What is Umami? The European Bartender School Explains

25th March 2015
What is Umami? The European Bartender School Explains

In the article below, the European Bartender School looks into Umami, the fifth taste. As the best cocktails are often a delicate mix of sensory stimulations, we are all about taste at the European Bartender School. You might have seen Umami pop-up before , but what the heck is it, “Umami”? Judging from the sound of it, our guess would be it’s a Japanese dish that’s still half-alive. But let’s not get carried away. Umami is a Japanese word and can be translated as “pleasant savory taste”. We taste Umami through our glutamate receptors.

A little history on Umami
Glutamate has a long history in cooking. Fermented fish- and soy sauces have histories going back to the 3rd century in China. Back then they did not know the chemical source of this unique taste however.

Professor Kikunae Ikeda and kombu sea weed

In 1908 the Japanese professor Kikunae Ikeda discovered the flavor, stirring much debate if it actually was “real”. But in 1985 it officially became an officially recognized flavor. The professor also found that glutamate was responsible for the palatability of the broth from the Kombu seaweed. He noticed that the taste of KombuDashi (Dashi is a Japanese-style soup base) was distinct from sweet, sour, bitter and salty and named it “Umami”.

5 Basic Tastes
So most people know that we can distinguish 4 basic taste flavors. Sweet, Salty, Sour and Bitter.So what about this new fifth one? It is best described as a pleasant “brothy” or “meaty” taste with a long lasting, mouthwatering and coating sensation over the tongue:

“Umami has a mild but lasting aftertaste that is difficult to describe. It induces salivation and a sensation of furriness on the tongue, stimulating the throat, the roof and the back of the mouth.” – Food reviews International

Most of the foods that are most associated with the Umami flavor are cured meats, mushrooms, soy sauce and cheeses.

Umami in Spirits
According to Kim Crabbé of the Umami Information Center, Sake is “the only spirit known to contain umami,” but, she adds, “this is a cutting edge area of research.” More has yet to be discovered. But even if cocktails can’t get notable Umami from most spirits or beers, the range of Umami-rich ingredients available to modern mixology is broadening, especially because mixology isn’t afraid to tread into the kitchen in search of its next ingredient.

The European Bartender School also likes to experiment – This bacon garnish compliments the bacon-infused bourbon

Umami in Bartending
So after reading all this you think, really? Savory meat and broth type flavors in cocktails and Bartending?Oh hell yes! Natural, savory ingredients have long been a staple at Apothéke in New York, where Mixologist and 2009 New York rising star Orson Salicetti creates balanced but flavorfully bold cocktails from the bar’s collection of house-made infusions, tinctures, and bitters. “Inspirations for my cocktails are culinary,” says Salicetti. “They are based on my experience in the kitchen.”

Salicetti’sTomato Basil Martini, made with cherry tomatoes, avails itself of the high concentration of glutamate in ripe tomatoes (as they ripen, their glutamate levels increase).

Gin, agave-lime nectar, peppercorns, and hibiscus bitters round out the flavor profile, which is savory, floral, and gently tart and peppery. The cocktail is smooth and fresh, like viscous tomato water, and is extremely satisfying but never heavy. “My challenge is to incorporate the most diverse flavors whilst still keeping the balance to offer a stimulating experience on the palate,” says Salicetti.

Experimenting with different types of flavors is the bartenders trade, and coming up with cool new trends for bars or cocktail competitions are well under way with the Umami flavor, that the possibilities are endless!

Cocktail Inspiration
Here are some awesome recipes to give you some inspiration to create your own.

Black Gold’s special ingredient – the highly prized black truffle.

Black Gold
Umami Factor: Black truffle
For an ultra-luxurious cocktail, bartenders at NYC’s Analogue macerate black truffles in a honey-thyme syrup for a day and a half before using the aromatic syrup in the Black Gold cocktail, which also includes lemon juice, Green Chartreuse, hazelnut liqueur and egg white.

The Chicken Mary
The Umami Factor:
Kombu at the Rotisserie cocktailbar in Amsterdam, the classic Bloody Mary recipe adapted with Umami in mind. Freshly made chicken stock mixed with lemon Vodka, tomato juice, the regular spices and a barspoon of horseradish.

Dirty Habits knows their ingredients – Pic courtesy of Dirty Habits ©Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants

A Dirty Decision
Umami Factor: Mushroom and black garlic
There’s a double dose of Umami in this drink, served at San Francisco’s Dirty Habit. Chanterelle-infused amontillado sherry mixed with a black garlic tincture,
NoillyPratAmbre vermouth and orange bitters, all stirred to create this chest-warming cocktail.

Was that a little too much bartending or do you want to learn more?

A course at the European Bartender School can be taken in almost twenty schools worldwide and EBS certification means access to some of the best bartending jobs in the world. Imagine spending four weeks in a destination of your choice, learning about something you absolutely love with like-minded students!

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