A Matter of Taste—Musing on Palate Expression with Trick Dog's Morgan Schick
Teasing apart the way we taste.
July 8, 2015
By Cassandra Landry | Illustration by Elizabeth Graeber
At Trick Dog, a narrow slip of a bar in San Francisco's Mission District, the staff is smack in the middle of a heated debate on jiggers. Ringleader Morgan Schick is holding court behind the center well, and someone’s dog snores in a warm slant of sun creeping over the concrete floor.
The discussion in question is a tug-of-war between comfort and aesthetic for the assembly of drink makers, and once it’s settled (aesthetic, and a brief window of comfort adjustment wins out), they begin to dissect the sweetness of their standard Old Fashioned. Is it too much? Too little? San Franciscans like it dry, someone points out. But how dry?
The pursuit of perfection is a study in minutia for this place. Every flick of the wrist, every turn of the bar spoon, every wisp of flavor is intentional, and that includes the sensory moments in time where Schick hopes their concoctions point you.
“Part of the character of Trick Dog drinks is that they’re not classics, or even takes on the classics,” he says after the meeting has come to a close, lighting a cigarette and squinting in the sun outside. “They’re really supposed to feel loose, and out-of-the-ordinary, and very distinctly like they wouldn’t belong anywhere else.”
For Schick, that character defined itself pretty readily right out of the gate. Among its creators—including founding partner Scott Baird, who eats lunch at the empty bar as we chat—the cultivation of the menu and persona of its offerings all boils down to intuition from its chief palates.“Drinks that are too calculated feel composed,” Schick says. “There’s something that feels more natural and easy about an emotional and romantic approach to drink-making."
The critical bit is divorcing the actual ideas from anything too structural, then reverse-engineering those abstract ideas into the glass. But it always starts out with a very airy, vague idea. He mentions a drink from their second menu to illustrate: a scintillating concoction of rum, Amaro Montenegro, velvet falernum, aquavit, lime juice, and a tincture of the North African staple, ras el hanout.
“We wanted something that tasted like a dry, hot, dusty day in Morocco,” he says. “That started with Sydney Greenstreet in a fez, in a black and white room with onion windows and slow-moving fans. What’s crazy is that seems to be easier to pull off than, ‘How do we make a good martini?’”
Schick is one of a rare breed of bartenders: blessed with both an innate understanding of what makes a drink stand out from any average swill, and a stark honesty concerning his epicurean prowess.
“I don’t have a great palate, and I have a terrible palate memory,” he admits. “For me, a lot of it is conceptual. I tend to think about flavors in terms of colors, which is funny, because I’m a bit color-blind too. But because I have an art background, it makes more sense to me to layer flavors in terms of color.”
Grapes don’t taste like purple to Schick, like you might imagine—they take on a bright red and olive green hue. A recent sparkling Amaro-based drink was very much an experiment in this color construction; it gained the surprise element of sesame because the Amaro—deep and earthy brown in Schick’s palate paint set—needed warm yellow highlights.
Baird is a self-described fan of the bigger, weirder, stranger flavors, and not much one for subtlety. “My palate likes things that may seem unnatural together, but I don’t like things that are just a square peg in a round hole,” he explains. “If I get excited about something and we try it and it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. Things need to be harmonious, and they need to balance.”
“I think one of the reasons we work really well together on menu writing is that Scott has a tremendous memory for flavors and smells, and can pick out differences that I just can’t, but I can remember every song lyric I’ve ever heard,” Schick explains. “Somehow that combination of that bank of knowledge of tastes and flavors, and this bank of knowledge of things that have nothing to do with that just works.
And then I let him taste everything because I can’t,” he grins, as Baird nods along, “And then I cut the sugar down by half."