Tasting Notes with Jim Beauregard: The finer points of tasting spirits, Part 2

By JIM BEAUREGARD December 13. 2017 12:10AM
Bombay Sapphire gin. 

Last week we began a look at the tasting of distilled spirits by exploring the appearance and the nose. This week, we will look at the last two steps: assessing the palate, and finally the conclusions that can be drawn about the spirit’s quality.

Palate: Simply put, what does it taste like? As with wine and beer, there is a structure to go through, including whether it is dry or sweet, the nature of the alcohol (which will be a pretty big part of the process of tasting a spirit), the body, the intensity of the flavors and then the flavors that actually appear, ending with some comments on the finish.

As for the flavors, this is related to the nose in terms of content. There may be fruit flavors, floral flavors, spice, vegetal flavors, but also possibly signs that there were faults present in the making of the spirit. Here’s an example: One flavor characteristic that’s not particularly attractive is sulfur, which can present as hints of rubber, burned matches, boiled cabbage and the like. Not exactly appealing.

Conclusions: Good? Bad? Indifferent? Would you buy a bottle and take it home with you? This last step in the process looks back over what you’ve just done in terms of examining appearance, nose and palate, to draw some conclusions about quality of the beverage you have just sampled.

Generally speaking, there are four things to consider: balance, length, complexity and expressiveness. First, just ask the straightforward question: Did I like it? And if so, why? If not, why not?

As for balance, ask if the different components hold together harmoniously, or whether one particular flavor complements, stands out or smothers the rest. Is the alcohol too strong, too harsh, too insistent? (Remember, don’t swirl a spirits glass; that accentuates the alcohol’s presence. Just add a dash of non-chlorinated water to keep the alcohol in its place.)

Next: Is it pleasant? Do flavors come and go? Complexity is another aspect of assessing quality. Are there just one or two flavors, or are they multiple, coming and going, hiding and emerging and if so, does this go on all the way to the finish?

Finally, expressiveness: Does it have character? Style? Is there something about it that stands out and makes you take notice? This is the more subjective aspect, but the one that in the end will help you decide whether you want to buy a bottle again or not.

Appearance, nose, palate, conclusions. In short, look, smell, taste and think.

Now let’s look at a couple of examples:

Knob Creek Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Small Batch. 50% alcohol by volume (100 proof); $33.99/750 mL, N.H State Liquor Stores. In order to be called bourbon, a whiskey has to be made from a minimum of 51 percent corn; other grains can be involved, rye being the most common, also wheat and barley. No color adjustment, such as adding caramel, is allowed.

The grains are distilled, and the finished bourbon then spends some time in new, charred American oak barrels. American oak provides a huge amount of color to the spirit and some very distinctive flavors that include vanilla, coconut and sometimes sweet spice after it’s been in barrel for a while.

So, let’s see what’s in the glass: Knob Creek has good clarity, with brown color, again clear at the rim, good slow legs all the way around, and the nose speaks immediately of the oak in which it was matured. There are some dried fruit notes here, but what predominates on the nose is the oak aromas, with vanilla, a certain creaminess, some citric notes, and just a hint of honey.

The palate has a kick to it, hints of sweetness, sharp alcohol, medium body and medium flavor intensity that includes fruit, and the lemon range as well as a little peach, some toast notes and a little cedar peeking out here and there. There is a fairly long finish that carries the flavors right along, merging, hiding and reemerging.

Bombay Sapphire Distilled London Dry Gin, England. Alcohol 47% by volume (90 proof); $24.99/750 mL, N.H. State Liquor Stores. We move here from brown spirits to white spirits. Bombay Sapphire, classically, is clear in appearance with the nose of perfume and herbs and a fairly delicate palate that usually brings some citrus along with it.

When made it begins with a neutral spirit (nonflavored alcohol), and under European Union law includes natural or “nature identical” flavoring substances to provide juniper flavor. This means it’s a flavored spirit, the flavor coming from the botanicals that are involved in the second distillation process.

In order to be gin, it has to contain juniper, and as options they can also add coriander seed, Angelica root, Orris root or dried citrus peels. In other words, it can turn into a fairly complex beverage building on the neutral spirit that is its base.

You can always recognize Bombay Sapphire from a distance by its light blue bottle. In the glass, it is clear, water white. The nose brings perfume and juniper and begins to emerge, followed by lime. The alcohol is not as insistent here as it is in a whiskey, so it is easier to move through it to the flavor profile.

The palate is dry, the alcohol fairly soft and the body medium. There is fruit here, in the citrus ballpark, as well as the clear presence of juniper berries (usually sourced from Italy or the former Yugoslavia). It has a fairly short finish, wrapping things up pretty quickly but maintaining the flavors right to the end.

So now you know the basics of how to evaluate spirits. There’s lots more to talk about, we will from time to time, over the course of the next year do some sampling. In between wine and beer, of course.

Contact wine,beer and occasional spirits writer Jim Beauregard at tastingnotesnh@aol.com.


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