Featuring a sangria recipe. See below.*
When I talk about my experience tending bar and making cocktails, I often, at some point, hear a sentence that goes something like this:
“I don’t have a very refined palate.”
First of all, “palate” is just a fancy word for “taste” created by people who decided they wanted to gatekeep eating and drinking. I don’t like the above statement because I think it’s negative self-talk. The kind of things I’m about to talk about aren’t reserved for the fortunate few blessed with genetically superior taste buds. Sure, there’s a learning curve, but (almost) anyone can talk about wine, make cocktails, and understand food without much effort. It’s just a matter of language.
I worked in food and beverage service for three years, while I was in graduate school. I wore a few different hats during that time, starting with host, and eventually wait assistant, barback, barista, and bartender. I started off knowing very little about what then seemed to be the mysterious and elusive world of fine dining. I celebrated my twenty-first birthday at Founders, and I knew I liked good beer, but I lacked the words to describe why or what I specifically liked about it. Then, the sensory experience was just chaos, and I had no language with which to organize or make sense of it.
I specifically remember when that began to change. I was working at a restaurant in Minneapolis called Heyday (which has since closed). I was a novice host, and I was filling a plastic crate with rolled cloth hand towels for the restrooms. It was a Sunday night service, and business was achingly slow. Mikey, the assistant manager and bartender, was slouched behind the bar with his hands in his pockets, having no guests to tend to.
“Well, alright. Let’s learn something,” he said to me cheerfully.
He hauled out a large metal tub from the dishpit and a few bottles of red wine. Black Sharpie scrawled on the wine labels told that they were several days old. He poured the wine in the tub, along with what seemed like a very hefty portion of rail vodka, looking casually up at the walls while he did it.
“We’re gonna make some sangria.”
He handed me a large bottle of vinegar.
“Pour some of that in.”
He didn’t say how much. I poured without having any idea what the heck I was doing. Then he gave me a straw and told me to taste it. He drew a line with his finger up the side of his cheek, towards his ear.
“You should feel a zippy feeling along here. That’s when you know you have enough.”
I didn’t, so he told me to add more. On the second taste I felt it right away.
“That’s acid. Sourness. You need to liven the wine up again when it gets a few days old. Now we need to balance that out with sweet. Pour some simple syrup in until it doesn’t make you pucker anymore.”
When we’re young, we see a dog for the first time, and someone around us gives it the label “dog.” That’s how we learn the word. As we hear more and more labels for different things we see in our environment, we eventually learn to tell the difference between “dog,” “cat,” and “bison,” even though all three are furry and have four legs. This process is called “slow mapping.” Similarly, as we taste more and more things that are given various labels like “sweet,” “sour,” “bitter,” or “oaky,” we build up a language system for how to identify those traits when we taste something.
The web gets more complex over time, but it’s still rooted in past experiences. Once, a line cook gave me a leaf of French sorrel and said it tasted like the skin of a green apple (it does). Another time I tasted a kind of Spanish liqueur called Licor 43, and it was exactly the flavor of apple pie and melted vanilla ice cream mixed together.
We choose what to eat and drink for a lot of different reasons. Health, ethics, tradition, family, pleasure, cost. These all factor in. You don’t have to know a thing about what you’re eating or drinking in order to gain pleasure from your meals. I just think it’s interesting, and I’d also argue that it does make the experience more rewarding. Maybe that’s my bias.
My advice, for the curious: the next time you taste something new, look it up. Try to attach words to the feeling on your tongue.
*Bonus: Sangria Recipe
750 ml (1 bottle) of old and/or cheap wine (if you have multiple old bottles, combine them until you have a full bottle’s worth to work with)
½ cup inexpensive liquor (usually brandy or vodka)
3 oz vinegar (I like apple cider vinegar best)
3 oz simple syrup (an equal-part mixture of sugar and water)
1 orange, peeled and divided into wedges (or a different fruit)
1 apple, cored and cut into wedges (or a different fruit)
1 teaspoon whole cloves (optional)
1 cinnamon stick (optional)
- Combine the ingredients in a large container (like a pitcher). Give it a few stirs and taste it. Does it taste…
- Flat? Add a bit more liquor and vinegar.
- Too sour? Add a bit more simple syrup.
- Too sweet? Add a bit more liquor and vinegar.
- Like rubbing alcohol? Add a bit more wine, simple syrup, and vinegar.
- Just right? Proceed to next step.
- Cover, and let it steep in the refrigerator for 1 or 2 days (longer if you want more spice flavor, shorter if you don’t).
- When it’s ready, strain the sangria through a cheesecloth-lined strainer into a 1-liter carafe or bottle. It will keep for up to a month in the fridge.
- Serve in a large wine glass over ice. Top it with a little club soda or seltzer (if you want). Garnish with citrus or apple wedges (if you want).