Fifteen tastings. Not wine, but spirits. Gins, vodkas, whiskies, rums, scotches, brandy, cognacs and liqueurs. While I thought blind tastings were a challenge, this would be my biggest feat yet. The life of a sommelier isn’t just about vino, but the hard stuff, too. They (and hopefully soon, myself) are a jack of all drink trades, masters of turning a potable liquid into a transformative experience.
Today’s instructor for the Sommelier Society of America Sommelier Certification course is David Phillips, a spirit enthusiast Bar Certified by the Beverage Alcohol Resource and holder of a certificate from the American Sommelier Association (ASA).
“I’m trying to get through the things you need to know in the world as a sommelier,” he explains, as we students gaze doe-eyed at the many glasses filled with colorful liquids before us.
Sugary liquids, from fruit juices to saps, can all be turned into spirits, as can starches and grains. As with wine, the process begins with fermentation to create the alcohol. The mathematical equation for fermentation is sugar + yeast = alcohol + co2. To create a drinkable libation, distillation also needs to be incorporated, or heating and cooling the fermented liquid to separate the alcohol from the water. While distillation itself began 5,000 years ago, distillation for human consumption started in Europe in the 12th century, becoming globally popular in the 17th century due to trade routes.
According to Mr. Phillips, it was in 1830 that we get modern distillation with the invention of the column still by Aenas Coffey in Scotland. While previous to this people relied on pot stills — which made single batch spirits using a heated chamber that sent vapors up to be cooled and reverted them back to liquids — the column still allows for higher ABVs and continuous distillation — no need to stop and start the process between each batch — essentially linking a number of individual pot stills as if they were one. You can learn all about pot vs column stills by clicking here.
Thought: It’s interesting to think about this when you see all these vodkas marketed as triple distilled or higher. What they’re really saying is the liquid reached the height of the third plate on the still, and, according to Mr. Phillips, what you’re really paying for is marketing.
Before we get into the different spirits and samples, Mr. Phillips goes over how to properly taste a spirit, as it’s not the same as wine. Like with wine you’ll first look at the color and clarity to see how well it was made — and to check if there’s anything floating (not good!); however, resist the urge to swirl. With spirits the aromas get stuck in the glass, and swirling can make them evaporate. So, first sniff — make sure to have your mouth open so the strong alcohol smell doesn’t get stuck in your nose — and then you may swirl. Take one sip to get your palate adjusted, then another to really identify the flavors, rolling the liquid around your palate. Interestingly, you’ll find many of the descriptions are the same as wine, although not all. Lastly, swallow or spit (hey, tasting at 9am makes it difficult to drink 30 ounces of alcohol).
Mr. Phillips begins the class discussion with vodka, a spirit I learn is not always what it seems. By definition, vodka has no distinct taste, aroma, color or character, as fermented corn, wheat and potatoes — and sometimes other items like pineapple, milk and honey — are distilled to 95% ABV (190 Proof), stripping any noticeable characteristics away. What I find interesting to learn is that pretty much all vodkas cost about $1; however, you’re paying for the branding and packaging. With premium vodkas from other places like Europe distillers are allowed to have additions up to 2%, so many will add sugar or glycerin for richness.
There seems to be a lot of misleading marketing in the world of vodka, as apparently “handmade” has no legal definition, and anyone can slap it on the label. Moreover, when you see that a vodka has “natural flavors” of, say, lemons, the truth is the distiller could have added only one natural lemon to the mix and then tossed in a ton of artificial ingredients; however, because of the one real lemon they can say it’s natural. Basically, before buying a vodka do your research and if possible go to the distillery to really learn how your vodka is being made.
In class, we begin the tasting by comparing a Smirnoff 80 Proof Vodka made from corn and a Chopin Potato Vodka from Poland made from, well, potatoes. Potato vodka is known for being radically different from other grains, and contrasting these makes that obvious. While the Smirnoff is neutral with a touch of citrus, the Chopin is more earthy, full-bodied and even has an oily richness. It’s definitely unlike any vodka I’ve ever tasted, in a good way, as it’s undeniably interesting.
Ginfographic — click to enlarge — via Lisa M. Dalton
Says Mr. Phillips, “Do you know what gin is? It’s vodka that’s been flavored with juniper.”
Juniper and other botanicals, that is. This is how gin derives its flavors, from additions like coriander, nutmeg, cinnamon, orange peel, cardamom, caraway, cucumber and more. For those who believe they don’t like gin, it’s worth noting there are many different types of gin out there. According to Mr. Phillips, while Genever is the traditional gin crafted since the fifteenth century made by distilling malt wine flavored with juniper, Old Tom is a better choice for those who “don’t like gin” as it’s lightly sweetened and smoother with a fuller body.
There’s also Navy Gin, which has an interesting story relating to the Royal British Navy. These gins must be 57% ABV (114 Proof), as back in the 1800s the Navy often stored their gin with their gunpowder. They soon realized that if the gin was less than 57% alcohol it would ruin the gunpowder; however, at 57% or higher the explosives still worked perfectly. Other types of gin include London Dry, a sharp and dry gin; Plymouth, a clean gin with mild flavors; and Modern Gin, which tends to take the focus off the juniper.
For a mixologist, gin is great for making cocktails. There’s a lot of creative possibilities when you have unique herbs and spices already enhancing your drink. A cucumber-laced gin could pair perfect with some muddled cucumber, or an orange-accented gin with some citrus zest. There’s just a ton of potential.
For gin we compare a Broker’s London Dry Gin and a local NY Distilling Co. Dorothy Parker “Modern Gin” made in Brooklyn. The London Dry has juniper on the attack, with a bright, snappy palate and lots of citrus. On the other hand, the Dorothy Parker is softer and more feminine with lots of floral notes and more hibiscus and elderflower notes than juniper. I don’t know if it’s my native New Yorker pride, but I prefer the Dorothy Parker, as I can picture myself drinking this regularly, enjoying it as a cocktail like a Parker Punch.
Mezcal & Tequila
“While all tequila is mezcal, not all mezcal is tequila,” explains Mr. Phillips. “Tequila is distilled twice from Weber Blue Agave from Jalisco, Mexico using a pot still. Mezcal uses any of 16 other agaves from five other regions and is distilled once.”
Sounds simple. But of course, these tantalizing spirits are much more complicated than that. According to Tequila Rack, agave is first cultivated for about 8-10 years — allowing it to reach peak sugar content — before the pina hearts are removed and steamed, with the resulting liquid being fermented. From there, it’s double distilled. At this point all tequila is colorless; however, distillers can choose to age the spirit in wood, which can then give it a darker color. There are a few different types of tequila, separated first by whether it’s made with 100% blue agave or 51% blue agave (mixto tequila). From there, it’s further categorized by how long it’s been aged.
- Blanco: Tequila that is unaged or aged for less than two months in neutral oak or steel.
- Joven: Typically the mixto-variety tequila.
- Reposado: Tequila aged for 2-12 months in casks.
- Anejo: Tequila aged 1-3 years in small oak barrels.
- Extra Anejo: Tequila aged a minimum of 3 years in small oak barrels.
For the record, aging tequila doesn’t necessarily make it better. It’s all a matter of personal preference.
With mezcal — which mainly comes from Oaxaca, Mexico — the process is a bit different, as the pinas are roasted over hot stone that lay covered in an earth and stone pit for 3-5 days to infuse it with smoke. The contents are then mashed and fermented, and are distilled only once in a small clay or copper still pot. While tequila production today tends to be more industrialized, mezcal still uses the traditional creation methods from 500 years ago.
Side note: for those who don’t like tequila because you drank a bottle of Jose Cuervo — a mixto tequila — in college and threw up, I implore you to try again. This time, choosing a tequila crafted from 100% blue agave instead of ones altered with caramel coloring and sugar.
While I’ll admit I did drink Jose Cuervo in college, the Herradura Silver Tequila we try makes it clear what the different between a mixto and a 100% blue agave tequila is. The tequila is aged for 45 days in relatively neutral oak and is extremely smooth, with an inherent sweetness to it and some notes of pepper and earth for complexity.
I’ve often wondered why sometimes it’s spelled “rum” and other times “rhum.” What I learn in class is that it depends if you’re in an English-speaking or French-speaking destination, respectively. This spirit is crafted from sugar cane and molasses, and, according to Mr. Phillips, is “the New World’s ‘first’ spirit, with production centering in the Caribbean and South America where cane was allegedly introduced by Columbus.”
Rum is much more than Captain Morgan, Malibu and Bacardi, which Mr. Phillips points out, along with other white rums is essentially a vodka-flavored rum. He suggests beginning your foray into rum with some Ron Zacapa, a “gateway drug to rum” as it’s so delicious it’s like drinking dessert.
We discuss the variations of this spirit from neutral white rums made in column stills to heavier dark and full-bodied aged rums made in pot stills. While Jamaica is known for making really earthy, funky rums, Rhum Agricole originated in the French West Indies and is made with fresh-squeezed sugar cane juice. On the other hand, Navy Strength Rum is crafted from molasses and reaches 57%+ ABV. In Southeast Asia rum is called Arrack, and is made from fermented coconut flower sap, sugarcane, fruit and/or grain. These are just a few of the many rums made around the world.
Our rum tasting is one of my favorite, a Barbancourt 15 Year Rhum from Haiti. It’s aged for 15 years in oak to round out the irresistible flavors of butterscotch, toffee, apricot and baking spices — mainly clove and cinnamon — although it’s so complex I continue tasting more and more each sip.
When we get to the whiskeys I can feel my heartbeat quicken. Aside for wine, whiskey is my favorite drink in the world. At bars I always order a rye whiskey with one rock to keep it chilled without getting too watery. My whiskey of choice is Bulleit Rye Bourbon — all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon — and I’m happy when Mr. Phillips mentions it as a top choice. It’s a high rye bourbon, which means you’ll get a more intense spiciness, as rye adds spice, corn adds sweetness and wheat contributes softness.
So, what is whiskey? A spirit made from fermented grain(s) mash like corn, wheat, rye and barley, typically aged in oak barrels. When it comes to bourbon, the rules get a bit stricter, as the mash must be at least 51% corn, cannot contain added colors or flavors, should be aged in new charred oak barrels, and must be distilled to a maximum of 160 proof, enter the barrel at a maximum of 125 proof and bottled at no less than 80 proof. Despite popular belief, bourbon doesn’t need to be made in Kentucky, although much of it is due to the state’s rich bourbon heritage and great iron-free water. In reality bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States (and whiskey anywhere in the world!). Fun fact: There are more bourbon barrels than people in Kentucky.
There are a large array of whiskey styles, from the above-mentioned Straight Bourbon Whiskey made from 51% corn and aged at least two years in brand new charred American white oak barrels to Straight Rye Whiskey crafted from 51% rye and aged in the same fashion. When people talk about Tennessee Whiskey what they’re referring to is whiskey made using the “Lincoln County Process,” filtered through 10 feet (3 meters) of sugar maple charcoal.
Bourbon corn, rye rye, Tennessee charcoal. Simple, right? If only the world of whiskey were that condensed. From these basic styles you also get into scotch — made only in Scotland — blended scotch whiskeys, single malt scotch whiskey and whiskeys made in other parts of the world like Canada, Ireland and Japan.
You can essentially travel around the world on a whiskey trip, doing the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky before heading to Canada, which Mr. Phillips calls a “Wild West” as they have almost no laws, use little rye and add fruit wine and sherry. That being said you can find some worthwhile brands. In Scotland you’ll encounter great scotch in the Highlands, Speyside, Campletown, Islay and the Islands, with many producers peeting their whiskey to give it an aromatic quality. Once you’re satisfied fly over to Ireland where the whiskey is triple distilled to 70-90% ABV and blended before aging for 3 years to balance the flavors. End your whiskey voyage in Japan, where they “are whiskey freaks and make great, very interesting, whiskeys worth exploring.”
For the whiskey tasting we have a little bit of everything (or at least it seems so at 9am). First, a Famous Grouse Blended Scotch Whiskey that smells of toffee apples and biscuits with the palate offering a bit of spice and smoke — and even some sweetness on the finish. Our next sample is a real treat, a Macallan 12 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky aged in sherry barrels that makes me feel like I’m in the Caribbean, as the sherry imparts some tropical fruit flavors and spices, although there was also lots of dried fruits and vanilla. This whiskey is completely different from the next one we try, a Laphroaig 10 Year Old Cask Strength Scotch (Islay Malt Scotch Whisky), a light golden-colored whiskey with notes of smoke, peat and brine, almost like a mix of seaweed and jalapeno — in a good way. With a Buffalo Trace Bourbon Whiskey there’s a blend of vanilla, molasses, toffee and mint, a soft and smooth whiskey with a long finish. We end the whiskey portion of the tasting with an Old Overholt Straight Rye Whiskey, rich, sweet with honey and lots of herbal notes. Interestingly, it’s one of the oldest whiskey brands in the US, began in 1810 near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Brandy & Cognac
Brandy seems like a fitting spirit to learn about, as it’s made from wine grapes. While all cognac is brandy, not all brandy is cognac, as to be labeled cognac the spirit must come from Cognac, France. The short version is that they’re essentially the same thing. The longer version is that a really great Cognac is worlds better than a great brandy. This is because Cognac, like Champagne, is made under a stricter set of rules. Ninety-percent of the grapes used must be Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche and Colombard grapes, and the liquid is distilled twice and then aged in Limousin oak for a minimum of two years. This helps to mellow out the spirit and allows it to gain complexity and character. You’ll know how long your Cognac was aged by the bottle, as “VS” denotes two years, “VSOP” means four+ years and XO means a minimum of six years.
The Cognac we sip is a Chateau du Plessis Borderies XO Cognac, rich, full-bodied, smooth, sweet and spicy all at the same time. With decadent notes of vanilla and caramel, it’s pure deliciousness.
This is a lot of information; however, if there is one point you take away it should be to go with the small producers, no matter what spirit you choose. Once a brand gets big it gets difficult to keep production truly artisanal, not to mention these small guys without the big marketing budgets often produce great spirits that aren’t widely known. Give them a try. Even if you don’t like it, you’ll at least be expanding your drink knowledge beyond the popular commercial brands.
This has been part of an Epicure & Culture original series: Sommelier Certification.
Do you have a favorite small-production spirit? Please share in the comments below.
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