Tasting Notes with Jim Beauregard -- Tasting spirits: What to look for

By JIM BEAUREGARD December 06. 2017 12:20AM

Remy Martin VSOP Fine Champagne Cognac 

As any of you who are regular readers of this column know, I’ve never considered it enough to simply tell you what something tastes like. I’ve always found it interesting to learn about whatever particular drink is being tasted, and this week we are once again in the world of distilled spirits.

The tasting process for distilled beverages is very much the same as it is for both wine and beer — in other words, it is a transferable skill. What changes is the content.

As for the process, tasting the spirit involves first considering its appearance, then the nose, followed by the palate, and then pulling it all together for some conclusions. This week, we’ll look at the first two of these, the appearance and the nose, and next week the palate and conclusions. As we’ll see in a moment, there is much in common with the process of tasting wine and beer, so it will to some extent be familiar territory.

Appearance: To put it straightforwardly, how does the drink look? A commonly used basic division in the world of spirits is into two colors: spirits that are “brown” and spirits that are “white.”

What makes brown spirits brown is that they are aged for some period of time in oak barrels. They draw color from the wood, but they also draw flavors — more if the cask is new, less if it is old. Sometimes, in addition, caramel is added to darken a clear spirit. Brown spirits tend to be the ones that we sip on their own, rather than use them for blending. Bourbon, cognac and scotch, for example, would fall into this category.

If the color is deep and rich it usually means that the spirit has been aged in new oak or in a very warm environment — think Kentucky or the Caribbean, where the process happens faster. The colors can run a spectrum from gold to amber to copper, the darker shades of brown.

White spirits, in contrast, typically don’t see any oak time and are not typically aged. Some of them might spend a little bit of time in oak, but after they do, they tend to be filtered so that any color drawn from the wood is removed and the spirit is clear again. Gin and vodka would fall into the white spirits category.

Most spirits, brown or white, should be clear and bright. If they are hazy or cloudy (which can be good things for a beer), this usually points to a fault.

Nose: What does it smell like? In wine, swirling the glass is essential to getting a full sense of the nose, but this is not necessary for spirits, which come loaded with pretty volatile compounds. In fact, if you try to swirl a glass of spirits, the main thing you do is stir up the alcohol so that it evaporates and shuts down your nose. ’Nuf said.

When sniffing, ask if there is any odor that’s not supposed to be there, suggesting fault, such as odors of plastic or cheese. Since many spirits are under cork, there is also the possibility of a musty cork taint.

Lastly, is the aroma light or intense? Some spirits have virtually no nose at all, such as vodka, though it’s there if you give it time. In contrast, spirits like bourbon and scotch have much stronger intensity.

Here we get to an important point: When tasting a spirit, part of the process is to add a dash of water to it — mineral water if you have it, since it is non-chlorinated. What this does is help release the volatile components of the aroma, typically floral and fruity in nature, but without causing an alcohol assault on your nose. It’s a gentler process.

What kind of aromas lies in store in the world of spirits? There are many in common with the wine world, but also many that are distinct. The fruit and floral aromas, some of the most volatile, can run from citrus to green and stone fruit just like wine, as well as red and black fruit or tropical fruit. Different flowers can be present, as well as many different kinds of spice, from anise to fennel, cinnamon, pepper and others. There can be many vegetal type aromas, from juniper to rosemary, asparagus, mushroom, grass and hay, as well as kernel and coffee-like aromas.

Let’s take a look at a spirit now and put this all into practice:

Rémy Martin Fine Champagne Cognac VSOP, AOC Cognac, 40% alcohol by volume/80 proof ($41.99/750ml bottle, NH state liquor stores): I’ve already gone on a bit here, so let me say just a little bit about cognac. It’s a distilled spirit made in the Cognac region of France, just north of Bordeaux and centered around the city of Cognac, which is on the Charente River, where they’ve been doing this since about the third century. The grapes that go into its making are Ugni Blanc, and to a lesser extent, Folle Blanche and Colombard. It is made traditionally in a particular type of still, known as the Charentais still, and more than one distillation process occurs. It is matured in oak and there is a blending process involved so that the flavor is consistent from year to year.

Classically, one expects a Rémy Martin VSOP to be amber in color, with aromas of spice, vanilla, and some floral notes. The palate should be about medium, potentially with some oak flavors. Here we have a spirit that is a golden brown in color, clear at the rim, with very good legs. (The alcohol will do that; never trust a spirit that doesn’t have slow legs trailing down the sides of the glass.)

The nose is clean and of medium intensity was some dried fruit notes, and hints of oak, vanilla and some blossom notes. The palate is of medium body, and some additional flavors come forth, with hints of tangerine, a bit of sweetness, balanced alcohol and medium-plus flavor intensity. The finish is of medium length that carries along the oak and a hint of sweetness along with some vanilla and orange flavors. I could get used to this.

Contact wine and beer (and spirits) writer Jim Beauregard at tastingnotesnh@aol.com


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