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Book Review: How to Taste by Mandy Naglich

This review first appeared on AlcoholProfessor.com


Book Review: How to Taste by Mandy Naglich

How+to+Taste+coverIn the book How To Taste: A Guide to Discovering Flavor and Savoring Life, author Mandy Naglich describes, you guessed it: how to taste. But not only how to taste beer, wine, and spirits: The book covers how to taste everything else including cheese, honey, chocolate, olive oil, and more. It is a book about building tasting skills to create a more rewarding existence, rather than becoming a professional-level judge. Or, as she puts it, “this book is your guide to transform from a person who eats to a person who tastes.”

In the process of writing the book, Naglich interviewed over 100 expert tasters, judges, and perfumers, and shares their wisdom and her own adventures in tasting a lot of different food and beverages along with other experts.

How Tasting Works

The first part of the book describes how tasting works – the biology (and a bit of psychology) of tasting. It covers the three types of receptors – olfactory, gustatory, and touch – and what the basic tastes of sweet, salt, umami, sour, and bitter signal to the brain when we experience them.

She then tackles the myth of the supertaster – those with greater taste bud density on their tongues. This anatomical superiority can be not so super in reality: supertasters can experience flavors at intense levels that make bitter foods like coffee or brussels sprouts unpalatable, and often supertasters favor bland rather than bold foods to avoid discomfort. Similarly, some people who are “nose blind” to specific aromas may get less out of smelling a strawberry but might be blissfully ignorant of TCA (“corked”) aroma in their wine or beer. You win some, you lose some.

Beyond basic biology, we learn about the influence of geography. The way we chew certain foods influences how we experience the taste and texture of them, and this can be related to what foods we grew up eating. People may also have negative or positive associations with the same flavors depending on where they grow up: Naglich points out that many British people associate wintergreen with medicinal liniment (like Icy Hot muscle rub), while Americans tend to associate it with root beer and gum.

Next she writes about the tasting environment and how we are impacted by the smells (floral arrangements) sounds (music, background noise), color (of cups or the wallpaper), and even ambient temperature of the restaurant or other room in which we’re tasting. These influence what we might be in the mood to eat or drink, how foods taste to us at the time, and how much and how fast we’ll eat and drink them.

Building Tasting Skills

The main body of the book is dedicated to building tasting skills. Naglich outlines a seven-step tasting method. The steps are set(ting), see, sniff, swirl/snap, sip/sample, spit/swallow, and sit and synthesize. The first step is about considering the environment, tasting glass/plate, and ideal temperature for what you’re tasting. The “see” step is just a double check to make sure things look as they should.

The “sniff” step includes five olfactory assessment techniques including the “moving sniff” and “short sniff.” The “retronasal sniff” involves holding your nose closed while tasting. “Sip/sample” also involves multiple steps of three tastes, so the seven steps are in reality at least thirteen if you work methodically through them all.

Next up, Naglich teaches how to build an internal library of flavor references to call upon when tasting new and old foods and drinks; how we might internally organize our categories of flavor (such as in categories of fruit, nuts, fats, spices, etc). Then she provides exercises for retaining that flavor vocabulary with several sets of exercises and tests to repeat regularly.

Embracing A Tasting Lifestyle

The third section of the book is about putting your tasting skills to good use. Among other topics, the author writes about how basic tastes impact each other (salt enhancing sweetness and suppresses bitterness, for example), and then gives some guidelines for different food pairing strategies.

A surprising and welcome chapter is on building one’s descriptive vocabulary to write better tasting notes. Naglich explores flavor wheels that have commonly used descriptors on them, then suggests how to add more adjectives regarding texture, color, amplitude, and even memories evoked by the food to round them out. She provides a template for writing up a tasting summary and includes an example for a Cosmopolitan.

The remaining section of the book is about embracing the full-time tasting lifestyle. It includes some practical advice about tasting while travelling, pro-taster tips that apply to multiple categories of food and drinks, and some inspirational material about growing your olfactory bulb through training and the association of taste memory with mental alertness later in life.


Throughout the book there are links to the HowToTasteBook.com website with supplemental material, including songs that register as sweet versus sour when we hear them, and examples of flavor wheels for different types of food – semi-hard cheese and winter squash to name two. These are not indexed on the site as far as I can tell, so your reward for reading the book is getting access to these hidden pages. (And my punishment for not highlighting them on first read is that I must go back through the book and do that now.) I love this reader’s bonus.

Something that would have been useful to me is a summary in a chart or other form of the seven-step tasting process after it was described in paragraphs, for easy future reference. But to be fair, I want every book to be a workbook, so maybe that’s my issue. It just means I’ll have to write my own notes from the book to use in live practice.

I’ll also be using the book to try some new tasting techniques. I’m the judge of several spirits and cocktail competitions, and I was relieved to find that I already do some version of most of Naglich’s nosing and tasting steps naturally. But there are a couple that are new to me and I’m looking forward to adding them to my repertoire to tease out previously hidden scents and flavors.

So yes, this is a book about how to taste, but you won’t become a skilled taster by just reading it. You’ll need to put it into practice tasting things in the real world. Luckily, you have to eat and drink anyway. May as well get better at it.




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