Over the last few weeks, I’ve talked about nothing but Mandy Naglich’s new book.
Mandy, an Advanced Cicerone and a trained taster, graciously came on the podcast to talk about her book, “How to Taste: A Guide to Discovering Flavor and Savoring Life.” In its pages, she explores how to deepen your tasting skills, and dives into sensory science: She interviewed dozens of taste experts, scientists, and doctors to discover just how important our senses of taste and smell really are. One doctor even says smell can be a better predictor of morbidity than other common factors like heart health.
But her book isn’t all science—it’s also about the enriching nature of taste, and how connecting to our senses can help up create more salient memories, connect us to past experiences, and overall help us live more fulfilling lives. Mandy mentions that after sleeping and walking, the thing we do the most is eat. In this episode, she shares some easy ways you can become a better taster right now, and create more meaningful sensory experiences.
Mandy’s book is available now, and I keep finding moments to share a fact or story from her book with my friends—you can probably sense my giddiness, which you’ll notice a lot in this episode. Here’s Mandy:
Ashley: Mandy, I was wondering if you could start by introducing yourself.
Mandy: Yeah, I am Mandy Naglich, the author of “How to Taste: A Guide to Discovering Flavor and Savoring Life.” And I'm also an Advanced Cicerone. I have my WSET in Spirits and various other tasting certifications that come along with a life researching taste.
Ashley: What a life, researching taste. When you sum it up like that, it sounds pretty wonderful. And as I read your book, I was like, “Tasting is absolutely wonderful.” I think that that's something coffee people kind of know, but maybe get a little bit fatigued by since we taste so often.
I'll start this conversation where I start all of my podcast interviews: Did you grow up with coffee in your life?
Mandy: That's a great question. My dad always loved the Starbucks Christmas Blend. That was something that we'd like go to the shelves [to find], that I remember of my childhood. Now they've branched out to having a little bit nicer, more traceable coffee in their house. But definitely my dad was always a coffee drinker growing up.
I never really touched it. I was a tea drinker until pretty much college.
Ashley: I used to have a friend who really loved the Starbucks Christmas cups, and every now and then I would draw a fake one for him. So I also have very, very sentimental feelings about the holidays, specifically when it comes to Starbucks.
One of the things that comes up really early in your book—your book is about how to taste, it's called “How to Taste,” and you describe yourself as a trained taster. I wanna break down that term, both as how you would describe yourself as a trained taster and what it means to train yourself to taste. So when you call yourself a trained taster, what do you mean by that?
Mandy: I think the reason I use that is to let people know that I've literally sat in classrooms, workshops, and sensory labs to learn the techniques to literally taste, so you know how to place things in your mouth, how to sip things, how to use your nose.
So I think that's one aspect of it. The other is that I'm not just eating—like I say many times in the book, it's not just eating, it's tasting. So I think that was just a term I wanted to emphasize, that there is education here.
Ashley: At what point did you feel like you had made a turning point, or maybe you turned a new leaf and said, “Oh, I actually know what I'm doing when I'm tasting these things?”
Mandy: I'm one of those people who loves a good grade, loves to see an A, so getting those certifications, taking the final test and missing only one cup or no cups and things like that, I definitely think gives you confidence. When I was studying for Master Cicerone—which is a beer certification that I actually have not achieved, I'm still an Advanced Cicerone—in study groups, when we're able to quiz each other and I can just get a whiff of something and immediately say, “Oh, that's a pale ale,” or, “Oh, that's diacetyl,” or something like that from across the room, and I just really click into it.
I think that was a realization when I was training with my peers and really feeling like I was on top of things and not missing questions and not feeling like I was practicing as much as it was like training.
Ashley: You open the book with a scene from the World Cup Tasters Competition. I was wondering for you, because I think about these coffee competitions and I'm like, “These must look so silly to people who are maybe not in the coffee industry or who've maybe never experienced this before”—what was it like for you to watch this happen?
I imagine you watched this as part of research for the book. What was it like to get into that world and explore that aspect of tasting?
Mandy: I feel like so many people, when they think of competitive tasting, especially in food, they think of like somm[elier] competitions and blind tastings and things like that. I wanted to find another kind of competition that was still tasting-based but, first of all, it wasn't wine, and was like a little bit more something people might not know about.
So I think the concept of the triangle test (where three things are put in front of you; two are the same, and one is different and you have to identify which is the different one) as a competitive tasting race is fascinating.
As soon as I heard that this was something people competed in, I was like, “Oh, this is perfect. This is what I wanna highlight.” Just getting to speak to so many people who have competed in those tasting competitions and how subtle the differences are in those cup tasting challenges—it’s really incredible that people can attune their palates to be so sensitive that they cannot only get the triangle taste test correctly, but speed through it. It's definitely a skill that's really impressive.
Ashley: One of the things that you start off with is explaining how some of the things that we taste in our food are almost like binaries.
There are things that lock onto our tongues that are this or are that. I know as a person who's made coffee for 10 years, I used to explain taste sensations as things you felt on different parts of your tongue, which in your book you're like, “Nah, that's not true,” which I learned later.
But as I was reading this, I was like, “Wow, what we know about taste and flavor feels both very scientific and very binary and very ‘this is this and that is that.’” But it's also this beautiful mode of interpretation too, right? We all get information and we all get the same information and yet we all process it in different ways, so it comes out very differently.
I wonder for you—I know this is a big question—but how did you start to think about how to explain taste with both these different ideas in mind: that there are things that are tried and true and locked down in science, but there are things that are ethereal that we can only explain by like having our own unique experiences?
Mandy: I think that was something that I really wanted to highlight in the book. I talked to a lot of scientists and then I talked to a lot of professional tasters, and those two things can go in very different directions.
So like you said, there's certain things, genetically, that we can taste. Bitter compounds lock onto our bitter taste receptors and they send bitter signals to our brain to tell us we're tasting bitterness. However, our individual genes can be attuned to that bitterness in different ways. So even if we're both sitting here having our taste receptor unlocked by a bitter compound, it might be more or less intense to us. It might taste a little different, and then our personal memory that's attached to bitterness will make you think, “Oh, this tastes like Brussels sprouts.”
While someone else might say, “Oh, this tastes like quinine.” So just the way that your memory interacts with your palate makes tasting different for everyone.
Coming up through the Cicerone program and other certification programs, I really wanted it to be very cut and dry. Like, “Yes, you taste this,” or, “No, you taste this.” But as you get into the research and realize how our genes, our experiences, everything interacts to inform what we say we taste, I realized it's not really like that. So that's what really set me off.
One of the concepts that really set me off researching this book is how do we all taste, and why is it so hard to describe it? Why is it so hard to know exactly what people were tasting, and why they do or don't like something, even?
Ashley: That felt like an essential question of the book. If I had to summarize everything in one question, it'd be like, “Why is it so hard for us to calibrate our taste or figure out why are you tasting something this way versus me tasting something another way?”
Mandy: Definitely, and the more research we learn about our genes and how they're connected to both our olfactory receptors—what we smell—and then our taste receptors—what we're tasting—the more we realized how disparate our taste worlds are.
There's genes that are connected to single compounds like beta ionone in violets. You either have the gene where you can smell it, or you don't have it and you can't smell it. You can live your whole life very happily never smelling a violet, never even knowing you don't have this gene. But it would definitely change your taste world, if you order an Aviation cocktail: That's gonna taste completely different to someone who can't taste violet than someone who can.
Ashley: Love what you said about genes—because one of the things I put in my notes is you write that 5% of the genes that make humans uniquely human are tied to just one function: our sensory acuity, smell, which is wild to think.
And you kind of touch upon this in a book a lot: Smell and taste are all tied together, and it's not just about being able to experience beautiful flavor sensations, but it's about survival. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the animal brain in us that really needs smell to exist or needs taste to exist.
Mandy: Right. What the function of our two chemical senses, our taste and smell senses are—they're there to be difference detectors for us. And once you know that, it starts to make sense how, in coffee, there's a term like “house palate,” right, where you're always roasting it to your house coffee and you kind of get comfortable with your own flavor compounds and you don't really sway from them.
You really start saying, this is what coffee tastes like. This is the coffee I'm tasting every day. Same thing with maybe the smell of your bedroom. You can't smell what your bedroom smells like because to your nose, it has to erase those smells because it's looking for the difference in your environment.
So if smoke all of a sudden enters your bedroom, you wouldn't wanna be smelling what your detergent smells like, what your perfume smells like, what your candle in the room smells like. You would want to be totally neutral on that so you can really pick up that smell of smoke, or maybe something rotting in your trash can that could become poisonous or something.
That's what our senses are there for, right? When we were back out on the prairie, hunting for things, you wanna be able to smell a predator in your vicinity. You wanna be able to smell something that could be on fire. Once you realize how things that are common to you really fade into the background, if you're having your same cup of coffee every morning, if you're having your same granola every morning, those flavors are no longer things you're picking up and appreciating, because that's just what our biology needs us to do. We need to just accept those as safe things we don't need to pay attention to.
I think when we turn our senses on and really start paying attention to things, it's amazing how much we just erase in the background because we're looking to be that difference detector.
Ashley: One of the things that I wrote down too, and I think this is something people have probably heard before in some capacity, is that smell takes a different passage in the brain than all of the other senses that we engage with.
Like I mentioned, we've probably heard some version of this, that smell is tied to memory and we seem to have some sort of understanding that smell is different than our other senses. I was wondering if you could give us maybe like a couple of more details explaining how that works and why smell taking a different passage in our brain affects the way that we taste.
Mandy: Yeah, it's definitely the superhighway to your brain. Basically our olfactory bulb that's at the top of our nasal cavity, there's literally just little holes that nerves run through our skull directly into our brain. So unlike our taste signals that run from our tongue through a nerve that goes through our inner ear up and into our brain, obviously our touch signals are running from all over our body, the nose and our nasal or olfactory receptors just have a very fast, direct path to the brain.
So we're interpreting aromas before anything like touch, heat, taste—anything can reach our brain. So it's that very quick reaction, and then the section of our brain where the olfactory bulb is, is tied directly to our memory, both short- and long-term memory. So it's just the placement and the way that things work together in our brain. When you're having a neuron connect to things that are very close to each other: That's your olfactory bulb, and then the section for your memory.
So they just react very closely and that's why a lot of things, like people will say they have very strong ties to music. You might hear a song and you can place yourself in the car, on the road trip with your friends where you really enjoyed that song, but with a smell, instead of having like this physical, “I remember exactly where and when I was,” you'll have a memory that's very emotional and it's focused on how you were feeling.
So sometimes you'll smell something and you just feel immediately comforted and you can't really put your finger on why. You don't know what memory it is, but it will be very calming to you. Or the opposite: Sometimes you can smell something and all of a sudden, the back of your neck is prickly and you're on alert and you can't really place that exact memory all the time.
But it's definitely more of a feeling memory than it is a physical place and time memory.
Ashley: I love that you mentioned the olfactory bulb because I think that ties back into the idea of you being a trained taster on maybe a secondary level, and the idea that we can all train ourselves to be better tasters towards the end of the book.
You talk about the olfactory bulb being something that you can grow, that you can exercise essentially, and it's tied to all these beneficial things—I think you said the development of the olfactory bulb is a better predictor of life expectancy than heart functionality or all of these other things, and I was like, “Oh, so I literally need to smell things in order to stay alive.”
Mandy: Right. The loss of your sense of smell is a better predictor of morbidity in the next five years than anything like cancers, heart malfunctions. Everything except for liver cancer or liver disease—that’s the one that you really don't want—compared to losing your smell.
Ashley: I wanna talk about the idea of being a trained taster a little bit more, but were there facts like this that you read, that you were like, “What the heck? Like, how do we not all talk about this?”
Mandy: There's this really fascinating “National Geographic” study from I think the ‘80s that I found a long time ago. And I was like, why don't people care about this? And if there is silver lining of COVID—“silver lining” is probably the wrong term—but that really the health of our senses has come back into focus, where people can get funding for things like this.
One of the scientists I talked to is a doctor and she really thinks we should have a smell test at every physical our whole life so we can chart our sensitivity to smell. That's really what they think is going to be the earliest sign of things like dementia, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and we don't even know how early we could be notified by these diseases coming up because we don't test for smell and who really goes to their doctor and says, “Oh yeah, my coffee didn't smell as strong this morning,” or, “I can no longer smell the red sauce when my grandma or my mom makes it,” or something. It's not something that you think of as like a huge detriment to your health.
We really need to flip the script on that and start to both pay attention to our sense of smell, and also now there's research into if we can keep it strong, does it keep people healthier? Does practicing smell do more for your memory than doing brain games or other things to try to keep your mind nimble?
Ashley: Let's go back to that idea, then, of training, and training yourself to taste and to smell.
I know that that's obviously like a big crux of your book, and you even give a whole protocol about how you taste, which is incredible. But I was wondering for people who are maybe thinking, “I'm not a good taster,” or, “I'm just not good at identifying flavors,” or, “Coffee just tastes like coffee to me, beer just tastes like beer.”
What would be maybe a first step someone like that can start taking if they wanted to develop their sense of taste?
Mandy: I think a really great first step for something like that is just doing a comparison tasting of any two things that are the same. So I think I suggest in the book green teas, but it could be two honeys, it could be two chocolates. It could be anything, but really going between something that's in the same category and saying, “Okay, which one?”
Which here smells more like vanilla to me, even if you don't smell vanilla, or, which one smells more like a flower to me? Which one's more grassy, for coffees? Which one has more red fruit? Even if you wouldn't necessarily describe it immediately when you smell it and say, “Oh, this has a red fruit aroma,” I think when you go back and forth between something, you start to say, “Oh, actually I do smell how this one smells more like cereal or more caramelly, even though I wouldn't be able to pick that up immediately.”
And that also goes back to that difference-detecting function of our senses. It’s a really great exercise because you're basically putting your senses to the test where they already naturally perform. If you're going back and forth between two cups of coffee and saying, “Which one smells more nutty?” All of a sudden your nose is starting to pick up on that and can tell you kind of which one leans in that direction.
I think being able to look at a flavor wheel and pull some of those notes out, even if you wouldn't be able to pull them out by yourself, I think gives people a little bit of a realization. It's always nice when you see that look in their eyes and they're like, “Oh yeah, I do smell how this smells more like almonds.”
Start building your confidence in little exercises like that before you try to just nose a glass of coffee or a cup of coffee and rattle off a perfect tasting note for it.
Ashley: Yeah, I'm imagining people trying to do what you have to do during Cup Tasters Competition, which is you have three cups of coffee in front of you, and two of them are the same, and one of them is different. It's like, that's not gonna work initially. I mean, maybe it is if you're just really good at tasting already.
But that was one of the things I would tell people when I was a coffee trainer, is just taste two different coffees side by side, which is hard to do because that's not the way that we would normally order coffee. Maybe it's more acceptable if you're doing a wine flight or a whiskey flight, but that's not really how we enjoy coffee in the morning.
We get it, we go, and we keep moving. But like you were saying, just being able to make those qualitative comparisons against one another, “I can tell this is more…”—that is super powerful.
Mandy: People get nervous to say, “This tastes like X,” they're nervous to put a tasting note out there. But I feel like when you say, “Well, which one's more sweet? Which one's more nutty?” They're like, “Oh, well this one's…” They feel a little more confident—confident leaning towards something in like a degree or on a spectrum than they do putting forth a statement.
It's a great way to build confidence.
Ashley: I think one of the struggles with describing coffee is that in coffee, the way that we're generally told to describe coffee is through tasting notes.
So you pick up a bag of coffee and there are usually three to five words that describe it, and they can be esoteric and bizarre, or they can be straightforward and hopefully accessible. There's a lot of talk about what words you're supposed to use or what words you're using to talk to customers.
I think where coffee fails a lot is that you pick up a bag of coffee, you look at it and you see notes of like “honeysuckle, lavender, chocolate”—whatever. Consumers will maybe make that coffee at home and say, “I don't taste that, and I failed.” It's almost a marker of failure.
I'm wondering for you, as a person who's a super experienced taster, where's that disconnect happening? And how can people in coffee shops start to get better at helping people either look at tasting notes and say, “Hey, these are just suggestions,” or look at them and say, “Hey, if you don't taste honeysuckle, do you taste something floral?”
You even have like a template in your book that's almost a translator of tasting notes.
Mandy: I think I would say one thing that I think a lot of coffee—and I would say tea, a lot of mediums, cheese even—I think one thing we miss in tasting notes a lot because it's obvious to us as specialists who know, “Oh this roast is going to be more bold or this country of origin…”
I think giving an indication of intensity of flavor is really important on tasting notes. So if you say, if the first word is “bold” or “subtle” or “delicate” or anything like that, I think that's one thing to help you avoid when you said people come home and they're like, “Oh, I've failed.”
I think that's one of the biggest disappointments that people get at home, is they either accidentally got something where they thought the tasting notes sounded good, so they got something really bold and intense—the flavors are too big for them or what they wanted—or the opposite, where it's a really subtle coffee and they were like, “Oh, I wanted honeysuckle,” but then they feel like the flavor's not intense enough and they don't enjoy it.
I think thinking about intensity of flavor as a precursor to tasting notes is one that I think pretty much every medium could do a little bit better with. And then as far as picking the actual words, I really—some terminology I've been seeing around in different industries where they say, “We taste,” or “Our head roaster tastes blah,” and give your tasting notes.
Even if you have room to say, “Everyone's gonna taste something different, we taste this.” I really liked when you said, instead of saying “honeysuckle,” maybe you start with, “This is a floral coffee, we taste honeysuckle, blah, blah, blah.” And give one word to generally describe the coffee that people feel comfortable with.
If you wanna get into those specifics, I was in London and I went to a coffee shop and someone was like, “Toasted red seaweed.” And I was like, huh, what a tasting note. But if you wanna get specific and poetic like that, like go for it. But maybe give someone something a little more general to connect to so they don't, like you said, if you get home, you smell your coffee, if you can kind of get that it's floral, you won't have that feeling of like, “Oh, I can't taste anything,” where “honeysuckle” is so specific.
Ashley: Right, giving people something that they can be successful with immediately, even if they miss the rest of it. I remember I read a tasting note that was “orange wine.” This was like 2015, so I think that was a time where maybe orange wine wasn't as ubiquitous on menus. And even still, orange wine is not that common, and I remember being like, that's a bad tasting note. I actually wrote a whole article about how that was a terrible tasting note.
Mandy: And orange wine is such a broad spectrum of what it can be too. I know you have a little background in beer like me, but like when people say, “Oh, it tastes like sour beer.” It's like, what? There's so many kinds of sour beer. That doesn't mean anything.
Ashley: One thing that I found really interesting too—you talk about the Cup Tasters Competition in your book. It's the opening scene in your book. There are all these other barista competitions that happen, and one of them is the U.S. Barista Competition or the World Barista Competition. And there's this panel of judges and they do this thing called calibrating where they'll taste a coffee and they'll talk about it and they'll be like, “What do you taste? What do you taste?”
And there's a head judge, and that head judge's job is to get everybody in calibration so that when they're in the actual competition judging competitors, they're ready to go, they have a shared language or they have a shared understanding of what they're looking for when something is like acidic on a scale of one to six, because it's supposed to be as objective as possible. But you talk about things that can kind of get in the way of how we think about taste and flavor, and one of them was verbal overshadowing—and I was wondering if you could talk about what that is.
Mandy: Yeah. It's a concept that reaches far beyond tasting to what we're thinking every day. Priming is similar, but verbal overshadowing is basically—you tasted something and then you describe it out loud. So you tasted a wine and decided to say, “Oh, it tastes like violets and mineral-forward slate rock to me.”
And then even when you go back to remember what that wine tasted like, you remember your own description, not the actual flavor of the wine. So basically the words that you gave that wine overshadowed the actual sensory input memory of the wine. So if you are trying to give these really esoteric tasting notes or if you're trying to calibrate and you decide to say this is a five acidity, you're basically overshadowing your actual sensory input with saying this is a five—when you taste it again, you'll remember what you said out loud, not what it actually tasted like.
It's definitely something that's not as big of an issue for experts—I think I go into that in the book with the studies, but when you're starting out, it's something that I think people really run into, especially when I teach classes where they'll say, “Oh yeah, I taste red fruit. This tastes like red fruit.” If it doesn't, they're creating this memory that's overshadowing what they actually tasted, and then it'll be hard for them to actually pick up real red fruit and describe what they were just trying to describe correctly.
Ashley: I'm not saying that barista judges do that, just FYI. I don't want any barista judges coming after me.
As I was reading that section of the book, I kept thinking, “What's another time where we talk a lot about flavor notes?” and I'm like: calibration, we’re talking about flavor notes all the time.
And I am not a barista judge, so I would imagine that I would get caught up in that crosshair of saying a thing out loud and being like, “Oh, I remember saying the thing out loud, not as much the actual flavor sensation,” which was really interesting because it made me think about how am I tasting things, and how am I describing them out loud?
It seems like, especially as you get towards the end of the book, taste and flavor is really about creating experiences and evoking feelings. One thing that I really loved is that towards the end, and it feels almost like this interesting crescendo, it feels like everything starts to come together.
All of the senses start to come together and you even feel like—I don't know. It's hard to describe, which is funny because we're talking about taste and sensory, but it feels like towards the end of your book, all of the senses almost start to meld together and taste becomes something that's way more than just, “This is what's on my tongue.”
And you talk a lot about memory and creating moments, and I was wondering, did that feel intentional to you to start to kind of meld all the senses together? Because for me, towards the end I was like, I felt so—I don't wanna say like overwhelmed, that's not right, but like I felt like everything is interacting together in my brain, I guess.
Mandy: Yeah, that's actually one of the big reasons I wanted to write the book. It was when I was doing all this training and especially going and taking five days of really intensive taster training and things like that, I just realized how my life was changing, the things I was noticing, the things I was remembering—how I almost, in certain situations, felt like time was slowing down or I was observing my environment more and I kind of worked backwards from these feelings and all of this exposure to sensory training to say, “What's the science that supports this? Is this a real thing? Does anyone else feel like that?”
And I wanted it to be very, instead of being medium-focused, where I could write a whole book about tasting sake or tasting coffee or anything like that, I wanted it to be like, what happens when you tap into your senses—and what even are our senses altogether? And to your point about everything melding, I mean, the whole beginning also talks about all those cross-modal signals we get.
Your music is interacting with what you taste, the color of the walls is changing what you smell. You can get phantom flavors just by dying yogurt pink. People will say it tastes like strawberry even though it doesn't. So I think it is all of our senses melding together and how can we first be aware of it, which I think is just like a great little self-care meditation thing. Just to say, “How can I use these things to make my life better? And then also why is it happening? “
So yeah, you totally read it—I'm happy that that's what it left you with. Because that's what I wanted, to follow my journey of, once you reach this place and you are tasting all the time and really exposed to this, and your senses are on overdrive, what does that feel like?
Ashley: Was there a moment where you tasted a food that felt like, “Oh, I get why I am doing all of this?”
Mandy: That's a good question. I don't know if [it was] food necessarily.
I included it toward the end of the book, but I remember when I was driving, it was my first time spending real time in Portland, outside of the city and not just in the Downtown area. And I was driving out to Tillamook for book interviews and I rolled down my windows and I was like, “Oh, the forest smells so different than the forests in Vermont.”
It was just this very grounding moment where I was like, “Oh yeah, my body is physically picking up on that I'm in somewhere different than I'm used to being, and I'm appreciating this moment—I'm going and reporting my first solo book,” and it really just added a lot of context to the moment and I was like, “This is what I want people to have too. I want you to use your senses to ground yourself in your life.”
Create these really rich memories—and also it gives you something to talk about. So I think all those things coming together is why I feel like, other than maybe walking and breathing, eating is what we do the most in our lives. So if we can add a little element of taste to that, that's a little bit of happiness every day.
Ashley: I think too, what really excited me about reading this book, it's a quote that I took from the very beginning is, “I could tell you that people who practice tasting experience more gratification from even mundane foods or that those who maintain their sense of smell live healthier longer lives.”
And we talked about that second part a little bit, about living healthier, longer lives. But that first part—that even the mundane feels like it turns up an extra notch—also feels really enriching. The book isn't just about being a better taster just to get better at a skill. It's about enriching your life.
Mandy: Definitely. One of the fun studies that I found in my research, and I got to talk to the scientists about it pretty extensively, was about how the more expert you get—I was worried, I didn't want anyone to become a snob reading this book, and I didn't want to seem like I was promoting snobbishness.
I was so excited that when you really become an expert in something, rather than having, “I only like the high end of this, I only like the finest things,” what we do is start to categorize things in our head, and so you have like, “This is my best category of if I had to pick something up at the grocery store, this is my best category of what I have access to every day.” And then you have your category of like, “This is the thing I would chase after.”
So once he told me about this and how real experts start categorizing things that way, I started asking like every master somm I talked to and whiskey experts—and it was amazing. They all had the same answers. I was like, “What's your favorite boxed wine?” And like four of them were like, “Oh, Franzia Blush is the best boxed wine. No question.”
They were like, “Drink it cold. It's amazing.” And then same thing with whiskey. Everyone said the white label Evan Williams, which is just like $16. They were like, “That's definitely the best that you can get in that category.” And I know I have that for some of my specialties. If I have to go to the the gas station to get beer, I'm definitely gonna pick up Sierra Nevada.
That's what I want. If I have to go even lower, like more macro than that, maybe I'm grabbing a Modelo—I know what I want. If someone says I want a recommendation of something under $10 for anything, cheese, wine, beer, I'm happy to give that. And I don't say like, “Oh, you're not gonna be able to get anything good for that price.”
I'm really happy that you don't have to become a snob to become an expert and really enjoy these things.
Ashley: Yeah. I really love that part of it too, because I think when you go into specialty anything, there is this assumption of snobbery that's gonna come with it. It's almost like a hill that you have to surmount that when you first get into something, it's really easy to get particular about what you're tasting.
That's understandable. You're excited, you're trying new things, you're developing your palate at this really rapid rate. But then as you kind of settle more into an idea of expertise or you kind of know the industry a little bit better, you're like, “Oh, actually, I do have categories.”
Even, for me as a coffee person, if I am at the airport, I'm gonna get Dunkin’ Donuts, like I'm not gonna get anything else. I think that's a very common coffee person thing, is that, “Oh, you have to pick a cheap coffee, it's Dunkin’ Donuts. Duh.”
Mandy: Mm-hmm. I definitely know it's not Starbucks.
Ashley: It's not Starbucks guys.
Mandy: Ever since I really started like learning about coffee, I'm like, it just tastes so burnt and rough and terrible to me. And I'm like, how were we doing Christmas blends for so many years?
Ashley: I know—but then again, that goes back to the idea of another thing that you talk about too, the idea of memory and how strongly memory brings you back to a place, which we can do retroactively, obviously, like we're talking about these memories that we have with the Starbucks Christmas cups, but then we can also create them.
That's probably the thing that I took the most from your book. So as I was reading, I read the book, I finished it yesterday and I just bought this Hook’s Cheese—Hook’s is a dairy here in Wisconsin. I'm in Madison, and my friend cut some cheeses for me and we were sitting on his porch and we were eating them and I was trying to like have that moment of creating a memory, take everything around you.
What does the stoop feel like on your skin? How does the sun feel? Where is the sun now? It was around 5 o'clock on a Friday, and that really helped me ground myself and be like, “This is what this cheese tastes like and this is why this cheese will remind me of this moment.”
Can we talk a little bit more about why creating memories for yourself helps build that “taste wardrobe,” as you describe it?
Mandy: I really started getting into that when I was trying to memorize blind tasting styles for my Advanced Cicerone and then Master Cicerone tests. I was just like, every time I taste Hefeweizen, I want to see blue. That's what I was trying to do. I was looking at blue when I was drinking it, really trying to just like give myself some shortcuts, which surprisingly works quite well.
But then once I got out of the academic setting where I can just enjoy tasting, it's amazing. I was in Belgium at a brewery, sitting out back, they were literally brewing that day. I could smell the brewery in the air. I was drinking their fresh beer. And I was like, I wanna remember this moment, we were in the countryside of Belgium.
I wanted to remember it forever and I really sat there, I was with my husband, we were just talking about what we were tasting, how cool it is that the monks are brewing what we're drinking feet away. We finally made this voyage out here. And now I still, when I open that beer, I go back to that memory.
I think just putting a little effort in there is—it's amazing how you can just transport yourself back there for the rest of your life. Then thinking of big moments like changing your perfume for your wedding day, or any kind of big event that you wanted to remember—maybe it's a big reunion or graduating something, or just for the heck of it because you wanna remember your vacation and you travel with a different perfume the whole time you're there. You'll definitely like make these ties, especially if you're going out of your way to smell it.
Connect with, like you said, ground yourself in your environment and create a memory you can use—that perfume is basically time travel to bring you back to those really happy memories.
Ashley: You have a lot of different suggestions or things that you've done that are littered through the book. Things that can help people maybe think about taste or kind of play with ideas of complementary flavors, contrasting flavors, things like that. Is there anything in the book that people listening today might be able to do right now?
Mandy: As far as like an exercise or…?
Mandy: That's a good question. I think as far as if they wanted to become more attuned to their senses and really start being able to describe things more…
I do a thing, it's called smell training. Dr. Thomas Hummel is kind of the one who's promoting this, but he does it for people who are trying to regain a sense of smell.
But basically it's smelling three things at the same time every day, the same three scents. So I have, by my toothbrush, some essential oils: Right now it's blood orange, spearmint, and lavender, and you basically just smell them and think about what you're smelling each time.
Then for my second one of the day, I just grab stuff off my spice rack. So it could be anise, it could be peppercorns, cinnamon, like whatever. And just smell it and say like, this is what I'm smelling. This is what this aroma is. I'll say it out loud. You can be like, “Oregano, dried oregano, dried Italian oregano.”
Just taking that little second for meditation, if you're really trying to become someone who can describe flavor and pull out tasting notes that are accurate, I think just tiny seconds of meditation every day on a certain smell is something that really just keeps your senses in tune and lets your brain note that you're focusing on this. This is something that you're practicing.
And I think [doing] that daily is really important. Like when I'm really trained up, if I'm doing a certification or judging something and I'm trying to get my senses really in tune, that's something that I'll do for like a week or two really religiously. It makes a big difference.
And it's easy. You can smell anything.
Ashley: That's true. You can smell anything. That's great advice. I feel like you should print that like on a shirt.
Mandy: Yeah, I need some merch.
Ashley: “You can smell anything.”
Mandy: Even stuff like fresh laundry has such like a different aroma depending on what detergents you're using. Smell anything: My new merch slogan.
Ashley: Is there anything that you want people to know before they pick up your book or anything that you'd want people to get out of listening to you talk about taste?
Mandy: Especially if you're in an industry where tasting is so important, like coffee or if you're judging anything or writing tasting notes, going back to that snobbishness, it doesn't have to be so serious. It can be really special and focused and fun without being overly serious or intimidating.
Even if you weren't able to grab the book, I would hope you would take that away. And then the other thing—we kind of talked about it at the beginning—but I think just really going out of your way to never tell people they're wrong or inadvertently intimidate them about something.
Even if they say, “Oh, this tastes like a coffee from, I don't know, Uganda or something,” even if it's not, you don't need to say it to them, “No, you're wrong. That's not what this tastes like.” You could say, “Oh, I could see how you would say that, but this is from here and this is what maybe you're perceiving.”
And just try to encourage people, because I think what I wanted to do with the book is all these artisans, everyone puts so much effort into all these things we eat and drink, these really special craft cheeses, chocolates, wine, sake, everything. I just want consumers to take a moment to appreciate it the way that the person who was creating it did.
So I think the less negativity we can put out there, the less info about off-flavors and flaws, the more consumers will appreciate it, and hopefully the happier people making the foods and beverages will be because their consumers are so happy.
Ashley: Mandy, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. I really appreciate it.
Mandy: Yeah. This was so fun. It was really great to talk to you.