At the Mercy of the Market

When chefs purchase food, do they merely depend on the purveyor and its reputation? Or do they assess what might be used and determine if its quality meets expectations and suitability?  A trained chef has some criteria for determining quality, even if often intuitive or loosely defined.  And while branding plays a role in food selection, it does not come close to being the determinant factor, as it is in the beverage world.

When it comes to spirits and liqueurs for a beverage program, who is making the purchasing decisions?  In large commercial operations, it is generally the food & beverage manager, the restaurant manager, or beverage manager.  As is the case with chefs,  the beverage decision-maker is expected to have a greater degree of sophistication and training. Yet very often these managers, while having some influence on purchasing decisions, may merely be following corporate dictates, the vagaries of the marketplace, or the advice of their lead sales personnel such as bartenders.  However, even the latter have not undergone any formal rigorous training in assessing or evaluating the quality of a spirit or liqueur.

If all beverage professionals, including bartenders, were better trained in spirits evaluation, they might not only make purchasing decisions endorsed by a confident corporate HQ, but they would also have a solid foundation for creating independent, sound drink recipes and menus. Where does one get such training? Unlike the culinary world, there are few spirits education programs that provide this needed training.

At Johnson & Wales University, we teach such evaluative skills using the Wine & Sprit Education Trust® Systematic Approach to Tasting Spirits. This tasting system provides a framework, using common language, for the analysis of any spirit or liqueur. We have also incorporated tasting methodologies used by producers and their master distillers, which enhance our ability to better discern the quality factors of the beverage.

There are several primary elements in the tasting system. First, the glassware needs to be bowl or tulip-shaped, such as a whiskey tasting glass. An ISO INAO 6 ½ oz. wine tasting glass would do almost as well. Pour only one ounce. Have filtered water on hand. Visually inspect the spirit and describe its appearance – the clarity, color intensity, and any other observations.

When determining the smells of the spirit, it is key to either breathe in through the mouth and exhale through the nose, or sniff holding the glass six inches away from the nose. If one ounce of distilled water is blended with the ounce of spirit, then it’s possible to use the nose but be sure to exercise caution so as not to ‘burn out’ the olfactory sense. Determine the condition of the spirit: is it clean or unclean? How intense is it? How developed or aged is it? What are the primary aromas? Be sure to write down your impressions.

When actually tasting the sample, take a tiny sip, swish it around in the mouth, and spit it out without focusing attention on it. The purpose is merely to clear any preceding flavor or taste. Then take another sip, swishing it around the palate but without breathing in through the nose or mouth. Spit the sample out. Breathe in through the mouth and exhale. If the tactile feeling on the gums is clean with an almost menthol quality and lacks coarseness, then the sample is of a higher quality spirit or liqueur. The characteristics to be assessed are the sweetness and alcohol levels, body, flavor intensity, length, and finish.

While the alcohol naturally provides heat and many spirits may be tannic, it is surprising how acidity plays such a key role. Acidity makes your mouth water while tannins dry it out. Try to evaluate the balance of the spirit, assessing whether the component parts balance rather than dominate each other. The finish is also a key element, as it will reveal if the spirit is simple or complex and whether it is balanced or not.

Going through this exercise until it becomes second nature prepares a person to compare similar spirits and evaluate how they differ, how one might be ‘cleaner’ than another, or which ones have characteristics worthy of showcasing when building a cocktail.

As with anything else, practice results in having the confidence to become an expert taster. With this knowledge,  you can not only independently evaluate the quality but also extrapolate better how the spirit or liqueur may best be employed.  This should be the foundation for any beverage professional. Now that such training systems are available, and newer graduates will have these skills, it is perhaps time for the industry to support their own.