I started a new gig recently that’s put me front & center in the world of Spirits… well, locally. Anyway, customers regularly ask me:
- “Did they make you take a test on all this before they hired you?”
- “How do you know all of this?”
- “Have you tasted all of these?”
And since I’m not there to talk about me (it’s all about the booze, baby) I keep my answers as monosyllabic as possible.
But some of my co-workers have also inquired about expanding their palates, so I’ve decided to write up a quick little Where to Start/101 on the Four Spirits I write about most:
I’ll preface this “Where to Start” article with the following disclaimer:
These statements are my own and are based on my experiences with hard liquor. As each person’s palate is their own, it is up to you to come to your own conclusions about what best suits you. Taste liberally, but tread lightly.
Q: Where do I start?
A: At a bar. A nice one. With LOTS of choices.
The goal here is to find the One Bottle in each category that not only suits you the best, but also best represents its category. “So why not just go with the Five Bottles you’ve already listed?” you may ask. Sure you can do that! But if you’ve never tasted them, how will you know? You’re going solely off of my recommendations and you might actually HATE Bourbon and not know it.
So, go to a bar.
Some bartenders will offer you 2 or 3 tastes of their lesser expensive stuff at the cost of just one shot. When doing your tasting, stick with just one type of booze, and stop after 3 or 4.
Ok, so you’re at the bar…. where do you start?
First, ask yourself: do you like sweet, spicy, smokey, or clean? This will tell you where to start when diving into the world of Whiskeys.
- Sweet = Start with American Whiskey (Bourbon, Tennessee Sour Mash)
- Spicy = Canadian
- Smokey = Scotch Whisky (well, a large selection of Scotch Whisky anyway)
- Clean = Irish Whiskey
Because it would take me years to go through the multitudes of whiskeys available, I’m just going to give a few examples in each category. These few, in my opinion, exemplify what each type *should* taste like… with the odd man out being Scotch Whisky. There is just no way to define one taste there.
American Whiskey: Should be slightly sweet to sweet (honey, sugar, brown sugar, molasses), must have pronounced barrel notes (vanilla, oak, toast, nut flavors), subtle to pronounced spice (cinnamon, cloves, pepper)
Start with Buffalo Trace, Four Roses Small Batch, and W.L. Weller.
Canadian Whiskey: Should be mildly sweet, must have subtle to pronounced barrel notes, must be smooth & velvety (cream, butterscotch, maple)
Start with Pendleton, Crown Royal Reserve, and Canadian Mist
Scotch Whisky: Should be… smokey? peaty? grassy? Oh who knows! Each region has it own claim to fame (except Islands which are diverse), so start with what is readily available near you:
Highlands: Dalwhinnie, Macallan, Glenmorangie
Lowlands: Auchentoshan, Glenkinchie
Speyside: Glen Grant, Glenrothes Select Reserve
Islay: Lagavulin, Laphroiag
Islands: Talisker, Jura
Irish Whiskey: Should be clean, mild to pronounced spice, mild mineral, no more than mildly sweet.
Start with Jameson, Tullamore Dew (and 12), Redbreast (12 and 15)
And then there’s the outsider:
This stuff is so varied and so technical that it really is its own beast. For years, it seemed like Japan was trying hard to be like Scotland with their whiskey formulation. Now, with multiple world-class awards under their belts, Japan truly has their own style.
Gins should have noticeable juniper flavor. They should be clean, have ZERO barrel notes, and mild to crazy spices. They, like whiskey, have regions that offer slight to wild variations.
American Gin: Start with New Amsterdam, Bluecoat, and Aviation
London Dry: Start with Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire, and Beefeater
Plymouth: There is only one – Plymouth
Others: Try Old Raj, Nolet’s, and Hendrick’s
Vodka should be as neutral as possible. Yes, the grains will impart their own character to the flavor profile, but the point of Vodka is to taste like water as much as possible. With that in mind…
Start with Green Mark, Tito’s Handmade, Jewel of Russia Classic, and Chopin (potato)
First, all Tequilas should be 100% Blue (Weber) Agave, in my (and all experts) opinion. Then, Tequila should have pronounced herbal notes, slight to pronounced pepper, and a mild “what the heck is that?” fruity flavor. Barrel notes depend on whether or not they’ve spent time in a barrel… and how much time they’ve spent in a barrel. So, we’ll go with that barrel or not system:
Silver/Blanco/Plata/White (no time in a barrel) – start with Espolon, Don Julio, Don Eduardo
Reposado/Gold (2 to 11 months in a barrel) – start with Cazadores, Campeon, Tres Agaves
Anejo (1 year or more in a barrel) – start with Corralejo, Campeon, and Don Julio
* * *
After all that, you’ll want to spiral out from there and expand your palate. These will give you a baseline that should direct you to what you like best, and weed out what you hate.
Remember: it’s *your* palate. Drink what you like. No one should suffer through a bad drink.