour profiles you enjoy will help you to comprehend cocktail menus much better. This is both crucial in being able to understand cocktails as they are written but also in being able to ask your server or bartender for guidance and suggestions.
We all perceive flavour differently. What's overly-sweet to one person will be perfect for someone else. So the best thing to do is look at food which we tend to have a good amount of experience with, and figure out what we enjoy from there, as well as referencing drinks we've enjoyed in the past. We have a lot of experiences to draw our conclusions from, including favourite fruits and desserts from childhood, up to the nice restaurant dinner we enjoyed more recently.
Flavour falls into lots of different taste categories. Sweet, sour, fruity, bitter, herbal, fresh, floral, earthy, light, dry, rich, savoury, and strong.
Some flavours overlap and allow us to build up our vocabulary to describe what we enjoy. For example; strawberries are sweet, sour, and fruity. Mint is both herbal and fresh. Chamomile is floral and light. Some salad greens such as Endive also known as Chicory can be bitter. Bitterness is perhaps the more polarising flavour profile with lots of people finding it unenjoyable. Rosemary is herbal and savoury.
So let's take some classic cocktails as a reference point also to understand flavour a little better.
A Daiquiri is sour and fresh. The rum used can changed the profile quite some, but generally a Daiquiri is made with a clean white rum that can serve as more of a blank canvas, allowing the sour lime and sweetness from the sugar to be at the forefront of the flavour.
A gin Martini is dry, herbal and strong. The type of gin used can create a more floral or earthy profile. A Negroni is bitter, earthy and strong. A Pornstar Martini is sweet, sour and fruity. The sweetness comes from the vanilla as well as the passionfruit liqueur. A Manhattan is strong and rich.
One other thing that elevates our enjoyment of cocktails is their texture. They can be creamy, tannic, thin, thick, iced, and straight up. This is very much secondary to the flavour profile of the drink but can be a dealbreaker for some. You just have to figure out what works for you. When you go out with friends, a good way to experience as much of the menu as possible and to further expand your understanding of your palate is try their drinks too. Build up a memory bank of things you like and don't like. What is it about that one drink that blew your mind? What about the other drink did you really not enjoy?
Once you have a base understanding of your likes and dislikes you can start to understand drinks as your read them. You'll also be able to give your server or bartender a better understanding of who you are and your palate. You can give them prompts that will allow them to discern the perfect drink for you and leave the bar happy every single time.