Illustration by Daniel fishel (for Express)

As the co-owner and sommelier at The Red Hen, Sebastian Zutant works hard to make the Bloomingdale restaurant’s wine list appealing. So when he overheard a server tell customers recently that a wine tasted like old Band-Aid, he yanked her off the floor faster than you’d pull one of those bandages from a boo-boo.

Perhaps there was a more appetizing term the waitress could have used, but many wine and beer experts look to standardized flavor wheels with off-putting descriptors to help them pinpoint tastes in complex beverages. The wheels include terms like “burnt rubber,” “kerosene” and “cooked onion” — though it’s rare for these to actually make it to the table.

“I’m pretty blunt when I train servers,” Zutant says. “If something tastes like horses—, it tastes like horses—, but I don’t encourage them to say that to our guests.”

Nahem Simon, beer director at Jack Rose Dining Saloon, believes these wacky descriptors allow him to be most accurate. That’s why when guests order the St. Louis Gueuze Fond Tradition, for example, he often tells them it has a “horse blanket” quality to it.

“It really does smell like the blanket you put under a horse’s saddle,” Simon says. “I can’t say rustic, I can’t say horsey, because what does that mean, really? I try to be as specific as possible.”

And Dave Delaplaine, the beer director at Roofers Union and Ripple, believes that being up-front with customers about how a beverage tastes can only lead to happy guests.

“Some beers are so far out there that if you don’t set expectations, the guest is going to be weirded out [when they taste it],” Delaplaine says. “It can alienate, but I think it’s more important to let them know what they’re getting into.”

It’s difficult to trace the etymology of these terms to a single origin, but many in the industry credit Michael Jackson, a beer expert influential during the 1970s, who developed a lexicon for flavors at a time when suds weren’t taken seriously.

“Most of the language we use today to describe beer evolved from him,” says Greg Engert, beer director for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which owns ChurchKey and Bluejacket Brewery. “A lot of bartenders use words he made popular, and they probably don’t even know where they came from.”

Brent Kroll, the wine director for Neighborhood Restaurant Group, is comfortable using these kookier adjectives, but only if he can follow up with an explanation.

“If someone describes a wine as similar to their grandma’s closet, I don’t know what that means. I’ve never met their grandma,” Kroll says. But he won’t hesitate to tell guests that some grapes grown in northern Italy have a strong aroma of blood (gross!) because the soil is rich with iron (makes total sense). “Unless [a server] can explain why it tastes that way, it just says, ‘Look at me!’ ”

Kathy Morgan, a master sommelier who works with Range and Aggio, takes a more traditional approach and only describes wines in a way that makes them appealing. “I’ll put wines in terms of families, like herbal or floral,” Morgan says.

Ultimately, diners trust sommeliers and bartenders to lead them to something they’ll enjoy.

“Just like with art, alcohol should be beyond verbal definition,” Engert says. “But it’s your job to pin down flavors, so you have to come up with ways to make them sound different.”


This tastes like what?!

Though every palate is different, certain wines and beers have distinct flavors that consistently jump out. See if you can guess the terms the pros use to describe the following vinos and brews. H.S.

1. German rieslings are said to have hints of:
A. Gasoline
B. Spoiled milk
C. Wet dog
D. Cotton candy

2. Bordeaux wines are said to taste like:
A. Elmer’s Glue
B. Pencil shavings
C. Anacostia River water
D. Burnt hair

3. Most Chablis wines have hints of:
A. Freshly cut grass
B. Pool water
C. Dried roses
D. Flint

4. Beers with Columbus hops have hints of:
A. Dank weed
B. Bread dough
C. Fresh-cut trees
D. Dried flowers

5. Sangiovese wines are said to exhibit qualities of:
A. Line-dried cotton
B. Nail salons
C. Blood
D. Gym socks

6. Certain Hefeweizens can have hints of:
A. Bubble gum
B. Old books
C. Broccoli
D. Suntan lotion

7. Some lambic beers are said to taste like:
A. Pumpkin spice lattes
B. Wet paint
C. A freshly paved road
D. A barnyard

Answers: 1. A.; 2. B.; 3. D.; 4. A.; 5. C. 6. A.; 7. D.

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