01. Spirit Basics Flashcards Preview

BarSmarts > 01. Spirit Basics > Flashcards

Flashcards in 01. Spirit Basics Deck (12)
Loading flashcards...

Spirits Through the Ages


First brewed in the Fertile Crescent of western Asia - referred to today as the Middle East. (Caloric, nutritional value of the grain lasted longer than the bread).
4000 B.C. a lot of beer being consumed throughout the Crescent.
Thousands of miles to the east, rice farmers in China and Southeast Asia were making beer, a well.

Ill-informed authors write that grains were stored in dried clay amphorae, where moisture caused the grains to sprout and more water seeped in creating alcohol by mistake. In order to create beer from wet grains and water, a brewer (even 6,000 years ago) had to be careful about cleanliness and had to boil the grains and perhaps even add a few flowers (most brewers use hops flowers today) or even some tree bark to the mixture to keep it from spoiling.

Alcohol is a preservative. It inhibits oxygen’s slow destruction of many aromas, flavors, nutrients and vitamins in foods and medicines. People use alcohol topically because it kills pathogens and bacteria. It can do the same internally. Spoiled food can kill; a dose of alcohol can kill the germs in spoiled food before it kills the eater. Even 5,000 years ago, our ancestors knew that if you added wine to even the most suspicious water, that water wouldn’t make people sick. Mix equal parts of the scary water with wine (with at least 12 percent alcohol levels), wait about a half an hour, and the water becomes safe to drink.

Early historians wrote about alcoholic beverages not only in the Middle East and in China, but in northern Africa (where the Egyptians invented straws to assist them in drinking their cloudy, viscous beers), in Mexico and Latin America, Turkey, western Africa, Italy, Greece, Japan, India, and the British Isles.

5,000 years ago, the Orkney Islands, northern Scotland: Produced beers for religious purposes.

Beer and wine producers had learned that many different plants, seeds, flowers, trees, even minerals, could increase their drink’s stability and longevity. But eventually all those beers and wines would go bad. Longevity requires a perfect wine cellar, filled with glass bottles closed with tight cork stoppers. Those are recent inventions.
As the alcohol level rises, the longevity and purity increase. At some point, early civilizations discovered how to make high-proof distilled spirit.


How to Distill


Boiling Points:
Water: 100° C/212° F
Alcohol: 78° C/173° F

Distillation is, by definition, the purposeful application of intense heat to separate alcohol from water, creating alcohol vapor, which is then cooled to turn the vapors back into higher alcohol liquid through condensation.

Beer: 6-8% ABV
Wine: 10-12% ABV




Fermented products are the results of the actions of yeasts, chew up sugars and expel alcohol, heat and carbon dioxide, CO2.

Beer: keep carbon dioxide, natural bubbles. Unless we’re making sparkling wine, we let the carbon dioxide dissipate into the atmosphere when fermenting wine.

Wine: Yeasts live right on the grapes. As the grapes are squished, the natural yeasts can begin the job of converting grape juice into wine.

327 B.C. Aristotle: wine and beer have some special essence, he was the one who gave the name of “spirit”, distilled beer or wine put “spirits” into the body of the drinker. Temporary visitors to each drinker’s mind and body.


Distillation – The Pot Still


Every liquor begins as some kind of wine or beer; in other words, as a fermented beverage. Distillation cannot create alcohol; it merely concentrates it.

For most of history, the stills that did this concentrating were simple devices, consisting of some kind of fireproof pot (a.k.a., kettle) to hold the “wash” (the alcohol-bearing liquid being distilled). Atop the pot was a tight fitting cover designed to capture the alcohol-rich vapor that rises from the wash when it’s heated and allow it to cool off enough so that it will condense back into liquid form. This liquid is then drawn off into a separate container, or holding vat.

One pot/kettle/still is, truth be told, pretty much like another. The condensing tops, however, are a different matter. Historically, these vary in form depending on where and when they originated.

There are three basic kinds:
The Indian: appears to be the oldest, dating back to between 500 and 300 B.C. known as the “elephant’s head,” it takes the form of a large pottery bulb with an opening in the bottom to fit over the mouth of the pot, and a downward-slanting tube sticking out of one side (hence the name). The vapor passes up into the bulbous head and begins to cool then moves through the tube into another pot, this one most likely cooled by running water, and condenses back into liquid. Archaeologists discovered facilities with large numbers of these set-ups, indicating distillation on a commercial scale was going on in the centuries just before Christ
The Middle Eastern: The Middle Eastern style is similar to the Indian one, except the head is made large enough for it to remain relatively cool when the pot is heated, so that the vapor will condense on its interior surface and drip down the sides, where it is collected in an internal gutter and drawn off by a tube. First documented among the Greeks living in Egypt at around the first century A.D., it’s possible that in late Antiquity it was used to distill wine, but if so it was a closely guarded secret and the evidence for it remains ambiguous.
The Arabs, who adopted it after their conquest of Egypt in the 600s, used distillation not for concentrating alcohol for consumption, but rather for the production of medicines and perfumes. The fact that Mohammed and the Qur’an were explicitly clear on the notion that “the righteous man does not drink wine” or any other kind of alcohol might have had something to do with this. Nonetheless, prominent Muslim scholars/chemists/physicians of the 900-1100 A.D. era, in particular Geber and Avicenna, did much experimenting with distilling technology and wrote about it frequently in their books and essays, some of which exist to this day.
The Chinese: Finally, there’s the Chinese style, which may have been last out of the gate—it apparently dates to the fifth century A.D.—but within a century or so it was being used to make spirits in commercial quantities, based both on grapes and grains. In its basic form, the Chinese still head is merely a wok-shaped bowl that seals to the top of the pot. When it is filled with cold water, the rising vapor will condense on its underside and drip off of the lowest point. In the simplest versions, this is collected in a bowl placed on a stand inside the pot. More sophisticated versions drain the bowl into a tube running out the side of the still.

Very likely it wasn’t until the 1100s that distillation of alcohol began in Europe, most probably either among educated Arabs living in Spain (the Islamic Moors occupied Spain from 711 A.D. to 1492 A.D.) or the community of Christian scholar-monks-physicians gathered at the southern Italian port of Salerno. We don’t know what kind of still they used—it was probably the Middle Eastern one. At the time, Europe was in contact with China, too. By the 1300s, we know that they were employing both the Middle Eastern style still and an adaptation of it that brought it closer to the original, Indian style.
This last, an all-copper contraption, where the pot is topped by a bulbous head with a “swan’s neck”, meaning a curved outflow tube, that is attached to a water-cooled copper coil (an Italian invention) to condense the vapor, spread throughout Europe. Northern Europeans distilled grain- based beers while southern Europeans distilled grape and fruit wines.
By the 1500s, the Italians were using distillation to make herbal liqueurs (for medicinal purposes) and brandies (for woo-hoo purposes), the French to make grape brandy, the Eastern Europeans to make vodka, the Germans schnapps, the Irish and Scots whisk(e)y, and the Germans and Dutch juniper-flavored genever. Indeed, give or take a little tinkering, this is the pot still, most made of copper, used today to make cognac, single-malt Scotch and a host of other spirits.
There is one part of the Western world, however, where the Chinese- style still caught on: in the 1500s, Philippine sailors working on Spanish ships introduced it to Mexico, where it was utilized to distil coconut brandy and mezcal. In parts of Oaxaca, Chinese-style stills remain in use today, ancient clay-and-bamboo affairs that look like an ill-timed stumble would crumble them to dust.


Distillation – The Continuous Still


Pot stills, or metal kettles, were all anyone required for successful distillation for most of human history. And, in truth, prior to the eighteenth century there wasn’t all that much spirit that was being distilled; you’ve got to have large volumes of beer or wine left over before you’ll give it over to the stillman. And while distillation concentrates the alcohol, it leaves behind a lot of the water (and now it’s bacteria-free water) as well as some other nutrients and flavors. It’s not unusual to start with thirty-five or forty gallons of beer and end up with only a gallon of spirit.
It was not until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that human labor was being organized for efficiency (the better to make money with, of course). The businessmen driving the Industrial Revolution were bound to look at each and every activity in hopes of increasing output and generating more dollars for the owners. And pot stills, by their very nature, are notoriously inefficient and labor- intensive. For instance, should you want to create nearly pure alcohol, what is today called neutral spirit, it could take a week’s worth of repeated distillations in a pot still to reach ninety-five percent alcohol. And each distillation requires that someone get into the pot and clean the burnt scum and debris off the bottom, lest it damage the still and impart nasty, burnt flavors to the spirit.
So several innovative people decided distillation needed to serve the masters of industrial efficiency. Perhaps surprisingly, even with this process, one that happened little more than two centuries ago, historians are not in agreement. Indeed, the question of who should receive credit for inventing the “continuous still,” the term we use for this collection of rocket ship-shaped cylindrical stills that are the dominant tool for distillers today, is hotly debated.
Was it Robert Stein, a Scotsman who dreamed up the idea of placing several pot stills one on top of the other? In other words, he designed a cylinder that had many chambers inside. Each chamber was like a little
pot, only with perforations in the top and bottoms, except for the very bottom chamber. Fill that one with beer and then apply heat to it and the alcohol wafts into the chamber above it. While some of that escapes into the chamber above that, most of it hits the perforated plate and turns back into a liquid, rolling down to meet hot, steaming alcohol vapor rising back up. So, over and over again, the alcohol is continuously distilled. Hence, the name.
Some accounts claim that Stein never finished his proposed still. He eventually joined forces with an Irish exciseman by the name of Aeneas Coffey, who brought the project to reality; a version called the Coffey still. Indeed, like Stein, Coffey took out a patent on it—in fact, “patent still” became another term for continuous still.
But, like we say, beverage alcohol history can be as murky as a glass full of dregs. About the same time—the 1820s—a Frenchman named Jean-Edouard Adam had created his own version of this still and his
was also referred to as a patent still. In the 1880s in Sweden, Lars Olsen Smith built a similar contraption; at the ripe old age of sixteen, he was using it to create a neutral grain spirit he called Absolut Brannt Vodka, or completely pure vodka. Smith’s brand expressed his goal: by distilling to a higher proof than previously possible in pot stills, he was creating a purer kind of spirit.
All of these variations worked basically the same way: cold wash drips in through the top of the column, and as it drips down through a series of perforated plates, the steam rising from the heated bottom of the column strips other more volatile compounds, which are in turn condensed as they rise by more cold wash dripping down. The plates have raised rims around the holes so that they can catch the dripping liquid, which is then drawn off through a tube in the side of the column.
In general, the column still allowed the distiller to turn beer into nearly pure alcohol. With mid-nineteenth century innovations, the column still (a.k.a., continuous, patent, Coffey still) didn’t require the distiller to stop and clean the still once a day. One could keep it running as long as one had more wash to pump in. Thus, distillers were able to distil humungous volumes of spirit in column stills compared to the small, individual batches delivered by pot stills.
These industrial improvements had as their goal a purer, higher-proof and—most importantly—cheaper spirit. That doesn’t mean the spirits had improved in quality. As we shall see, greater purity is not necessarily synonymous with greater quality. In fact, many traditional distillers were horrified that these stills had become, by the end of the nineteenth century, the tool of choice, forever increasing the numbers of their competitors. But those holdouts and their old-fashioned products were
nearly drowned by the flood of cheaper, higher-proof product that was brought to market.
In some countries, pot stills endured among the artisanal producers, some of whom were supported by the wealthy or the nobility (for example, in Russia and Poland), some of whom simply labored in remote or nearly forgotten regions (the Scottish Highlands and the Islands or in the secluded glens of Ireland). Even today, the myth endures: that a spirit is superior because it has been distilled many times in a continuous still, and therefore it is purer. The number of distillations has little to do with the quality of the product. It is the quality of those distillations, no matter the type of still, that counts.


Distillation –Where does quality originate?


Not surprisingly, quality in a spirit comes from attention to detail.
Was the grain free from defects? Was the wine without flaws? Was the fermentation efficient? Was the product that resulted kept from growing wee beasties that add bizarre and off-putting aromas? Was the still clean and properly maintained? Was the yeast used in fermentation pure? Was the water source uncontaminated? (Stills utilize lots of water.)
But the single most important factor in determining a spirit’s quality is determined by what distillers call the “cut.” To explain: as the wine
or beer begins to vaporize, the first few vapors that rise up are not necessarily good since they contain methyl alcohol (oh, mama, not good) and hot, piercing aromas (even worse). Once the temperature rises above the about 78° Celcius/173° Fahrenheit mark, the distillation is in full roil and most of the vapor represents the “heart” of the wine or beer, the very best or at least the most representative aromas and flavors coming from that beer or wine (aside: you can see why the quality of the beer or wine has a big influence).
Eventually, the alcohol will begin to be exhausted, leaving a number
of heavier organic compounds, including water, of course, but also a selection of oils and compounds. As a result, this tail end of the distillation (indeed, many call this part the “tails”) can have aromas and flavors that are offensively pungent. A skilled distiller will influence the quality of his or her spirit by making sure the wine or beer is of good quality and in good condition by controlling the temperature of the distillation and, more importantly, by making a skillful “cut”, or selection, between the “heads” and “tails”, keeping only the heart (although often the heads are returned for further distillation, in the hope of extracting whatever alcohol might be contained in them).
So, then, the number of times a product is distilled represents, gee, let’s see, what’s the word? Oh, yes, marketing.
But the marketers aren’t completely wrong in talking about the number of distillations, though they’ve recently over-played their hand. Each time a product is distilled, whether in a pot still or a continuous still, the stillman has a chance to cut heads and tails, and to purify the spirit further. Whether he or she does so is a matter of personal integrity and skill, along with the cost a distillery is willing to accept for the product. Each time you cut heads and tails, you are either throwing away or at
least recycling (usually back into the beer) hard spirit that could have otherwise been sold for cold, hard cash.
Each time a cut is made, flavors are removed. Those flavors represent all sorts of alcohol and lipids and fatty acids and organic and inorganic compounds but we tend to collect them all together under the rubric “congeners.” As we’ve explained, some of those flavors (or congeners) are bad, but some of them are interesting and others are even delicious.
So, the higher proof to which a product is distilled, the more likely it is that the spirit that comes out of the other end of the still has fewer flavors and aromas. For that reason, the liquid that comes out of a continuous still, at 190-proof or higher, is called “neutral grain spirit”, if it is made from grain, and “neutral grape spirit”, if it is made from grapes. It’s neutral, or at least relatively so. Most of us just call it vodka.
As long as we’re discussing how quality happens, let’s discuss the much-ballyhooed matter of the shape of the still. Certain distillers place an almost-mystical faith in the power of little eccentricities in the shape of a pot still to affect the spirit that it produces. Indeed, they can be practically as secretive about that as gin-producers tend to be about the particulars of the botanical recipe they’re using.
But as crazy as it sounds, the shape of the pot still has a profound effect on the spirit it produces, down to the dents, dimples, and dings in the side of a copper still. When they are forced to replace it (copper being a malleable metal, they do wear out), they’ll place the new still right next to the old one, and reproduce every little blemish they can, in the belief that to do otherwise would compromise the integrity of their spirit. They’re not crazy. The shape and makeup of the still you use really matter, as do the temperature of the water you’re using and even the proximity of the ocean and a million other obscure little environmental factors.
Whether you use a pot still or a continuous still, you might be trying to make something cheap or something great. The real art comes in doing something that is both inexpensive and delicious.




The usual line about barrel maturation is that it was a serendipitous discovery that spirits improved when aged in barrels. But as with the
discovery of beer making, we do our ancestors a disservice to ignore their familiarity with barrels and their effects. Since Roman times, specifically the 3rd century A.D., barrels have been used to transport materials, like coins, nails, olives/olive oil, wine, dried fruit, salted meats and fish because barrels protect their contents and can even be relied upon to float (at least for a while) if the barrel should topple over the side of a pier, ski or barque.
Perhaps most important, barrels improved upon the existing containers, hardened clay and therefore brittle amphorae, in their sturdiness and their ability to roll. A cylinder resting on a single point,
a barrel filled with whiskey may weigh over 200 kilos (440 pounds), yet one person can easily roll it, even uphill. And the Romans also noted that some (please take note of that word, some) drinks improved inside those barrels, whether wines or beers.
If there is no 1,000-plus year tradition of barrel-aging for spirits, that may owe more to the lack of extra available spirit than to any intention. For a long time, spirits were stored in anything that would hold them. Since the virtue of high proof is that it’s impervious to most of what nature and time would throw its way, the storage vessel didn’t matter greatly. It’s not until the advent of commerce with the New World that there is a marked move toward oak barrels for long-term spirits storage.
Until the 1600s most of the drinks boarded on a ship bound for the Americas were consumed long before arrival. Eventually some spirits flowed in the other direction. The European powers quickly realized that the great spice hoards they had sought by traveling west (remember, Columbus thought he was traveling west to India and hence called the natives Indians) were still many thousands of miles farther across the Pacific. They sought what riches they could find.
There were plenty of new and exciting foods, as well as some exotic captives to parade around the court (oh yes, and a little gold and silver, too). Eventually, though, an exciting and stimulating white powder joined those products: sugar. When you have sugar, you have molasses; when you have molasses, you have rum. It would be a while, though, before that most useful spirit was flowing back across the pond.
By the late 1500s, though, there was enough rum being made in Brazil, for instance, that the King of Portugal slapped a massive tariff on imported rum. The same sort of preventive medicine would be applied in other countries against their local spirits (by Napoleon against the Caribbean Islands or in Mexico with “Mezcal Conyac,” as some merchants called it), for the colonial method has always been to take raw materials back home, refashion them into something more expensive and sell them back to the colonies from which the raw goods were taken in the first place.
The point being, there weren’t a lot of barrels being used for shipping
spirits back to Europe. So despite Scottish and Irish insistence that whisk(e)y as we know it (a barrel-aged, beer based distillate) is an invention of the British Isles, the Americas might in a bit of a stretch be able to claim as much themselves.
While European settlers in the Americas busily created ports from which goods and materials could be shipped back home, they were slower to move far inland. But when they did, barrels were the vessel
of choice for everything. Two of the larger scale trades were between the Caribbean Islands and the ports of North and South America, and between the American interior and what would become the Atlantic coastal communities of the United States. To some degree, the spirits that formed part of that trade remain some of the most famous of barrel- aged spirits: aged Caribbean rum and bourbon whiskey.
The barrels used in spirits production were often leftover from the transport of wines or spirits from the motherland. There were plenty of barrels and little reason not to use them (only in the last century have straight bourbon and rye whiskeys been legally required to be aged
in brand new charred American white oak barrels). In fact, most early distillers were happy to lay their hands on any sort of barrel at all. Even today, when dedicated industries (cooperages) have come into being to supply barrels just for spirits making, a great many distillers rely instead on once-used bourbon barrels, available in plenty since the bourbon producers aren’t allowed by law to reuse them.
Broadly speaking, there are two origins of oak barrels: Europe and America. The two harbor different species of oaks, and that may be the smaller difference. Instead, it’s in the transformation of oak to barrel where the two have differed most. In Europe, the tradition has been to split the broad-grained oak on its grain, air-dry those split staves for two to three years and then assemble the staves into a hoop, using a small fire, perhaps some steam (and a bit of animal power) to ply the staves into a cylindrical shape. These methods are ideal for wines, whether white or red, as well as for brandies.
American oaks are tighter-grained and therefore the cooper can saw the staves against the grain, as needed, and still the staves won’t leak. As a result, some people feel that American oak barrels (especially when used for wine) exhibit a sawdust-like smell that shows up in wine, for better (think Zinfandel or Shiraz) or worse (think Chardonnay).
Either the fast pace of American life or American know- how could be
the culprit, but the tradition for American oak was to age it briefly outside and then bake it inside a kiln, instead of waiting all those years for air-drying. Drying the staves has two purposes: to get the moisture content of the barrels down to about 12 percent, and to leach some of the harsher character of the
Barrel maturation
oak’s tannins and lignins out of the wood. Air-drying and exposure to the elements and seasons accomplishes both; kiln drying does not.
Today, American barrel producers are air-drying some of their barrels, especially those intended for wine, for greater periods of time. But differences persist. And the greatest difference between European and American barrel production is that American whiskey barrels are severely burnt (charred really) on the inside. European barrels, and wine barrels in general, are not; they are lightly toasted. That’s right, toasted, just like a piece of toast. Indeed, when you buy a wine barrel, you will specify toast levels of light, medium or heavy, more or less the way you would set the little dial on your kitchen toaster.
There are some who think American whiskey barrels were traditionally burnt to sterilize them for re-use. Since virtually all consumer goods were being transported by barrel, the barrel in which you were about to pour your precious whiskey might previously have held tar or nails. Best to burn the inside and be sure to remove any flavors.
On the other hand, a study of scientific journals in the early nineteenth century, when the American whiskey industry was establishing its practices, discloses a good deal of discussion about the benefits of charred barrels for storing both spirits and water, due to the interaction between the liquid and the layer of purifying carbon thus produced. So it’s quite possible that American distillers, always a technologically driven lot, were merely following the best industrial practices of the day. And indeed, the stereotypical general store of America’s frontier always had a water barrel so that anybody could grab a cup and have a drink of clean water. The inside of that barrel was charred, too. Today, your glass of bourbon has
a smoky, sooty, even burnt note because of the barrel in which it was aged. So, the kind of barrel and the way it has been made are critical to
determining the flavors that show up in a whiskey. But just as important is the age of the barrel. A brand new barrel, legally required in bourbon production, has a great deal of flavor to impart. A used barrel, less so, as the flavor impact fades with every passing year until the barrel becomes a nearly neutral vessel. Not every barrel is made from oak, it must be also noted. The Brazilians use native woods for their cachaças; Italian chestnut is less used today than a half century ago, but you can still find it in Italy and also in Japan.
While we will wrap up this unit with a detailed module on the basics of spirits tasting, here we must note that one of the least understood things about in aging spirits is how the barrel (especially when new) can impart flavors of smoke, spice, caramel, butterscotch and vanilla, among a myriad of others after extended contact. In Cognac, a new 400-liter barrel will absorb 12 liters of new spirit when eau-de-vie of the pot still is pumped into the barrel. The process of wood and spirit mingling charts the direction for
the future of the evolving spirit and cannot be overestimated.
But if the very act of putting the spirit in a barrel imparts something to
it, the amount of time in barrel gives something else. A barrel is a porous environment and thus allows in oxygen which, in concert with the oak itself and the many potential congeners found in the spirit, will substantially add to or alter that spirit’s flavor and texture. Typically, the longer that spirit
is aged in barrel, the more it will show confectionary notes of chocolate, almond, walnut, prune, fig, date, raisin and the like. Storing the barrel in a warm, humid environment can hasten these developments. A cooler, more temperate site, such as in Scotland or Ireland, slows the maturation process down. Scottish master distillers routinely claim that over 60 percent of a whisky’s flavor comes from the oak barrel.
Finally, too many people assume that the older the spirit is and the longer it has been aged in barrel, the better it must be. True, if only because of evaporation and rarity, it’s very likely that the oldest spirit will be the most expensive spirit you’ll see. A barrel, as noted above, is a porous vessel and as much as 15 percent of the contents of that barrel might evaporate in a year’s time in tropical climates, though the figure is usually much lower (2 to 5 percent) in temperate climates. Distillers relish calling this evaporation, the “angel’s share”, though we would have thought that the loss of valuable spirit might have brought less celestial thieves to mind.
But any drink, whether it’s wine, beer or spirits, and whether those spirits are aged or enjoyed more or less straight from the still, ought to be judged on balance and on deliciousness. A balanced drink (as we shall see) is one that has lots of aromatic and flavor notes, but allows the mind, nose and mouth to linger over all of them, instead of being whacked over the head by one powerful note.
When a spirit comes off of the still, depending on its raw materials, it is likely to have various fruity, earthy, vegetal, herbal, floral and even spicy aromas and flavors. Those should form part of the interest for the drinker. A barrel adds more spice, but also nuttiness, caramel, butterscotch and the like. Time in a barrel should make the spirit softer. In a great spirit, all of these elements intermingle. Any spirit, no matter how great, will eventually lose that balance if left too long in the wood; indeed, all of its fruit will fade away, only to be replaced by tannins from the barrel. In a spirit like that, the nose can be intriguing to many people, but the mouth will be bitter, dusty and astringent.
How long is too long? As noted before, it depends upon the spirit, the barrel and where the aging is happening. Some distillers will say that one year in a hot place like the Caribbean causes rapid aging, and that it takes three years in cool Scotland or Ireland to equal that year. So there’s no formula but an important axiom to remember is this: the oldest spirit isn’t necessarily the best spirit.


Other methods of softening spirits


If barrels were first utilized for transport, we know that people quickly figured out that they could soften and deepen a spirit, making it more alluring and for many people easier to enjoy than the fiery stuff out of the still. While many stills today are massive contraptions manned by personnel cloaked in white lab smocks, ordinary people, like farmers and merchants who might as well have been moonshiners, made most historical spirits. Readers of this manual are not expected to have tasted moonshine or true poteen (a. k. a. in Ireland, poitin, potcheen), but your teachers have (in the spirit of research only) and can assure you that “white dog”, as some call it, usually needs a bit of taming.
Barrels were one answer. But in many other instances, filtration was used. Moreover, the oldest of spirits brands (Kummel, Benedictine, Chartreuse and the like) might have seen barrels, but relied more upon flavorings, such as honey, to dampen their heat. In the next module, we’ll talk about liqueur production, but sweetening and flavoring have been used since time immemorial to tone down the fire of distillate. After all, what is a cocktail but a delicious and softened vehicle for alcohol consumption?
Filtration is a newer method for softening the fiery potion, at least in comparison to flavoring. Lots of producers have done so. The Russians and Poles elevated filtration to an art for neutral grain spirits. To some degree, the definition of vodka is that it is a neutral grain spirit, distilled to remove as many impurities—good and bad—as possible, then further filtered to remove the last traces of them. In the vodka tasting, we’ll notice that flavors and aromas remain nonetheless. Filters still in use include gunnysacks, earth, pressed paper, glass, sand, quartz, silver, diamond dust and, yes, charcoal (especially birch and maple). Each has its adherents and some postulate that each has its own residual flavors to impart.


Fundamentals of Tasting


First, stop expecting your taste to be the same as everyone else’s. Taste is as personal when it comes to spirits and cocktails as it is with food. Nobody complains that you like Brussels sprouts about as much as a body-covering rash. We take it for granted that we will have differences of opinion about food. But admit to liking “blush” wines and you’re immediately labeled a bumpkin. Taste is nothing more than, well, a matter of personal taste.
Yes, there do exist objective—more or less—observations that make it possible for people to compare and contrast various beverages, styles and even brands. But in order to do that we have to collectively decide what words we’re going to use to describe beverages. And then we’ll have to decide which words are most appropriate to specific beverages; that will require that people taste everything they can because in the end it’s broad
firsthand experience that allows that comparison.
We at BAR believe strongly that blind tasting is the only way to taste
honestly. Blind tasting concentrates your senses. When you have a lot of experience and when you know what a product is, you immediately know how it’s supposed to taste. The problem then is that most of us are human and we tend to use words we have traditionally used to describe that beverage or brand because to do otherwise would be to admit that we are being inconsistent tasters.
If you taste with the label facing you, you’ll know the identity of the beverage but then you won’t learn anywhere near as much as if you weren’t aware of the identity. Nuances, differences, even large-scale changes in production methods will mostly go unnoticed because your senses won’t be as keenly focused. Even the best taster is subject to prejudice. The only way to be sure is to taste under blind conditions.
Once you have tasted three or four top gin brands, when any new brand is offered, your best course is to taste it alongside one or two of the brands you already know. In that way, you’ll have a quick frame of reference to tell a customer that Plymouth gin is, perhaps, more citrusy than Hendricks, or less juniper-intense than Tanqueray.
Perhaps even more importantly, you can guide yourself and your colleagues when it comes time to create a cocktail from the gin. After all, bartenders are supposed to be the creative kind of people who know how to adjust a recipe to suit a customer or to suit the brand.


The nose knows


Smell is our most primal sense. It’s the only one of our senses, for instance, that instigates the strangely compelling feeling of déjà vu. Two moist membranes located on either side of the nose beneath our cheeks collect data from aromatic molecules that land on them when we inhale the aromas of beverage alcohol or anything, for that matter. These sticky membranes/organs have about 350 sensors that send data directly to our brain.
Not surprisingly, here’s the biggest secret of tasting: it’s not really tasting as much as it is smelling. Over two thirds of the characteristic aromas and flavors of any brand are all in the nose. In wine tasting, we could probably state that almost all of it is in the nose, but one of the strong differences between differing spirits is the alcohol level. You can smell that difference, but you can’t really discover if the spirit is poorly cut and hot, or well
cut and rich and textured, and you won’t know if the spirit is in balance, without putting some in your mouth and rolling it around.
We know that some of you are saying, “I can’t taste. I don’t have a good enough palate.” Really? You didn’t know after that steak was served to you last night if it was good or not? You don’t really care which beer you have
at the end of shift because they all taste the same? You’ll gladly accept a bruised old apple in place of a crisp, snappy one because you can’t tell
the difference? Of course not. You are a good taster. You, like all of us with any discipline, just need a bit of guidance in expressing your skill. Most people simply haven’t had to apply words to the task yet. So start by putting two spirits next to each other. Start slowly by trying a gin next to a white rum. Take a whiff and by going back and forth you can look for the following attributes:
• Vanilla
• Citrus (which citrus?)
• Lemon
• Lime
• Orange
• Herbs
• Coconut
• Molasses
• Nuts
• Flowers
• Pepper (they both have that)
• Pine
Depending upon how sensitive you are to various flavors and aromas, you might find that both are very peppery and both have some herbal aromas. In all likelihood, the rum will have the more dominant notes of vanilla, coconut, molasses, and perhaps even nuttiness. The gin should express aromas of pine or evergreen, citrus, floral notes, herbs and perhaps many others things: most gins have at least a dozen botanicals (such as flowers, spices, fruits, bark, that sort of thing) added to them.
But each person’s experience will be slightly different because, in addition to having different preferences and different histories, we actually have different sensitivities to many flavors and aromas. So, we’re supposed to taste things differently and like different things. The trick is, as professionals, we ought to be able to tell our customers and colleagues how a brand is likely to compare to other brands. In order to do that, you’ve got to have experience across a broad spectrum and we suggest that you liberally collect other people’s ideas as you go, so that you can learn to convey to other people what you are tasting in understandable terminology. Let’s get started.


Tasting: Diluted or Straight?


Most professionals prefer to taste spirits just as they come from the bottle, full strength; others like to cut the bottle strength in half with water.
Our early experience with most of these spirits was behind a bar and if we were going to know how they smelled and tasted, mixing them with water would at a minimum take too much time. So, taste first at bottle proof. Once you’ve determined how they smell and taste when poured straight from the bottle, then you can sort out what mixing does to them.


Words Worth: Describing what you smell and taste


The words you choose can be your own, of course, but if they’re too personal, then others aren’t going to know what you mean, are they? And the whole point of having words to use when describing flavors and aromas is so that you can communicate to others how a given drink will smell and taste. That way, they’ll know if they want to order some.
In each of the spirit categories, we will provide you with some ideas for general descriptors that you should look for when you taste different brands in those categories.