What’s the difference between tasting notes and reviews?

I’ve just returned from Tales of the Cocktail, the annual cocktails and spirits conference/bacchanal held in New Orleans.

What’s fresh in my mind is the final question posed at the final seminar I attended, “Drinking on Deadline,” a panel discussion about drink writers moderated by drink writer extraordinaire Paul Clarke, with Dave Wondrich and Wayne Curtis.  

Since it was asked quite literally at the last minute of the seminar, it was never properly answered:  what’s the difference between tasting notes and reviews?

 As someone who writes plenty of both, I have a simple response:  Tasting notes describe; reviews judge.

Tasting notes, like menu descriptions, are intended to explain what’s in the bottle, allowing the reader to decide for themselves whether it’s something they might like. It’s usually a short blurb that describes the aromas, flavors and texture, with perhaps a nod to the color or method of distillation if that’s notable. But what’s important here is that it’s a neutral description. For example:

Tequila X:  The scent of this tequila is almost like an infused vodka —  zingy, bright, citrusy and sweet. It also has a relatively sweet flavor, with hits of lemon and pepper on the finish. Smooth, soft feel.

By comparison, reviews are intended to judge a product. Sometimes numerical scores, stars or other rankings are used; but often it’s a matter of language. Spirits may be described as “lovely” or “inferior” to another bottling. In any case, the goal is to provide the reader with direction to try or not try the spirit. If a tasting note is akin to a menu description, a review is similar to asking the sommelier or waiter for a recommendation on what to order. For example:

Tequila X:  94  Among the best of the blancos. The scent is almost like an infused vodka, zingy, bright, citrusy and sweet. It also has a relatively sweet flavor, with hits of lemon and pepper on the finish. Smooth, soft feel, and definitely Margarita material.

(and yes, that’s text from an actual review.)

Is there a gray area? Sure. Most notably, when writers compile tasting notes, and editors add a headline that changes the meaning. For example,  “5 new piscos” becomes “5 great piscos” or “5 piscos to try,” adding an implication that these bottlings are recommended above others. It changes the scope from neutral to recommended, even if that wasn’t the author’s original intent.

Questions? Disagreements? Want to write a review of this post (or a tasting note)? Use the reply box below for your poison pen screed.

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6 thoughts on “What’s the difference between tasting notes and reviews?

  1. a topic worth discussion. As a writer, you have a lot of power to change peoples’ perceptions of a particular subject. but, i think it’s important to be aware of the difference between an account and a review – not just as a writer, but as a reader as well. There are times when I will intentionally write something that is simply telling it like it is without my added opinion and there have been times when readers have taken that as “she wrote about X, she must be endorsing X” (which is not necessarily the case)

    • I agree — the writer has an obligation to distinguish what’s fact vs. opinion — but readers have an obligation to “read critically” as well.

  2. A couple things I’ll often worry about when I write about bars, cocktails, spirits and other things:

    1. Am I making it clear if my opinion is based on one or relatively few experiences? Particularly when writing about cocktails or bars, if you want to be objective, you ought to give something a fair chance. But limited time and money shouldn’t necessarily stop you from posting an account of an experience.

    2. Do my readers understand that my opinion is subjective, and that there are always matters of taste involved in any review or tasting notes? For example, I’ll try to avoid writing about sweet cocktails because I don’t like them and I won’t be as objective.

    • Great point that reviews are subjective. I once attended a panel where a restaurant critic compared his job to that of a movie critic’s — in either case, you find a critic whose opinion you trust. And in the end, it’s one person’s palate.

      I too try to avoid reviewing something I know I dislike – this is why I was unable to score Fernet!

  3. I love this piece. Although I spent the entire event of the Tales immersed in tasting cocktails, I found it very difficult to taste much of anything after working a few tasting rooms. When I taste wine professionally or even rum (I’m a Ministry of Rum judge) I stick to one liquor variety.. be it rum or wine, never a combination of the both. At the Tales there was such an incredible diversity of product available to taste. I got palate fatigue very quickly. The mixologists and bartenders all did a fantastic job. But for a professional taster it was a palate killer. Plus the fact we started at 7:30 am at the Kahlua coffee bar. Tough life!

    • You were awake and tasting at 7:30 am, Warren? I am impressed.

      But I’m with you on palate fatigue. Just last week I chatted with a veteran wine taster who regularly evaluates up to 15 wines in a session. I could never do that many in one sitting. But I think the higher alcohol content of liquor vs. wine encourages palate fatigue.

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