Choose your weapons wisely

Understanding the five tastes of our palate and how to cater to them
By Charles Montanaro
Throughout my career as a bartender the one concept that has stuck with me the most is the notion of balance and the many ways you can achieve it. Balance is universal in the world of flavours, and cocktails are no exception. A cocktail should be greater than the sum of its ingredients, it has to make sense, be the right match and yet be original.

It is necessary to keep in mind that the components available when building a drink are varied and complex. When serving a drink, different aspects need to be remembered: what we see, smell, taste and feel. Within those are the five tastes our palate is able to comprehend: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. Umami is difficult to describe, only trained palates are able to discern its peculiar complex savoury notes.

These are essential components of what makes a drink. Knowledge of products is the next, an essential step to balancing a drink. They complement the whisky, better it in some ways so they can create something unique, special.

There are many ways of creating a cocktail, for example, a main ingredient used as a canvas on which we build our drink. It is also possible to make a cocktail based on a goal we are trying to achieve or by using inspiration from classics.

The Penicillin, created in Milk and Honey NYC shows how to complement the saltiness and smoke of most peaty whiskies. Here, the honey offers a smooth mouth feel and a delicate sweetness balanced with the spice of ginger and lemon juice. To avoid overpowering the cocktail, only a small amount is used in combination to the blended scotch. This allows other ingredients to express themselves. Result: a sumptuous cocktail with smooth spicy medicinal qualities. An original cocktail that will surely become a modern classic.

The Orkney Chapel, created in Death and Co. NYC is a libation offering complexity and an elegant finish. It combines the green heather-honey notes and the full on malt experience from Highland Park 12 with the salty dry nuttiness of Amontillado sherry and slight sweetness of the orange curacao. The dry vermouth taking the role of rounding the cocktail while the sugar syrup acts as a flavour enabler.

The Hakumami is a drink I came to create to show how food is not the only entity able to reveal the mythical taste of umami. The combination of the herbal and earthy tones of Hakushu is complemented by the dryness of sake and the bitter-sweetness of vermouth. A touch of soy sauce is then added which marries itself with the sake and herbal notes offering a salty salivating finish. This discreet finish does not overpower the drink, it expands its horizons revealing the fifth taste: umami.

These three cocktails are an excellent representation of how intricate balance and thought can create an experience that is greater than the sum of its ingredients. With this knowledge in hand, you can understand how cocktails are made and what is being achieved.

The cocktails

The Orkney Chapel

Death and Co NYC


  • 45ml Highland Park 12 Years Old

  • 5ml Amontillado Sherry

  • 5ml sugar syrup

  • 5ml Pierre Ferrand Ancient Formula Dry Curacao

  • 10ml Noilly Prat

Add all ingredients to a mixing glass, stir for thirty seconds until the glass is ice cold. Strain in a chilled coupe.

With a large peel of orange.


Milk and Honey NYC


  • 40ml Naked Grouse

  • 10ml Ardbeg 12 Years Old

  • 20ml freshly squeezed lemon juice

  • 15ml ginger juice*

  • 2 spoons of runny honey

Add all ingredients to a shaker, add ice and shake until the shaker is close to frozen. Double strain (with a regular strainer and a mini sieve) in a chilled rocks glass full of ice.

A few strips of fresh ginger.

Ginger juice

Chop a few pieces of ginger, add to a blender with half the weight of the ginger in water. Blend and fine strain to create fresh ginger juice.



  • 45ml Hakushu Distillers Reserve

  • 10ml Sake Akashi Tai

  • 15ml Carpano Antica Formula

  • 1ml superior light soy sauce

Add all ingredients to a mixing glass, stir for thirty seconds until the glass is ice cold. Strain in a chilled coupe.