The Science of Flavor (1) ...

16 December 2019
Introduction Over the last decade, I have put tremendous efforts into the development of an objective method to create drinks. A drink, in order to have certain flavors, must have been made in a specific way, where fermentation protocols, distillation equipment and procedure, and aging and maturation all play a significant role. Every decision has consequences, and this makes recipe development very complex. But if we learn to understand what consequences result from specific decisions and approaches, wouldn't that allow us a very, very powerful tool that can help us create any spirit profile we want? My research has allowed me to do just that: create a very powerful and objective method that helps design spirits. Today, let's dive in deeper and introduce how it works and how you can apply it. Today's guinea pig In this iStill Blog post I want to use Bokma 5yo Bourbon Cask as a guinea pig. Bokma is a well-known Genever brand. Genever is Dutch Gin. The drink is grain based and highlights the wood it is aged in, rather than traditional Genever herbs and spices. What that wood is? Well, ex-Bourbon barrels, made out of American white oak. As the name suggests, it has been aged in those barrels for no less than five years. It is bottled at 38%. Let me start by expressing my gratitude to Bokma for taking this route. I think the combination of Genever and barrel aging is a good one, and the use of Bourbon casks is a nice innovation away from more traditional European oak wine barrels. To me it signals an open mindset and the willingness to innovate. And God knows Genever needs it, if it is to ever be a drinks category revived to its former "Big Three" stature (Brandy, Genever, Whisky). Innovation, that's what it takes. Innovation and a relentless focus on quality. If the testing underneath does not give this Bokma Graanjenever a perfect score, please know I like the drink, and love the effort. The only aim I have is to explain how the Science of Flavor works. Something we practice, here at iStill HQ, on a daily basis. Not with this specific spirit, but when designing recipes for our customers. The reason we choose not to highlight a drink designed with/for iStill customers, but a more generically available brand (at least in the Low Countries) has all to do with confidentiality. Tasting as a three step process When we focus on the actual tasting of a drink itself, I want you to use a three step process. Each step consists of you taking a sip, closing your mouth, swirling the dink through your mouth, and then swallowing it, still with your mouth closed. Here is what you do in each step and with each sip:
  1. Focus on generic impressions;
  2. Focus on how long the tasting sensation lasts;
  3. Focus on where the tasting sensations hit.
Generic impressions (step 1) Here are my generic impressions of Bokma 5yo Bourbon Cask Graanjenever:
  • Lots of wood;
  • Vanillins;
  • Sweet and relatively light;
  • Some acidity at the end;
  • The wood and vanillin overpower the grain and juniper flavors;
  • The sweetness at the front contradicts with the slightly acidic finish.
Taste duration (step 2) Take another small sip, coat your mouth with it, swallow, and start counting. With your mouth still closed, count the seconds away. When you stop tasting anything, stop counting. Tasting this specific spirit, gave me a count of around 9 to 10 seconds. Please know that the fruity flavors can be found in the first second after swallowing. At the front of your mouth. Seconds 2 to 6 or 7 happen on top of your tongue, in the middle of your mouth. It is where you normally taste the substrate the drink is made from. In a whisky, this is where you should find the grains. In a rum, this is where the molasses hit you. For a gin, the body, the central flavors in your mouth will derive from juniper and coriander. Anything after second 6 or 7 is backend oriented and is tasted at the back of the tongue, towards the throat. This specific drink gave me a taste duration of around 9 to 10 seconds. So there is something happening at the front, middle, and back, making this drink three-dimensional, even though it is light and very much wood-oriented. Taste locality and intensity (step 3) Take a third sip, and now dive in deeper:
  • Does anything happen in the first second? Do you get the fruity notes? How much? Nothing? A little? A normal amount? Or do you taste a shitload of fruit in that first second?
  • How do you rate taste intensity from the faction between seconds 2 and 6 or 7, that happen in the middle of your mouth, on top of your tongue? No flavor? A little bit of flavor? Medium amounts of flavor? A LOT of flavor?
  • Finally, there is the last phase of flavor: what happens at the back of your tongue and in your throat from second 7 onwards. Does anything happen at all? A lot? Only medium in taste intensity?
Rating taste locality (3a) As you can see from the above sum-up, there are basically three localities:
  1. The front of your mouth (lips, gum, tip of tongue), where fruity flavors may be identified;
  2. The middle of your mouth (on top of your tongue), where the base substrate of the spirit should be identified;
  3. The back of your mouth (back of tongue and throat), where earthy and rooty, nutty flavors can be found.
Bokma 5yo Bourbon Cask Graanjenever, as mentioned before, stayed in my mouth for 9 to 10 seconds, signifying a beginning, a middle, and an end. Rating taste intensity (3b) I want you to rate flavor intensity on a scale from 0 to 3. Like this:
  • No taste: 0;
  • Light taste: 1;
  • Medium taste: 2;
  • A lot of taste: 3.
You remember that the test drink had a light profile? It shows in the numbers. This is how I rate it:
  1. The front has a little taste and scores a 1;
  2. The middle has medium taste and scores a 2;
  3. The end has little taste and scores a 1.
Overall, the flavor profile scores 1, 2, 1. Categorization Now that we rated this Bourbon Cask ages graanjenever from Bokma, how do we evaluate the outcomes? Is there a standard? Luckily, there is: graanjenever is made by aromatizing juniper berries, and using ethyl alcohol and malt wine (a young whisky, basically). The malt wine content should be no less than 1.5%. The ethyl alcohol is very much flavorless and basically GNS. Malt wine is traditionally pot distilled and should therefore have a three-dimensional, grain rich flavor profile. Based on the actual amount of malt wine vs. GNS the flavor of the spirit, before cask maturation, will become more intense. Rating of today's guinea pig Generic impressions (step 1):
  • Lots of wood;
  • Vanillins;
  • Sweet and relatively light;
  • Some acidity at the end;
  • The wood and vanillin overpower the grain and juniper flavors;
  • The sweetness at the front contradicts with the slightly acidic finish.
Duration (step 2):
  • Tastes persist for 9 to 10 seconds;
  • Identifying the drink as having a three-dimensional character.
Intensity (step 3):
  • With 1, 2, 1 this Graanjenever has a very light character;
  • Where the grains do not stand up to the (overpowering) wood and vanillin flavors.
Based on the above, I would award this drink with a 7 out of 10 score. A nice, easy sipper or - preferably - a mixer, where the soda can cover the acidity at the backend of the flavor profile of the spirit. Nothing special, unfortunately, unless you love wood & vanillins. Recipe improvement From a marketing perspective, bigger producers of course have to weigh costs vs. quality. If the drink is good enough it will sell. But what if we take a different approach? What if this was your spirit and you, as a craft distiller, wanted it to rock, to rule, and to hit its maximum flavor profile? How do you turn a 7 out of 10 into an 8 out of 10? How do we turn a 7 out of 10 flavor score into a 9? That's what recipe improvement is about. Based on the above analyses, lets tare the drink, and its making process apart, and redesign it in order to achieve higher scores. Higher proof (1) Up the ABV from 38% to 42%. This in itself increases flavor by 10%, while also increasing the spirit's solvency. No more chill filtration (2) With the higher ABV and increased solvency power, there is no longer a need for chill filtration. Chill filtration, filters out backend flavors and fatty acids. At 38% the solvency power of the alcohol is too low to dissolve all flavor oils. That's why chill filtration is needed. At the proposed higher proof, the solvency power increases and the need for chill filtration stops. The additional flavor, resulting from non chill filtration, boosts the backend flavor. The now remaining fatty acids will create a drink that is coating the mouth, taking care of the acidity that is currently compromising the last few seconds of the taste experience. Intermediate position By boosting ABV from 38% to 42% and by stopping chill filtration, Bokma could boost the flavor profile from 9, 10 seconds to 12 to 15 seconds. The taste intensity would shift from 1, 2, 1 to 1, 2, 2. The stronger and longer backend finish allows the drink to better stand its ground against the (now overpowering) wood. I estimate that these interventions would bring the overall score from a 7 out of 10 to an 8 out of 10. Up the amount of malt wine (3) Given the lack of grain substrate flavors in the middle faction, I think the amount of actual flavor rich malt wine was quite minimal. Maybe 2 to 5% max? A boost to 30% would definitely boost overall flavor, with a focus on especially the middle faction. Final potential With a (much) higher amount of malt wine, the drink would stand up to the wood and vanillin flavors. The taste profile would go from the starting position of 1, 2, 1 or the intermediate position of 1, 2, 2 to a score worthy of any old style genever or whisky: 1, 3, 2. With a higher amount of malt wine, this drink could reach its full flavor potential with an (estimated) score of 9 out of 10. On Bokma's behalf, let's realize that they never stated they were going to make whisky or older style genever. They make it very clear what they sell to you: a grain jenever that has matured in Bourbon casks for 5 years. In that category, it is simply an enjoyable drink. This post has not been about how this drink should be different. It is as it is. This post is about introducing you to the Science of Flavor, while showing you how strong the model is at creating extraordinary drinks. And that is my only goal here: to help you make better drinks than anyone else out there. I belief that making the best drinks possible is the only business model that works for a craft distiller. Follow-up In the above iStill Blog post, I introduced you to the Science of Flavor. And please realize that that's all it is: an introduction. The rabbit hole goes so much deeper. So, yes, you can expect us to dive in deeper soon. But let's get tasting right, first. How? Probably by you reading this post again. By buying a bottle and testing and tasting yourself. What are your generic impressions? How long does the taste last? Where do you taste it in your mouth? At what intensities does it hit you? Preferably, taste and train your palate together with a colleague. Write down your findings and then compare them. You'll see that you'll get the hang of it pretty soon!



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