July 12, 2023
by Erin Keane, creative nonfiction and poetry faculty
“Whatever you smell and taste is what you smell and taste,” says the handbook in a point our instructor emphasized repeatedly. “Don’t let anyone tell you you’re wrong for what you experience, and don’t ever tell someone they’re wrong for what they experience.”
I’m sitting in a classroom at Moonshine University—yes, that’s a real place—studying The Art of Tasting and Flights, which sounds like a title of a collection of essays or poems but is actually part of my Executive Bourbon Steward certification course, which I’m happy to report I passed. (Lifelong learner here!) The Art of Tasting and Flights deals with how we train our palates to pick out discrete flavors in a spirit and interpret that sensory information for others. It also covers theories of arranging tastings with complementary sensory experiences in mind, and how to guide others through those interpretations themselves.
Commit to smelling the scents and tasting the flavors you actually smell and taste, not the ones you think you’re supposed to smell and taste: This is a philosophy of the senses I can support. It’s also a useful way to approach a layered piece of writing—say, a poem or a challenging lyric essay—that takes its time to reveal itself. The reader can experience within the text what they experience, not what they think they should, and one can gain a greater understanding of it simply by learning how to separate its layers from each other, notice the individual notes, and consider the effect of the whole they make up when put back together.
In the classroom, our instructor tells us that being “good at sensory” requires practice, which doesn’t just mean drink bourbon and tell each other what you think. (There are much more efficient ways to do that, and they definitely don’t require certification.) They send us home with a kit full of little glass vials containing all kinds of scents connected to the flavors we might taste in bourbons of different ages, mash bills, barrel chars, yeast strains, and storage lives.
Tasting spirits is an art; distilling them is a craft. Just like with writing, you need both—to make a product worth savoring, and to properly savor such a product. I think of the new frictions and resonances created when placing a series of events next to each other in an essay, or when calibrating the turn in a poem, as a bit like the result of mingling bourbons from several barrels and ages into a perfectly balanced, entirely new and unique small batch.
I remember this when I sit down at home to practice my sensory training, dipping long, white test strips of cardstock into the little vials coded for Tobacco, Banana, Leather, Oak, Cherry, Rye, and holding each up to my nose, training my brain to remember those essences when I need to locate them within a sniff and a sip of whiskey.
I pour a dram of a bourbon I have on hand into a Glencairn glass, its tulip shape helping to concentrate the aroma. I move my nose across the opening and note how things change, evolve, deepen, even burn when I move in a bit too close. To practice sensory properly, I’ve learned how to slow myself down, to not just let my brain settle on caramel every time just because Kentucky bourbons each carry their own revenant of charred oak inside their sweetness.
But there is caramel, and I am committed to smelling what I smell and tasting what I taste and nothing else. I’m startled when I notice pear and it reminds me of a very specific body lotion I used to wear in college. I catch grass and it’s spring and I’m slathered in that lotion from the mall, daydreaming about someone I love. And underneath those is a hint of vanilla, the cradling sweetness of fresh waffle cones ready to catch the first ice cream of the season, and the particular disappointment of wanting to share it with a person who isn’t there. Only the vanilla and caramel are in this bourbon’s official tasting notes, but this is what I smell and taste when I slow down enough to separate the layers, to make a very personal sense of it, and per my instruction, I am not going to tell myself that I’m wrong. I’m going to commit to my own notes, but also, I will come back to this bourbon to see if I still experience it the same way on another day, with another set of associations floating around in my head.
That’s why we call it a practice—the virtue is in showing up without an audience to work through the mechanics and to be ready when the breakthroughs come. This is how writers build skill and strength, too, by committing to the practice even when, or especially when, the end goal feels far from reach.
Just as a nimble and trained sensory imagination is needed to precisely describe the experience of taste, so too is a powerful writing imagination required to make sense out of experience, as Vivian Gornick tells us in The Situation and the Story.
“Truth in a memoir is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand,” Gornick writes. “What happens to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.”
You can practice sensory with any layered food or drink that requires a bit of concentration to describe with precision, too: any dish that traffics in umami, for example, or that layers textures and spices. I am drawn to this practice not because I want to drink a lot of bourbon—tasting isn’t the same as drinking—but because I want to find ways rooted in the body to connect deeper to the story of who I am. For me, practicing tasting sensory is also practice for noticing and for making connections, even leaps, in meaning—crucial components of my writing’s work.
Erin Keane is Chief Content Officer at Salon.com and the author of Runaway: Notes on the Myths That Made Me, one of NPR’s Best Books of 2022.