A blown palate allegedly inspired America’s most notorious spirit. The story goes that Carl Jeppson, the Swedish immigrant behind the infamously bitter wormwood-based spirit Jeppson’s Malört, created the reviled yet oddly charming digestif because he wanted to drink something he could still taste after years of cigar smoking wrecked his tongue. The story may be sprinkled with embellishment, but it nonetheless almost reads as a cautionary tale: Blow out your palate, and you may be doomed to a life of knocking back hyper-intense liquids.
The alleged fate of Jeppson’s palate may make one wonder about the imbibing habits of those within the modern bar industry. After all, bartenders and industry types like brand reps and distributors — most of whom come from bartending backgrounds — famously enjoy drinking spirits with strong, aggressive flavors. What the casual imbiber who shies away from spirit-forward cocktails may find unpalatable — the herbaceous bomb of green Chartreuse, the bitter pop of an esoteric amaro, or the intense punch of a barrel-proof bourbon — are treats to those behind the stick. Even Malört has plenty of non-ironic fans in the industry.
It’s safe to assume this general gravitation toward bold, brazen, and subjectively weird flavors isn’t the result of excess cigar smoking. Instead, it may appear that it’s a sign of highly experienced palates slowly trudging toward blowouts, where flavors that were once pleasing to the taste buds are now too milquetoast to experience properly. But is this truly the case?
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Stronger Flavors for a Stronger Palate
The good news: Drinking like an industry professional will not necessarily dull a palate over time. However, it does change how tastes are perceived.
The human tongue is a cluster of muscles functioning as one cohesive unit. It’s dotted with taste buds: tiny receptors that respond to food and drink-related stimuli by sending the brain messages about flavor. Like any muscle, a person can engage in certain tactics to improve a tongue and the performance of its taste buds. Exposing the palate to new things typically does the trick, and bartenders and other industry professionals tend to cultivate plenty of exposure through the introduction of new products or cocktail R&D. “As you try more and more things, your palate gets used to a wider range of flavors and higher proofs,” explains Gabe Sanchez, general manager for Midnight Rambler at The Joule in Dallas. “You start picking up on more nuanced notes and a lot of stuff that makes your brain work harder.”
Such enhanced ability to find buried flavor treasures through their taste buds allows industry pros to penetrate past the funk of strong spirits in a way that unseasoned palates may not be able to accomplish. This tends to unlock a higher level of curiosity, as the hunt for the next nuanced flavor expression makes them game for deeper liquid adventure. This can sometimes lead them down darker, danker rabbit holes as their taste buds evolve. “If you have a palate that’s more accustomed to complex flavors, you’re going to be looking for more complex flavors,” says Izzy Tulloch, head bartender at Milady’s in New York’s SoHo neighborhood. “There are definitely things I like now much more than I used to, like sherry and amaro.”
Even though these drinking behaviors aren’t a sign of a destroyed palate, the thought of losing their sense of taste still poses a general concern for some in the industry. Unsurprisingly, the pandemic is partially to blame for that. “I had friends lose their palate because of Covid-19, so it’s in the back of my head for sure,” says Jeff Savage, head bartender for Botanist at the Fairmont Pacific Rim in Vancouver, B.C. “It’s there because as a bartender, my livelihood depends on having a functional sense of taste.”
Beyond the Strong Stuff
A mixologist’s enjoyment of strong, intense spirits and liqueurs may not blow out their palate, but it still carries residual effects. For one thing, they’re used to getting quizzical looks from friends and loved ones who can’t quite comprehend how or why they can knock back shots of concentrated bitterness.
“Non-industry friends look at Fernet like an initiation,” Tulloch says. “It’s almost like a little form of torture.”
“Chartreuse is a litmus test,” Sanchez adds. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a bartender to pass up a shot if it’s offered. But if your non-industry buddy tastes it, they’ll look at you funny like a normal person probably should.”
They’re also keenly aware of palate fatigue, a short-term condition that functions like the temporary version of a palate blowout. It’s caused by the consumption of too much of a specific flavor profile in a short period of time — “like when you ate too many Sour Patch Kids growing up,” Savage says — but it can be remedied through different forms of self-care, like taking a night or two off from drinking or temporarily switching to non-alc beverages and enjoying their unique flavors and textures.
The gravitation toward all things bitter and funky also impacts the way bartenders feel about sweeter drinks, but not in the way you may think. In some cases, saccharine sips can act as soothing balms that encourage escapism. “I actually used to steer away from sweet flavors,” Tulloch explains. “But I drink so little for pleasure these days, sweet drinks are kind of my go-to. They’re like a treat to me.”
The Curious Customer
The strong flavors that speak to the bar industry’s collective soul aren’t for everyone. This doesn’t stop customers from making poor choices. It’s not uncommon for guests to request a bartender’s favorite drink — a terrible order idea on paper, because it may put the customer face to face with a Trinidad Sour or a burly unorthodox drink with fino sherry, grappa, or Suze. However, bartenders tend to react to such inquiries with dashes of diplomacy and hope.
“The role of the bartender is to advise the client, but only if asked,” explains Emanuele Balestra, bar manager for Fourqets’s at Le Majestic Hotel in Cannes, France. “They’re at the bar primarily to have a good time. I prefer to let the customer drink what they want to drink, but if I’m asked for my advice, then of course I’ll comment on a drink’s strength or an unusual flavor.”
“I get that request a lot,” Sanchez adds. “I’ll honor that request for them every time. If they don’t like the drink, it teaches them a life lesson. If they do like the drink, it may open their palate to something new.”
The Way of the Pro
A love for stronger spirits and drinks is embedded in the industry’s DNA. Sometimes, this affection doubles as a calling card; a bartender or brand rep may pour a high-proof spirit or pungent aperitif as a weird flex or ego stroke, or they may share it with a fellow industry pro across the bar as a symbol of “game recognizing game.” But even in these instances, a deep — and deeply honed — appreciation for the strong stuff and their subtleties is a cherished part of their drinking behavior, even if those outside the industry don’t quite understand why. These mighty beverages won’t blow out bartenders’ palates, but they will feed their souls.