A Smoker's Guide to Palate Refinement

A Smoker's Guide to Palate Refinement | Daily Reader

If you've ever watched "Tasting Notes" and wondered how Shane Ireland identifies those complex flavors during a smoke, when all you can taste is "tobacco," then this is the guide for you. There is nothing more intimidating than refining your palate except possibly drunkenly signing up for a Russian bear wrestling competition. Whether it's tobacco, whisky, coffee, fine dining, or more, picking up the little details can feel impossible but today we're going to discuss the journey to palate refinement.

Taste vs Flavor: Is there a difference?

A Smoker's Guide to Palate Refinement | Daily Reader

Oftentimes "taste" and "flavor" are used interchangeably but there is a key distinction between the two terms. Taste occurs exclusively in the mouth; when something triggers our taste buds and that information shoots up to our brain — that's when we process what we call taste, while flavor is a combination of aroma and taste. Most scientists agree that aroma and taste make up our perception of flavor but there is also some consideration of mouthfeel and temperature.

Here's an example of the difference between the two: If you eat a piece of dark chocolate, then we'd say that overall the flavor is chocolate. But the taste would be the fine details used to describe something like dark chocolate having a soft bitterness with a mellow sweetness.

The Five Tastes

There are five universally accepted basic tastes perceived by humans: Salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. These branch off into other categories, but at the end of the day, these are the overarching tastes to define most things. Most of these are self-explanatory, but umami is the one that many are unfamiliar with. Umami is Japanese and translates to "essence of deliciousness." We typically use it to describe savory tastes like meats, soy sauce, broths, and more.

An Important Note on Flavor

Here's the most important consideration regarding flavor: Nobody perceives it the same way. On a scientific level, no two people experience the same smell and no two people experience the same taste. Our noses have about 350 aroma receptors, with humans typically sharing only about half of the same ones. On taste, factors like age, tongue sensitivity, and microbes all affect our experiences. On the psychological side, our expectations, culture, and hundreds of other factors influence our perception of taste. It's something to keep in mind when trying to understand why somebody might experience flavors differently from our own comprehension.

How to train our palates

Start Small

A Smoker's Guide to Palate Refinement | Daily Reader

Next time you're enjoying a morning coffee and smoke, take a sip and ask yourself what the coffee is like. Is it sweet? Bitter? Savory? Just look for the presence of taste, don't try to get granular with "soft notes of hazelnut and a twist of cardamom after." We're just looking for broad strokes. The same applies to our smoke: what are the broad strokes perceived with each puff? Once we can identify these flavors, we can look more carefully into specifics. Okay, we might think, this bowl of Early Morning Pipe is savory. With more experience, we might break it down even more with "It tastes smoky, earthy, and is kinda sweet." And before we know it, we're improvising with, "there's a dark-fruit sweetness with a soft earthiness that's balanced by light notes of tart citrus and hay."

Practice, Practice, Practice

Anytime you consume something, tobacco or otherwise, try to practice active tasting. Take time to really focus on what you're tasting and the flavors that evolve. If you're eating blueberries, think about their sweetness, texture, and bitterness. What makes these blueberries taste like a blueberry? If you have trouble getting into that mindset, try to think about how you might explain a blueberry to an alien who has never tasted one. How would you do it? You might say that a blueberry is a juicy sweet berry with a touch of tartness. Now how would you describe blueberry wine? You start by dissecting these seemingly obvious things and that helps us think in a flavor-forward way when those same things are used in increasingly complex ways.

Be Adventurous

Many will have a hard time articulating flavors without a lot of experience with flavors in general. The more things we try in life, the more reference points we have for identifying the flavors we love. This familiarity goes beyond just tobacco; try to expand your horizons in everything from cuisine to wine. Make your own meals, try a different brewing method for your morning coffee, or even eat a fruit you've never tried before. All these experiences are valuable to building an encyclopedia of flavor. It's also never a bad idea to consult a flavor wheel. These are typically used in wine and coffee tasting but they're generally helpful for articulating in more detail what we taste when words fail us.

Keep a Journal

A Smoker's Guide to Palate Refinement | Daily Reader

Keeping a journal of your tasting experiences is essential. You can make mental notes all day long but having to take the time to carefully think through a smoke and record the flavor notes and aromas can help you recognize the way your palate evolves during your journey. Conveniently, Cornell & Diehl now offers their very own tasting journal. These handy pocket-sized journals come in packs of three with a custom flavor wheel tailored to pipe tobacco, an index for keeping track of your notes, and guided note-taking pages to help you focus on the essence of the blend. C&D tasting journals are available on-site now.

A helpful part of keeping a journal is that it allows you to give things second chances. You open a fresh tin of Purple Cow today and record your thoughts but then a year later you open another fresh tin of Purple Cow and see how your experiences compare. Will it be the same experience? Probably not; you've evolved as a human being and developed your palate, allowing you to notice things you may have missed the first time.

Palate Hygiene

When it comes to developing and maintaining your palate, it's important to avoid excessively hot, salty, and sugary foods and drinks that dull your sense of taste. Excessive smoking and drinking can also damage your sense of taste. For the most part, this is fixable by taking a break for a month or two and giving your palate time to heal. Proper dental hygiene is also essential to a healthy palate.

Supplementary Materials

A Smoker's Guide to Palate Refinement | Daily Reader

Part of how I developed my palate over the years wasn't with just a pipe and cigar. I've always been a cook, but it was actually my time as a bar manager that helped me refine mine. To develop a compelling menu, you have to cater to "broad stroke" palates with drinks that satisfy but pull them in with deep and complex flavors that they didn't know they wanted. There are five books I recommend to help get in the mindset of catering to palates and how different components and their flavors play together to build a bigger picture. Cocktail Codex by Alex Day, Nick Fauchald, and David Kaplan explains the six cocktail "families" and how and why they work.

Meehan's Bartender Manual by Jim Meehan is basically the bible of the bar and features just about everything you need to know but has a focus on menu development. The Flavor Bible by Andrew Dorenburg and Karen Page is the bible for hundreds of ingredients, herbs, spices, and other seasonings. It's an exploration of tastes, how ingredients work together, and more. The Art and Science of Foodpairing by Peter Coucquty, Bernard Lahousse, and Johan Langenbick is a great resource for food pairings that go beyond just a glass of wine or a cocktail. It features a plethora of taste wheels, and other great assets for figuring out how things play together.

Finally, The Bartender's Manifesto by Toby Maloney, Emma Janzen, and The Bartenders of the Violet Hour is a great and fun read on the steps of creating cocktails while explaining the hows and whys of bartending. There are countless others if you want to dig into them, but I found these to be among the most helpful for developing my palate and understanding flavors & tastes. I hope this guide and these books are as helpful to you as they were to me. I look forward to hearing about what's in your pipe and all the subtle nuances that come with it in the comments below.

A Smoker's Guide to Palate Refinement | Daily Reader
Category:   Tobacco Talk
Tagged in:   Pipe Basics Recommendations


    • Nicholas Neal on May 18, 2024
    • Insightful read, I now know how to get into the intricacy of tobacco smoking. Really liked breaking down the differences between 'flavor' and 'taste'.

    • Trevor L on May 18, 2024
    • Insightful! Probably one of the better breakdowns I’ve seen. Thank you for another great read, greetings from Nova Scotia!

    • Joshua Staples on May 18, 2024
    • Journaling to optimize your smoking experience is INCREDIBLY important! Loved this article and found it to be an insightful read. Well said, Mr. Kisling.

    • Jim Mitchell on May 19, 2024
    • Nice presentation of the subject matter and well written. Love the summary descriptor table.

    • DistrictXBill on May 19, 2024
    • I'm more than fair with wine tasting and can hold my own with various cuisines. Umm...other than the nose of tobacco blends when I first open the package, I don't get the taste or nuance of the individual components of the blend...save for the overall strength of the blend. Not sure of the reason. More's the pity. Will try concentrating, perhaps, in the future.

    • 高高青海 on May 22, 2024
    • Goodnight love

    • David on May 22, 2024
    • I enjoyed reading your post, certainly is put together very well. I have only smoked one tin of Early Morning years ago and loved it! since then I have smoked just several different brands mainly Prince Albert. Thanks for having Early Morning available.

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