The axes of taste is a concept I came up with to illustrate the idea of a cocktail’s taste profile to novice bartenders. It has since proven an excellent training tool. It is a way to visualize the continuum of taste. How the taste of a drink changes as you alter it in various ways.
The idea is that every cocktail has an essential nature. A taste profile which can be used to accurately describe it. The axes of taste displays this information visually. And it shows how cocktails relate to each other. As such it is far more useful than a list of ingredients to tell you what any given cocktail tastes like.
Understanding how these axes function and relate to each other is of fundamental importance. It allows you to understand cocktails in a way that memorizing recipes does not.
It also grants you versatility.
When your cocktail doesn’t taste quite right, a good understanding of these principles allows you to correct your mistake with ease. Sometimes a cocktail just doesn’t turn out right. It happens. The ability to make a quick fix to save it is an invaluable skill.
Axes of Taste
The axes of taste are a set of 2D axes in a grid pattern. In the space they create the taste profile of a given cocktail can be visually described.
As you can see, it is a powerful descriptive tool. Instantly you can see the relationships between cocktails on these axes. For instance, while the Raspberry Daiquiri and Singapore Sling are both on the sweet side, the Singapore Sling is clearly the longer drink.
Unsurprisingly, the Pisco Sour is quite sour, while the Dry Martini is very strong.
Please note that while the taste profile of each cocktail is precise, it is not a single point. Instead it is an area within which that cocktail still works. This allows for some variability to reflect personal taste.
Sweet vs Sour and Long vs Strong are the major axes of taste, giving you the most information.
However, there are other axes to be used which provide further information on certain cocktails. But only certain cocktails – you’ll note that each of the minor axes contains only a subset of the cocktails on the major axes.
This makes perfect sense. Including the Dry Martini on minor axes 1 would give you no further information about it. But including it on minor axes 2 does.
You’ll note that while on the major axes the Dry Martini and Sweet Manhattan were on top of each other, minor axes 2 clearly illustrates their difference.
However, I should point out that as excellent as this model is, it is still limited. It is a simplified model taught to novices to provide a framework for their understanding. As such it sacrifices some precision and refinement to improve clarity.
Within a certain taste profile there can be considerable variance based on the use of flavours not tracked by the various axes. For example a Raspberry Daiquiri and a Blackberry Daiquiri share the same location. Yet clearly the different fruits used will significantly alter their taste.
There are also plenty of options not covered by these axes. Like spicy, smoky or bitter.
However, for all its flaws, it remains the best and most approachable system I know. Cocktails are complicated. Simplifying them helps.
Sweet vs Sour
This is easily the most important axis. Master this, and maybe 80% of all cocktails become approachable. I have another post full of exercises to help you do just that.
Of the 5 basic tastes we human possess, Sweet and Sour are the most important to cocktails. Salty and Umami play only a peripheral role in cocktails, and Bitter is its own subcategory.
They appear on the same axis because they typically mask each other’s presence. They neutralize each other. Balance each other out. True, you can create sweet and sour cocktails, but they are very much an exception to the rule. They are also a more advanced concept to be shelved for a later date.
The sour element typically comes from either lemon or lime juice. Please note that there is no substitute for freshly squeezed juice. Manufacturers of sour mixes or bottled lemon juice may try to convince you otherwise. But seriously, if you want to make quality cocktails this is one corner you cannot cut.
The sweet element, however, can come from a multitude of different sources: spirits; liqueurs; syrups; purees; fruits; or just sugar syrup. The vast majority of cocktail ingredients will add some form of sweetness to a cocktail.
Quite often we use a sour element in a cocktail simply to counteract the sweetness of all the ingredients we add to impart flavour. To prevent them turning the drink sickly sweet.
This axis runs from pure sugar syrup on the sweet side to pure lemon juice on the sour side. No cocktail actually approaches either extreme.
What matters is that certain combinations of flavours require a proper balance of sweet and sour to achieve their potential. Sometimes this is a little on the sweet side, as in many tall and fruity cocktails such as the Singapore Sling. Other times this is decidedly on the sour side, as for the Pisco Sour. Quite often this is merely neutral, or balanced, as for the Daiquiri.
Quite frequently, when a drink doesn’t quite taste right it is because this balance is off. That is easy to fix.
Strong vs Long
This refers to the apparent alcoholic strength of a cocktail.
On the strong end of the scale are cocktails with little or no non-alcoholic ingredients to water them down. Like a Dry Martini or Sweet Manhattan.
On the long end are cocktails with plenty of juice, soda or other mixers which severely dilutes the alcoholic bite. Examples include the Tom Collins or Singapore Sling. Because of their increased volume they are typically served in taller glasses.
In the middle are drinks which are still pretty short and have an alcoholic bite but are more approachable to most palates. Such as a Daiquiri or a Sidecar.
Please note that I use the word long instead of weak. Partially this is because calling a cocktail weak sounds about as appealing as calling it shit. But also because it is inaccurate. A long cocktail often contains the same quantity of alcohol as a strong cocktail. It just doesn’t taste like it.
Note that this alcoholic bite can be masked in other ways, which can screw up this axis somewhat. Due to its high glucose content, adding sugar syrup to a drink is highly effective at masking the presence of alcohol while adding little to the drink’s volume.
Light vs Rich
Rich cocktails tend to be thick, viscous and something to take your time over. Like Fois Gras or a particularly rich dessert they can be a bit much for some people. They are often creamy. Good examples can be found in the dessert cocktail section.
A well known example of a rich cocktail is the Brandy Alexander. This is the original chocolate neo-martini. It is based on dark spirits and is fully 1/3 double cream.
At the opposite end of the scale are the kind of cocktails which slip down easily on a summer’s day. They tend to be tall and refreshing with crisp, clear flavours. Like a Tom Collins.
As I noted before, this is a simplified model. A framework for further study. A lot of cocktails are not properly described by these axes.
So on occasion you might want to swap out one of these axes for others which are of specific relevance to a given cocktail.
Sweet vs Dry is a useful axis to use when dealing with anything involving champagne or vermouth.
Other times you might want to quantify the Bitterness of a cocktail or its Spiciness. However, in general I find these attributes to be best described by other methods.