Where are all the flavor words?
I was a writer long before I was a vaper and my fascination with language started long before I was trying to describe how an e-liquid flavor tasted. Come to find out the world of perfumery and flavors actually borrow a lot of language from other disciplines, such as music — with notes and accords, architecture with building bases and pyramid structures, and combinations like anatomy with music as in heart notes. To describe something as green, it might mean leafy, or floral, or fruity, but the specifics depend on the actual molecules used. Since most of us lay-people haven’t had training in the perfumery and flavoring world we haven’t been exposed to regular testing of these molecules in order to know how to describe them accurately with objectivity. As much as we say tasting flavors is subjective, subjectivity lies in whether we like something or dislike it, not in how we can describe it. There is objectivity in how we describe a flavor or smell.
In writing fiction a lot of words are spent describing the scene, describing the characters and their emotional states and thoughts, and describing events as they happen, but how often do we actually read articles or stories that describe what someone is eating or drinking in a way that tells you the flavors that are being used. From what I’ve seen it actually isn’t all that common. Unless you are really into wine where you will find lots of fanciful descriptions of how a wine tastes/smells, that is one of the few places where flavor language is publicly portrayed. Flavor/aroma language is something that we Americans and general English language users have a problem with. We can describe colors, and emotions, and structures, but try describing how an apple tastes and you will find that you are kind of at a loss for words.
I am writing this article not only for the DIY and vaping community at large, but also for myself as a way to explore this topic and not forget it. It is often easy to forget to use the language of flavoring when trying to describe how things taste and smell. Just like every speciality there is an entire vocabulary to learn and it’s a lot to absorb. Since this topic was going to occupy an entire chapter of the second book I had planned on writing — it will be 3 or 4 parts long as articles.
The Role Language Plays in Vaping
We read the descriptions of commercial juices and often times it’s hard to understand what the actual flavor profile is, especially with the descriptions that get all cutesy or purposefully cryptic to keep the mystery of the flavor. But you read the reviews of some of these mystery meat flavors and it often sounds like they are pretty straightforward and often simple profiles, strawberry and cream, yellow cake with strawberries, and so forth. It is starting to get even worse in the world of DIY recipes as folks try to get creative with names for their recipes and then take some literary liberties with their flavor notes. I’ve seen a few recipes (which shall remain nameless) where the ingredients were very unlikely to result in a delicate sensory tickling of unspeakable proportions. Sometimes what we need are more relatable words to describe the actual flavor profile of an e-liquid. We’re a whole new creature in the world of flavorings and aromas, one that has yet to be sincerely studied and explored in the wider world of flavor manufacturing.
As more people are entering the DIY community it is even more important that we start to share our understanding of flavorings in a meaningful way through words we can all associate with and understand. I see so many new mixers looking to clone their favorite commercial e-juices, but when the vast majority of DIYers probably haven’t tried that flavor, the new mixer doesn’t get the help they need to be successful in creating the flavor profile they really want.
Understanding how to describe a flavor profile will help a new mixer describe the flavor profile they are trying to achieve rather than requesting a specific manufacturer’s commercial e-liquid by name. For instance, there are lots of melon mixes out there, it is probably the #2 fruit flavor profile below strawberries. Some of them have extra stuff in them, creating a slightly unique flavor profile, or effects, but many are just straight combinations of honeydew, cantaloupe, and watermelon. Being able to pick out which flavors have been used in the profile requires knowing those flavors and being able to describe them. For instance, Honeydew, for me has that sweet light almost cucumber type melon note, it is crisp, and bright, with a hint of bubblegum (which itself has notes of banana, and general fruity molecule notes.) Comparatively, cantaloupe has a deeper melon flavor, more mealy, with a hint of creamy, but still has a slight touch of the bubblegum note in there. Watermelon is different, with an overall melon note, it has hints of strawberry, general berry/fruity notes, and the smell of the green and white rind gives a slight bitter quality to the overall aroma that is actually desirable to offset the sweetness of the fruit itself. Now comparing the different brands of these flavors, they are all slightly different, so to pick the exact ones that one company uses without having tried that commercial e-liquid is a little more difficult. This is where getting on the same page with flavor descriptions comes into play.
But taste is subjective...right?
I’ve said this phrase a million times and I’ve read it even more: Taste is Subjective. But what does that really mean in the world of flavoring? Is taste really subjective? I am starting to think that it isn’t quite as subjective, or at least isn’t subjective in certain ways that everyone assumes it to be. When it comes to vaping, as with eating or drinking, our actual preferences — our likes and dislikes — are completely subjective and relates only to our own perceptions, memories, and palate training. However, the actual perceptions of how a flavoring tastes — not if we like or dislike it — can actually be objective, quantifiable experience, and can be reproduced over and over again by different palates if the people attached to those palates have the same lexicon of words to describe the aromas and the understanding of the aromas to be able to identify them accurately.
So how do we train our palates to understand tastes not just discern whether we like something or not? The answer is both simple and time consuming — we must pay attention to the flavors and aromas around us, taking note at least mentally of how something tastes and how to describe that taste using flavor/aroma language. The path that flavorists and perfumers take is to actually experience the molecules individually, but for most of us in the mixing world having that kind of access to molecules just isn’t feasible. So we have to do it with whole foods and flavorings already compounded.
Finding the Language of Flavor
I don’t want to reinvent the wheel here by trying to list all of the words that we could use in flavor assessment. So here are some flavor wheels to get you started and links to articles that have definitions for many of these words in the context of flavor description.
Wine Tasting Wheels
Beer Tasting Wheel
Honey Tasting Wheel
Coffee Tasting Wheel
Links to other sites for further reading.
First interesting link is to the FEMA site where they now have the library of all FEMA GRAS molecules listed with various documentation and they’ve made it searchable — if you type in Fruit into the library search bar, you will get 22 pages of different molecules that have fruit in the description. It’s quite the handy tool for those who wish to get into Deeper DIY style mixing (not something recommended for beginners.)
Link to FEMA’s SITE