When I was first starting out as a food writer in Chicago, the owner of a local coffee company told me I had a “good palate.” At the time, these words meant very little to me. It felt like a bad pickup line, like telling someone they look like they’re good at math—flattering, but wildly intangible. It wasn’t until several years later that I would come to appreciate my palate as a tool to not only identify what I liked and didn’t, but also to explain why this dish was perfect and why I left that drink half full on the bar.
In their newest book, Death & Co: Welcome Home—inspired by the renowned New York City cocktail bar with outposts in Denver and Los Angeles—Alex Day, Nick Fauchald, and David Kaplan admit that “palate” has become a bit muddled. A word that once indicated the “ability to taste and speak intelligently—or at least intelligibly—about flavor,” has now come to signify a sense of sophistication or even snobbery, as though someone with a “good palate” possesses some arcane encyclopedia of flavor knowledge. Rather than doubling down on cocktail pedantry, their book presents an almost back-to-basics approach to understanding how balance, strength, sweetness, sourness, salinity, bitterness, and temperature can accomplish what Death & Co has been doing for 15 years: building better cocktails by building better cocktail drinkers.
“We wanted to essentially reverse engineer something we’ve seen both ourselves develop over the years—as well as many regulars we’ve had for years and years, who have sat down at the bar and discovered their own perspective on what balance looks like,” Day tells me. In their book, Day, Fauchald, and Kaplan offer a 62-page crash course in palate training, starting with a simple exercise examining three different expressions of a pear—as a raw fruit, brewed into cider, and distilled into brandy. The idea is to establish a baseline of flavor, teaching you to appreciate an ingredient in its most natural state so that you can better understand it in other forms.
Things get a bit more complicated (read: a lot more complicated) as the section progresses, with the next tutorial offering 20 different recipe variations on the daiquiri. Six sub-lessons each spotlight different variables of the cocktail—which in its purest form contains only three ingredients. A friend and I tackled as many as we were comfortable drinking on a Thursday, which turned out to be 12 daiquiris. The evening involved enough rum to debilitate less-seasoned drinkers, three hardworking cocktail shakers, nearly every glass in the apartment, and a rainbow of Post-it Notes. (If you have the glassware to accommodate such a thing, a pared down version of the tasting would make for an interesting dinner party conversation starter.)
The first trio of daiquiris laid out in the book contrasts sweet and sour flavors by increasing the amount of simple syrup and decreasing the amount of lime juice in each subsequent iteration of the cocktail. Each grouping of three drinks features two extremes—in this case the simple syrup–heavy and lime juice–heavy version—as well as a baseline drink for comparison. It’s a bit of a no-brainer that the “Balanced Daiquiri” was the most palatable of the three—but more important, the experiment demonstrated to me that too much sweetness in a cocktail doesn’t just translate to a teeth-stripping experience. It also masks the alcohol, leaving an almost sickly feeling on the tongue while creating a drink reminiscent of sucking down over-sugared lemonade.
The remaining exercises offer their own hidden surprises, such as the “Tongue-Tingling Daiquiri,” which calls for a splash of bittersweet Campari, doubling as a lesson in complexity and an intriguing twist on the classic. I’m a drinker who prefers cocktails that fall on the bitter end of the spectrum, but what this exercise showed me was this preference might have less to do with an affinity for harsh flavors and more to do with an appreciation of layered cocktails.