Subjective objectivity: How can we recognise the differences in quality with spirits?
How can we tell good spirits from great ones? What criteria can be used to assess quality? And how can we put aside our personal preferences and preconceptions when doing so?That was the subject of the BCB tasting workshop ‘Subjective objectivity’. Christina Veira, Certified Spirits Educator and Director of Programming for ‘Toronto Cocktail Week’, and Rob McCaughey, Senior Business Development Manager, Spirits and Sake – Americas at WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust – a global provider of education in the field of wine and spirits) got together for an online tasting.
Christina Veira and Rob McCaughey selected a spirit for the occasion that is extremely popular in the Americas, yet continues to be an afterthought in Central Europe: Tequila. Three white (i.e. not barrel-aged) tequilas were chosen for the tasting session: Sauza Silver, Patrón Silver and Fortaleza Silver. They decided to add Fortaleza’s barrel-aged Añejo to the flight so that they would also be able to talk about the differences and changes in the product characteristics that result from the ageing process.
Tequila 1: A ‘mixto’ is only (a little more than) half tequila
Sauza Silver is what is known as a ‘mixto’ tequila. As most of you will know, a mixto must contain no less than 51% blue agave. This means that nearly half of this beverage can be made from another ingredient – such as corn or sugar cane, for example. According to Christina Veira, this non-agave component always has an impact on the taste characteristics. Rob McCaughey puts it in even starker terms: “It dilutes the spirit’s character.” In the case of the mixto being tested, for example, these two spirits experts noted that the neutral alcohol that had been added to the product gave it a sharp alcohol taste, and that the ethanol is poorly integrated. And none of these things should be a surprise, because it was added to the core product, after all. While both were in agreement that the agave flavour does manage to make itself known, it is relatively restrained and the overall impression is rather generic, with a brief after-taste. In short, it is a typical ‘shot’ tequila, or a product for clubs in which the focus may not be on the finer points of flavour.
Tequila 2: Drawing the curtain
A more complex tapestry of flavour and aroma is provided by Patron Silver, a tequila that is produced from 100% agave. The nose and palate of both experts perceived black olives, coriander, pepper and a great deal of ‘herbaceousness’. Their assessment: the alcohol has been integrated into the beverage far more harmoniously and serves as the foundation for the drink’s other properties, rather than appearing as an interloper. Both experts found that in comparison to product number one, product number two was full bodied, with a well-rounded note that is clear in the nose and palate. “It's as if someone drew the curtains to let in the sun,” said Rob McCaughey.
Yet how does one open the curtains, and how can people tell if they are still closed? Christina Veira’s tip: Even at the nosing stage, the taster should try and notice as many notes as possible, no matter how diffuse they may be or how difficult it is to precisely define or identify them. This makes it possible for the taster to achieve greater precision when tasting the drink. As Rob McCaughey remarked: “Great tasters are not born. They are made.” It takes a great deal of training, the repetition of tasting series, and requires that the taster pay a great deal of attention to the products at hand – both when doing the actual tasting and when procuring the information on how a product is actually produced. Christina Veira offers a good example: the number of leaves that are left around the heart of the agave when it is cooked has a striking impact on the intensity of a tequila’s herbal notes. There are many other factors in preparation and processing that play a role: Is a traditional stone tahona wheel used to crush the agave, or is it shredded by a machine? Does the manufacturer use a modern diffuser to cook the mash, or do they employ a stone or brick oven like in the good-old days? Is the process fast and efficient, or is it ‘low and slow’? How is the tequila distilled – in the classic method using pot stills, or with the continuous stills that are more effective for industrial-scale production? Christina Veira provides an effective comparison: A piece of meat also tastes differently depending on whether it is sautéed or braised.
Tequila 3: Window opened wide
To continue with our meaty metaphor, tequila number three – Fortaleza Silver – is the slow-food fillet amongst the three products being tested, because its production is carried out in the most traditional and hand-crafted manner of those included in the flight. The agaves are crushed using the traditional tahona method before being cooked in a stone oven and distilled twice in copper kettles. The result is a top-shelf tequila with a plethora of aromas: the nose and palate are greeted by fennel, dill, mint, and many other herbs. The aroma and flavour continue to develop, expanding in waves to unfold their individual facets. The finish is long. According to Rob McCaughey: “The best tequilas have multiple, coherent aromatic levels.” As he put it, we’ve done more than draw the curtains now – we’ve opened the window wide.
Learning to overcome preconceptions
In closing, the pair of experts decided to put Fortaleza Añejo to the test. The tequila was aged in an oak barrel for one and a half years, allowing it to supplement the mint, fennel and olive notes with vanilla, wood and coconut. This raises the interplay of aromas to yet another level, whereby the genuine ‘tequila-ness’ is unavoidably pushed into the background somewhat. This is a good example of the need to identify the preconceptions (biases) we were talking about and eliminate them from our thought processes. While he personally prefers tequilas that have not been aged in wooden barrels, McCaughey is quick to note the high quality of this product. At the close of their fascinating professional talk, Christina Veira referred to a very particular type of bias: in Western countries in particular, a spirit’s quality is often judged on the basis on how long it has been aged. This is due in no small part to a frequent and concrete association with whiskey tastings. The two experts used tequila as an example of how one can break free from this bias – by beginning the process with a close visual, aromatic and flavour study of the raw material, and then addressing those properties that modify the spirit’s character, such as barrel ageing, under the aspect of whether and how well they harmonise with the product.