Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Bar Library : The Flavor Thesaurus

Bartenders who attended the Bombay Sapphire cocktail lab for The Most Imaginative Bartender competition (which ended up being won by a brilliant Parisian bartender, Remy Savage, who made a drink that tasted like paper), received a copy of this book, along with a bottle of Bombay Sapphire East Gin.  I wasn't able to attend, and I was more than a little miffed when Ben and Luciano proudly brandished their free swag around the office.  It's one thing to lose out on free swag, another to lose out on free booze, and the worst to lose out on a free book.

I sucked it up and ordered a copy, and I'm glad I did.  It's a phenomenal book, though not for the reasons you'd expect.  The chief criticisms of the book are that it's not scientific enough, that the "flavor wheel" doesn't really make much sense logically, and that the book purports a rigor and cohesion that is not carried out in the text.

These people are completely right, and they completely miss the point.  If the book were science, and rigorously constructed flavor wheels and affinities, it would be a disaster.  The book succeeds because it is personal, and idiosyncratic.  A bartender is personal and idiosyncratic, a recipe is personal and idiosyncratic, a culture is personal and idiosyncratic.  A textbook is not. 

The Dog and the Tile

In Aristotle's Magna Moralia, Empedocles, a philosopher before Socrates, was asked why a dog prefers to always sleep on the same tile.  Empedocles responds that there is some likeness that draws the dog and the tile together, something deep in their nature.  When Nassim Taleb relates this story in Antifragile, he's making the argument that matches, pairings, and cultural combinations that have survived are not scientifically explainable much of the time, but they are to be trusted because they correspond to something deep in our nature.

Likewise Niki Segnit, incredibly not a chef but a former marketer, places some stock in science, but more in culture, in combinations that have survived and persisted with a resiliency that the most viral internet meme would envy.  The book is really concerned with identifying these combinations, flavor molecules that can be used and bridged and arrayed into simple and complex combinations for pleasure, and delight.

Thinking in Molecules

The best thing I can say about this book is that it teaches the reader to think in molecules, in combinations of flavors, almost compulsively, in the same way that avid Tetris players see shapes in their dreams and in waking life, a fascinating phenomenon termed the tetris effect.   It's impossible to spend a couple of weeks with the book, jumping through combinations like white chocolate and honey, rosemary and apricot (found in Ma'mool throughout the Middle East and North Africa), and not seeing flavors and combinations everywhere.  I recently tried Harpoon's magnificent pumpkin cider, and my brain immediately started working:

Hmm, pumpkin and apple, both fall flavors, but seldom used together, that's a molecule (pumpkin, incidentally, does not even appear in Segnit's text).

Wow, the spice is subtle and balanced, what's going on here.  Oh!  Nutmeg, ginger, and cloves achieve that effect.  Something about leaving out the cinnamon keeps things from getting heavy handed.

It's so crucial to see the world in this way because bartenders are really flavor architects, and we work with combinations in a way that say...Sommeliers do not-their unparalleled palates and food pairing skills notwithstanding.  The best ally a bartender has is his experience and creativity, and this book bolsters both.

The Best Time to Read the Book

I would argue that the best time to read the book is when you least need it.  When not preparing a new drink, or for a cocktail competition.  It's best to soak up the knowledge and let it seep into your subconscious, where it will spill over in subtle and unexpected ways.

Dream in flavor,


- The book is available here on amazon.

- To find out about drink design, creating a home cocktail bar, or to schedule a seminar or classes with us, go to

Related: Learn to be a bartender at Bartending School