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.