What Tasting Teaches

Judging spirits isn’t actually laborious, but don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t work.

Luckily, I only tackle a big competition two or three times per year, but agreeing to sample and rate more than 150 spirits in three days does reveal a touch of madness, I think. Still, that’s not the only message I’d like to share after sitting down with some of the country’s best spirits know-it-alls and bartenders at the Ultimate Spirits Challenge — now in its third year and growing in size and stature — held March 5-9 at the Astor Center in New York City. Here are my initial opinions:

1) Scotch and Irish whiskies are made at such a high level today that we may be on the verge of a golden era. If only there were a few more distilleries in Ireland (calling William Grant…), the pressure to perform would be even higher, but the current lineup from Ireland — blended, single malt, cask strength, aged expressions, barrel finishes — is terrifically satisfying. And from Scotland, the diversity and experimentation is second to none. Age-old tricks of maturation and blending, united with a growing thirst internationally for pricey offerings, has come to mean that just about every expression — from a youthful 10 year old single malt to a doddering 40 year old — are worth trying.

2) Unfortunately the same can’t always be said of some other spirits that require time in wood. Many rum and tequila makers in particular seem more inclined to dump barrels and bottle them quickly when producing aged expressions rather than take the time needed to blend and craft a signature style that they can benchmark and present consistently. The variation is wide from year to year and even bottle to bottle. Sure, there are other issues pressing on a producer’s mind — especially with tequilas because agave harvests can vary so much — but now that blancos are becoming consistently better, I think more attention to blending is in order.

Jack Robertiello

Jack Robertiello gets ready for his next taste during the Ultimate Spirits Challenge held March 5-9 in New York City.

3) The current fad for sweetish, even unctuous, rums is getting out of hand. In the Wild West of rum, the winner makes the rules, and so there seems to be a mad dash to make the darkest, most succulent rum palatable to catch fire in one of the current rum fads. Emphasizing diversity — of region and style — would be more welcomed.

4) For new distillers, a tip: Don’t let your babies go out to play with the big boys if their big-boy pants don’t fit. Sit down and taste your spirits against a range of your competitors to see how and why they differ. Tasting the few bourbon and bourbon-style spirits that made the final cut against the ultimate top scorers like Blanton’s Single Barrel, WL Weller 12, Woodford Reserve, Four Roses and the like revealed glaring weaknesses in some of the newcomers, such that they were easily identifiable and not in a good way. Whiskey making takes time, and I don’t just mean the years the liquid spends in the barrel. It’s not that what I tried were poor spirits, but up against many of America’s best-known whiskey bargains, they simply couldn’t cut it.

5) What else? New gins have a similar problem: Against the classics, they often seem one-dimensional. Some that call themselves dry are actually too sweet, and in many instances gins are seeming out of balance. Armagnacs are the most under-respected spirits in the world, next to perhaps calvados, and the vodka flood is nowhere close to finished.


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