Tasting Spirits

Though I often tell people I’m studying for a “Wine MBA”, my program in fact is focused not just in the wine business, but also in spirits. During our curriculum we’ve had several classes on industry trends with a look at key players Diageo, Pernod Ricard, LVMH, and Barcardi. We had a case study on the re-positioning of Baileys, as well as analyzed the development of numerous spirits brands, from Johnny Walker to Absolut, Jack Daniels to J&B, Rémy Martin, Hennessy—even Jägermeister.

Yesterday was our final spirits class. To celebrate further enhance our knowledge on the subject, our professor conducted a tasting of no less than 13 spirits. We analyzed vodka, tequila, gin, rum, armagnac, cognac, and lastly, scotch whisky.

The tasting line-up---13 spirits total (and 40 bottles of Evian!)

Vodka

With my crachoir (spit bucket) well-positioned, the tasting began with a look at two vodkas. Both selections were Russian Standard—the most sold vodka brand in Russia. For me, it was a fairly eye-opening experience because I’ve never tasted such quality before coming from a vodka (Screwdrivers and ice luges nicely sum up my prior introduction to the drink). However, what we were looking at was in fact a “sipping” vodka.

We debated as to whether it’s possible to pick up any aromas or flavors at all from vodka. However, many of us did. In the first vodka, Russian Standard Original, I noted a little pine on the nose; yet, it was the taste that most impressed me. It was very smooth with a hint of lemon, almost like lemon meringue pie. This is nothing like the vodka I’ve been accustomed to, i.e the kind that burns your throat and leaves you with no other choice but to dilute it with juice or shoot it back quickly.

The second vodka, Russian Standard IMPERIA (the brand’s most premium offering), was even smoother. This smoothness comes from having been distilled 5x. The nose was faint, but not the taste—I picked up some toasty, nutty flavors, especially almond, which also gave it a slight sweetness.

Tequila

Next up was Jose Cuervo Clasico Silver tequila. Like the vodka, this is another example of a spirits category with a reputation for being a party liquor (pass the limes and the salt!) looking to be taken more seriously. As open-minded as I could be, I tried my hardest to view what was in my glass as being a work of artisanal craftsmanship, hand-harvested from only the finest blue-agave in all of Jalisco, Mexico (okay, slight exaggeration—Jose Cuervo is not the world’s most premium tequila brand, but I think you understand the image they’re aiming for).

One whiff brought back a whole lot of memories, though none having to do with refined drinking. The nose was very salty, but I did sense a little butter cream—perhaps even vanilla cake. Otherwise, the taste again had some bakery notes and a lot of tropical fruit (notably pineapple), plus a little parsley. Honestly, I still find it amusing that I was asked to seriously analyze tequila—welcome to my new life as a beverage professional!

Gin

I have never been a fan of gin. However, after understanding the distillation process and the incorporation of a botanical basket to infuse the herbal flavors with the natural grain spirit (something unique to gin distillation), I’ll say I have now developed a greater appreciation for the liquor.

We tried two gins: Gordons and Hendricks (the later being among the most premium of gins). Both had the usual juniper berry and citrus notes commonly found in all gins. However, the Hendricks really made a great impression. It displayed an ultra smooth, creamy mouthfeel. In comparison with the Gordons gin, I found the juniper flavor to be much better integrated with the citrus. Furthermore, it had a very spicy aspect to it, but also a nice freshness. This was because the Hendricks gin went through a second distillation that included an infusion of rose and cucumber (I’d say the cucumber contributed to the noted freshness).

Rum

We analyzed Bacardi Superior white rum and a 1999 Trois Rivières rhum agricole, AOC Martinique (yes, rum from the former French-speaking colonies has an appellation). I had high hopes for the appellation rum and expected very little from the Bacardi. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the aromas and flavors coming from the Barcardi white rum: star fruit and slight honey on the nose, with a mellow honey flavor combined with floral notes (white flowers, esp. honeysuckle—notice the theme). Though it did burn a bit, I was overall impressed by something that I’d never consider drinking by itself (although its best expression still is when forming the base of a Barcardi Mojito).

As for the ’99 Trois Rivières appellation rum, I was very disappointed. There was much too much oak-aging, which dominated both the taste and the smell. Though it was possible to pick up on notes of banana and papaya, those were mostly masked by a very harsh mouthfeel that was full of tannins and almost zero integration. All I could depict was this sensation of splinters on my tongue—as if I had just licked the barrel it was aged in.

Armagnac/Cognac

I’d imagine most are familiar with cognac; but I’ll admit, I never heard of armagnac before arriving in France. To paint a simple picture: both are brandies made from distilled white grapes. Cognac is brandy from the Cognac region located north of Bordeaux and armagnac is brandy from the Armagnac region located southeast of Bordeaux.

The armagnac we tried was a Clés des Ducs VSOP (for armagnac, VSOP means it has been aged a minimum of 5 years). I detected maple syrup and pancakes on the nose. Others described it as a “taste of autumn” (guess who’s the New Englander in the class). The flavor was rough, but still had a pleasant sweetness with notes of caramel and butterscotch.

The cognacs we tried were a Rémy Martin VSOP and a Camus XO (For cognac, VSOP means it has been aged a minimum of 4 years; XO signifies a minimum of six years). The nose on the Rémy Martin was completely different from the armagnac. First of all, the aromas weren’t nearly as strong. Also, I detected mostly dried fruit, with a little bit of grapefruit and pine (likely from the oak aging). The taste also was quite different from the armagnac: it was noticeably smoother and more elegant, with notes of butter cream and dried fruits.

Though I enjoyed the Rémy Martin cognac, it paled in comparison with the Camus XO (though one would hope given the Camus was purchased for € 90 and the RM for € 25). The nose on the Camus was defiantly more complex—in addition to the anticipated maple and fig notes, you could also pick up some floral aromas. I was told to look for violet, which is said to be representative of the numerous violets growing in the Cognac region. After a second sniff, I would agree that violet was present. As for the taste, it was delightfully creamy and noticeably sweeter than the first cognac—for sure a terrific sipping drink.

As a side note: The main difference between armagnac and cognac is that armagnac is distilled only once; whereas, cognac is distilled twice. The result is a rougher finish for the armagnac, but many argue it makes the spirit more artisanal and better able to express its regional terroir. Conversely, the double-distillation employed in cognac production results in a much smoother beverage.

Scotch whisky

We finished our tasting with three Scotch whiskies: Grant’s blended Scotch (aged 3 years); Talisker single malt Scotch (from Islay; aged 10 years); and Glennfiddich single malt Scotch (from Speyside; aged 18 years).

My professor was so excited about the Talisker that we accidentally skipped over the Grant’s and jumped straight to the Islay Scotch. I’ll say it’s about as smoky as it comes when tasting Scotch. I’ll also say that by this point both me and my palate were quite fatigued and that I pretty much stopped taking notes!

However, I do recall thinking very little of the Grants after having tried the Talisker—I’m sure that Grants is a decent scotch, only it doesn’t hold a candle to the Talisker smoke bomb (and no, that’s not an insult—it really is that smoky). Otherwise, although older, we should have tasted the Glennfiddich prior to having tasted the Talisker. My palate was overwhelmed by the peat. Though I could detect some fruity notes and an overall smoothness, I would rather revisit the Glennfiddich before giving an official analysis.

…and that concludes our seminar on spirits!

2 thoughts on “Tasting Spirits

  1. Your tasting notes are excellent!One little correction….it is CAMUS cognac, (not Caymus – I think you may be confusing with the Californian winery)

    Camus is a 5th generation family-run cognac house , with extensive property in the small “Borderies” region of Cognac. Cognacs from Borderies are flowery on the nose, with a distinctive violet bouquet.

    I ‘m not sure about how many actual violets grow in the Borderies itself. After such a wide ranging tasting,however, you should be allowed a little poetic licence!

    1. Thanks for the correction—yes, I must have California on my mind!

      I definately would love to do some more formal Cognac tastings (actually, I believe we’ll be visiting Camus on Wednesday). Otherwise, I did pick up on the floral aspect in the Camus when compared to the Remy Martin. However, by that stage in the tasting, it was quite hard to pinpoint the exact flower w/o first being told! (though once made aware, I do agree there was a strong violet aroma).

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