In her new book Foodist, Darya Pino Rose writes about mindful eating. That is, rather than just shoveling our grub into our gaping mouths while we sit at our computer screens or in front of a television, we stop to really appreciate the tastes and textures of the food we ingest to sustain our bodies.
As part of this mindful eating practice, she talks about what she calls the Psychology of Good Taste. She develops the idea that because of poor grocery-store quality produce, or a bad experience we've had with some canned vegetables as children, we are unwilling to open our minds to new taste experiences. Our palates change as we age, and yet we still behave as though our experience of food today will be exactly the same as it was when we were playing little league. As adults, she says, "we cling to these preferences without ever stopping to question the value or meaning of our opinions."
Our perceptual biases are so great that most of us decide what we like before we bother to experience it, says Rose, and when combined with our own natural aversion to new things, our discomfort with the unfamiliarity of a new food can be interpreted internally as dislike.
Why do we care? Well, just as our expectations about a new food can program our mind to interpret our experience of it, our expectations of a cocktail or a spirit can do the same.
Great bars encourage their staff to taste all the spirits on hand. How can a chef cook with garlic if he's never tried it? If he's never tasted fresh dill or caramelized onions? Bars that want their bartenders to understand the drinks they serve and expect them to create delicious new drinks have to let them understand the flavour profiles of all the things on the bar, spiritous or not, liquid or solid.
But here's the thing. Have you ever been at a wine tasting, and one guy or girl is there who seems to know much more than anyone else about wine? He swirls the wine in his glass before sticking his nose in, and then pronounces it has a forest floor scent with overripe red fruit and pencil shavings on the nose. Do you remember how all you got on the nose was cherry, but after hearing his explanation you went searching for those things he described and (lo and behold!) they were there? That's the problem with not tasting your spirits blind. The power of suggestion is very strong!
By now, if you're behind a bar (or even if you just enjoy a drink more often than many), you "know" that Hendrick's has cucumber and rose among the botanicals used in its distillation. Tanqueray, on the other hand, has coriander and liquorice. If you "know" this, and you're tasting a flight of gin where you've seen which bottle went into which glass, what do you think you'll smell/taste in the Hendrick's glass? The Tanqueray one? I'm not saying you *wouldn't* be able to identify without seeing them poured, but I am saying you won't know for sure unless you taste them blind.
To properly understand flavours in a bottle and how they behave on your palate, it's essential you taste blindly, untethered by the expectations that will surely be there if you see what was poured into which glass.
It's only this way that you'll develop a better understanding of how you interpret the flavours in the bottle, and thus how they'll work with other spirits as you experience them.
One more example, a personal one.
A few weeks ago I found myself at The Beagle, an amazing bar on the Lower East Side of New York City that is unfortunately closing in a few weeks' time. The head bartender Tom Richter pulled out two bottles of vermouth, Dolin Blanc (as distinct from Dolin Dry) and Dolin Rouge. Without letting me see which glass he poured which vermouth into and making me keep my eyes closed so I wouldn't be tipped off by the colour, he had me taste the two and tell him which was the Blanc and which was the Rouge. If it hadn't been 1:00 AM after a pub crawl of some of the best craft cocktail bars in NYC, we might've arranged a more scientific experiment (say, doing five random glasses containing either the Blanc or the Rouge to lower the possibility that I'd guess correctly by chance).
It didn't matter, though. I got them wrong. I thought for sure I'd get them, no problem.
So, what does this mean, other than perhaps I don't have a very good palate? It means that if you did the same test and realized that you couldn't distinguish the two, that there is no reason of taste to use one over another in your cocktail. Unless the colour of the cocktail is affected adversely, as a commercial bartender you'd have no incentive to not use the cheaper one.
So, next time you're done prepping before your shift or working on your new seasonal menu, grab your fellow bartender(s) and put each other to a blind "test" tasting. Go even further for fun, by actually being blindfolded and not being told what the spirit category is. Make sure you can tell the difference between a smoky Mezcal and a peaty Islay scotch. Of course you can. Right? Improving and/or expanding your spiritous palate is every bit as important to being a good bartender as is hospitality and cleanliness.
In the meantime, I'm going to be over here trying to see if this gin in front of me really has cucumber and rose on my palate.