Describe flavors like a pro

As your English progresses, you need to expand your ability to describe flavors. Most people start by saying they like or don't like something—it can be delicious or disgusting, but that doesn't communicate how it tastes. 

When drinking wine, whiskey, coffee or trying new food, you should try to communicate with nuance. A great way to learn about describing flavors is to use a flavor wheel. There are many different versions of flavor wheels. Take a look, starting from the inside. 

Notice that the inner area has basic words. In this case, they are "sweet", "sour", and "salty". You can also describe flavors as spicy or bitter, but these tend to be less commonly used. Some people prefer the word acidic rather than "sour" as the latter can seem negative.

The next ring has general adjectives. Earthy is a deep, heavy flavor like cedar wood or dark roast coffee. Flavors can also be fruity, nutty or floral.

The outside ring depends greatly on the person's experience. If you don't recognize words on the outside ring, then please don't use them. Rather, think of specific flavors you know well. 

Describing taste depends greatly on culture. I remember tasting coffee with professionals from around the world. Americans often described a sweet and juicy taste as being like a nectarine, but the Japanese people thought it reminded them more of a nashi—Asian pear. The same taste was understood differently by different people. 

As a Canadian, I often describe a nostalgic, buttery-sweet taste by saying it reminds me of maple syrup, while Americans might prefer to say molasses or brown sugar. When it comes to describing a strong but pleasant acidity, Japanese people might say it's like sour plum known as umeboshi, while a Western person might describe it as candied lemon or raspberry.

When describing flavor, one good strategy is to start in the middle of the flavor wheel and work out. Take a look at these examples: 

  • This wine is nice. It's just a little sweet and quite floral. It reminds me of jasmine or lavender.
  • I'm enjoying this coffee. It has acidity that's clear, like stone-fruit. I can taste some peach or nectarine.
  • Try this cake. It's not too sweet. In fact, it's a bit fruity and maybe a little acidic, kind of like raspberry. I also taste a little green apple. It's really lovely.

For more practice, take a look at these videos about how to taste wine or how to taste coffee. Like everything, describing flavors well takes practice.

acidic [adjective]—having a sour or sharp taste. 
earthy [adjective]—a deep, heavy flavor like cedar wood or dark roast coffee.