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 Events  Share this article     Summary of Corkscrew column Not Just Wine 
  Corkscrew Issue 30, May 2005   
Tasting DistillatesTasting Distillates  Contents 
Issue 29, April 2005 Follow DiWineTaste on Follow DiWineTaste on TwitterIssue 31, June 2005

Tasting Distillates

Distillates offer rich and extraordinary qualities to the ones who can appreciate them and to the ones who decide to know them in their deepest essence, a world full of amazing aromas and flavors

 The exercise of distillates sensorial tasting is an interesting and amazing practice just like the one of wines. Just like for the beverage of Bacchus, the appreciation of distillates is best evident with an appropriate sensorial tasting and with the purpose of evaluating quality. Despite many distillates are usually children of the grape - just like wine - their tasting technique drastically differs from the one usually adopted for the sensorial evaluation of wine. However, the tasting of distillates and of wine have an extremely important and determinant factor in common, a quality that - alone - offers a good measure of the product's quality: aromas. Despite this common factor, the aromas of wines and of distillates are very different, for nature, intensity and quality. And the same can be said for appearance and taste: all factors which requires a proper tasting technique.

 The most frequent mistake wine tasters make when they are in front of a distillate is to use the same techniques for the sensorial evaluation of wine. It is frequently seen wine tasters - as well as simple wine lovers - to avidly sink their noses in the glass - just like one would do for wine - and at the same time swirling the glass while trying to search for subtle and hidden aromas, relying on the magic of oxygen. It is good to remember alcohol in distillates is present in far higher quantities than in any wine - the average alcohol volume of a distillate is of about 40% - and that alcohol volatility efficiently transports the aromas upwards even without the help of a vigorous oxygenation by swirling the glass. Another frequent mistake is the quantity of distillate introduced in the mouth: a correct tasting is made of tiny sips of about two or three milliliters; a far lower quantity than the one used for tasting wine.


Organizing the Tasting

 The environment and the ideal conditions for tasting distillates do not differ much from the ones used for the tasting of wine: an aerated and well lighted room, absence of extraneous odors and work places with a white surface in order to allow a better evaluation of appearance. Just like for wines, it is a good practice to take note about the tasting of every distillate: to help this process have been created many analytical forms for the sensorial evaluation of distillates, just like for wine. A good taster always takes note of his or her tastings: besides forcing the sensorial analysis of a product by examining the single phases and every single aspect, it also allows to keep a historical record of the taster's activity. Even for distillates - just like for wine - a fundamental help is offered by sensorial memory, a quality which is improved with practice and experience, therefore it is always good to get the most out of any tasting.

Three types of glasses for
the tasting of distillates
Three types of glasses for the tasting of distillates

 The temperature of the samples to be tasted plays - just like in wine - an essential role for the the perception of the organoleptic qualities. On this regard it should be remembered that alcohol volatility - and therefore its ethereal and burning perception - is higher at high temperatures, whereas it is less perceivable at low temperatures. However a low temperature also penalizes the perception of other aromas, and it should be remembered alcohol volatility acts as a transport mean for all the aromatic molecules found in the distillate. As a general rule - which will be however considered for any specific case - the serving temperature for samples can range from 12°C (53°F) to 18°C (65°F): higher temperatures will make the alcohol excessively ethereal and burning therefore disturbing the evaluation. Young brandies and distillates non aged in wood containers - such as young Grappa and fruit brandies - can be served at a temperature from 12°C to 15°C (53°-59°F), whereas in distillates and brandies aged in wood casks - such as Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados and aged Grappa - the temperature can be from 16°C to 18°C (60°-65°F).

 A fundamental role is also played by the tasting glass. Every type of distillate should generally be evaluated in a specific glass having physical and mechanical characteristics suited for the appreciation of its organoleptic qualities. The most classic distillate glass is the so called balloon, a glass having a pretty short stem, pretty large body and volume, typical for the service of brandy and wine distillates, usually having exaggeratedly big dimensions. Indeed this type of glass excessively exalts alcohol volatility - because of the wide surface contact with air - while penalizing the perception of other aromas. No matter this glass can be considered romantic and charming, it should be better to avoid the its use for a reliable sensorial evaluation. Currently professional distillate tasting glasses tend to have a smaller volume, a smaller body which narrows towards the end - a glass usually known as tulip - with a height of about 10 centimeters (4 inches). When this glass is not available, it can be replaced by the ISO tasting glass used for the evaluation of wine.


Appearance Evaluation

 Every distillate - when it comes out from the alembic's refrigerant and provided it was adopted a good distillation practice - is colorless, very limpid and crystalline, with no visual fault. Paradoxically speaking, it can be said the appearance of a distillate - from this moment of the production - can only get worse because of mistakes made during the operations of alcohol reduction and aging. This operations are however necessary in order to give the distillate its organoleptic typicality and are therefore indispensable. it is being added - for example - distilled water in order to lower the alcohol volume, or it can be aged in a cask in order to give specific organoleptic qualities, such as in case of Cognac, Armagnac and aged Grappa. The mistakes that can be made in these phases of the production are generally corrected by proper cold filtering which gives an absolutely limpid and crystalline distillate.

 The evaluation of a distillate appearance must be considered according to its type and, in particular, color, transparency and limpidness. A quality distillate must always be very limpid, crystalline and transparent like fountain water. Suspending substances are never allowed, as well as faults in transparency or limpidness that would give the distillate a milky appearance. The evaluation of the appearance of young Grappa and fruit brandy is relatively simple: they must always be colorless, very transparent, limpid and crystalline. Things get a little bit harder for distillates aged in wood containers. It should be remembered every type of wood gives the distillate different colors, from pale straw yellow to mahogany brown, and of course according to the time of aging as well. However these color nuances can also be altered or accentuated by adding caramel, an ingredient allowed in the production of many distillates. Excluding the case of a pretty old distillate, the color will never show red hues or nuances. In case this quality is found in young distillates, it is more likely it was added an excessive quantity of caramel.


Olfactory Evaluation

 One of the fundamental pleasures of the tasting and appreciation of distillates certainly is the olfactory evaluation. With this evaluation it can be perceived the elegance, finesse and quality of a distillate. It can be clearly perceived the quality of the raw matter used for the distillation as well as the quality of the containers used for the aging. Just like for wine, even in the tasting of distillates the olfactory evaluation plays a determinant role. Before discussing the technique of olfactory evaluation, it is good to understand the effects of the main ingredient of any distillate: alcohol. As it is commonly known, ethyl alcohol is a high volatile substance and that can be cause of a pungent and burning reaction of the olfactory bulb therefore forcing the taster to temporarily stop the examination. However alcohol also transports the molecules of other aromas, therefore it plays a fundamental role in the overall perception of a distillate's aromas. The best distillates are the ones in which the burning and pungent perception of alcohol is very low while allowing the clear perception of other aromas. A distillate in which the aroma mainly perceived is the one of alcohol is not of good quality. It should be remembered this aspect is strongly influenced both by the serving temperature, as well as by the shape and volume of glass, and - of course - by the distillation practice and aging.

The color of a distillate aged in
The color of a distillate aged in cask

 The aromatic nature and quality of distillates change according to the type and the production techniques. As an example, it is enough to evaluate the aromas of a young Grappa - that is non aged in cask - and of a Cognac: certainly two refined products and with pleasing and elegant aromas, and certainly two completely different products. The technique used for the evaluation of a distillate's aromas is totally and completely different from the one used for wine. A frequent mistake made by wine tasters is the one of evaluating a distillate by sinking the nose in the glass after having been vigorously swirled it. This practice is not correct for distillates because - it should be remembered - the quantity of alcohol can even be four times higher than the one usually contained in wine and therefore it is enough - without the help of a strong oxygenation - to transport the other aromatic molecules upwards. The most common technique for the olfactory evaluation of distillates usually consists in doing four distinct smells, done at different distances, and of which the first three are done without swirling the glass.

 The first smell is done without swirling the glass while keeping the nose at a distance of about 5 centimeters (2 inches) from the edge. This first smell is particularly useful for distillates aged in wood because it allows the appreciation of vanilla and wood aromas. The next smell will be done by placing the nose near the edge of the glass and - without swirling - it is done the second smell: in this phase will be particularly appreciated the aromas belonging to the floral family. The third smell is done - once again without swirling the glass - by placing the nose inside the glass: in this way will be particularly appreciated the aromas belonging to the fruit family. At this point the glass is moved away from the nose and it will be finally swirled, then it will be moved near the nose and therefore doing the fourth and last smell. In this phase it will be appreciated the fusion of all aromas and in particular the dried fruit, vegetal, herbaceous, floral and nuts aromas as well as the aromas passed from wood to the distillate. In all these phases the ethereal aroma of alcohol must never excessively disturb the perception of other aromas as this would be considered as a fault.


Gustatory Evaluation

 Even during the gustatory evaluation, alcohol will play a fundamental role in the perception of the taste of a distillate. It should be remembered alcohol has a basically sweet taste, therefore it will be normal to find this sensation in distillates. In a distillate coming out from the alembic can be perceived, in variable quantities, sweet, sour and bitter tastes. Particular attention must be paid on sour taste, usually balanced by alcohol sweetness and by any possible smoothness caused by the aging in wood. Salty taste is never present in a just produced distillate, however it is possible to find it in minimum quantities because of the procedures of processing, first of all for the use of demineralized water used for reducing alcohol volume. Alcohol has a caustic effect on the oral cavity by producing the classic burning sensation, an effect which is accentuated with a higher concentration of alcohol in the distillate. The capacity of alcohol to rapidly dissolve represents a quality factor: the lesser the duration of the caustic shock, the higher the quality, finesse and elegance of a distillate. In other words alcohol, after having been introduced itself with its vehemence, it must abandon the scene in favor of other organoleptic qualities, possibly the ones already perceived by the nose.


 In the first phase will be introduced in the mouth few milliliters of distillate: this will allow the appreciation of the flavors and of body. It should be remembered distillates aged in wood concentrates their flavors and their body; therefore the higher the structure perceived in the mouth during this phase, the higher the time of aging in cask. On this regard it is appropriate to remember that any adding of caramel will increase the body of the distillate as well as its basically bitter and sweet taste. After that, it will be introduced in the mouth a slightly greater quantity of distillate in order to evaluate the qualities perceived in the first sip and in particular the quality of flavors, any excessive dryness - because of wood tannins - as well as sweetness. Alcohol basically has a sweet taste, however this sensation can be accentuated by adding caramel or sugar syrups, allowed for the production of some distillates and generally used in low quality products in order to round the “harshness” of a distillate. Just like for wine, it will be evaluated the intensity and persistence of flavors, while paying attention on the alcohol which will be perceived in the beginning and will rapidly dissolve. Particular attention will be paid on the final bitter taste, which will never be excessive, as well as any possible sour taste - usually covered by alcohol - and that must be scarcely perceivable.


Balance and Harmony

 Just like for wine, even in distillates an important quality factor is expressed by the balance and harmony of every phase of tasting. Balance and harmony of a distillate are mainly expressed by its aromas and its taste. Alcohol - despite it is present in high quantities - will never disturb the olfactory and gustatory perception of a distillate. The aromas must be clean and clear, just like the execution of a symphony in which it is possible to recognize all the instruments of the orchestra. The gustatory harmony is basically expressed by the balance of flavors, where none of them will excessively prevail over the other ones and leaving the mouth in perfect balance. A mediocre quality distillate - for example - will tend to exalt a sweet taste, almost sickly, after swallowing: this could be the sign of added sugar or caramel, probably in excessive quantities. Finally it should be remembered there are many ways to age a distillate without waiting years of patient rest in a cask. In fact it can be used - in low quality distillates - huge quantities of caramel, wood chips or sugar syrups, all these to make “old” a distillate which is just few months old.


 Events  Share this article     Summary of Corkscrew column Not Just Wine 
  Corkscrew Issue 30, May 2005   
Tasting DistillatesTasting Distillates  Contents 
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