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 Events  Share this article     Summary of Corkscrew column Not Just Wine 
  Corkscrew Issue 31, June 2005   
Distillates' FaultsDistillates' Faults  Contents 
Issue 30, May 2005 Follow DiWineTaste on Follow DiWineTaste on TwitterIssue 32, Summer 2005

Distillates' Faults

A quality distillate is, first of all, a faultless distillate, without negative organoleptic elements that can compromise the perception of its positive characteristics

 The exercise of organoleptic and sensorial tasting of distillates - just like in wine - requires practice, commitment, concentration and the capacity of remembering sensorial stimuli in order to recognize them and to use this experience in subsequent occasions. The goals of the tasting of a product can be many: it can be tasted for the pleasing sensations it can give, it can be tasted in order to define its quality and elegance, or it can be tasted in order to determine, in a hypothetical rank, what is the best product, just to mention some cases. Despite the reason why a product is being tasted - in our case a distillate - an essential factor determining its appreciation is represented by quality, a characteristic that, first of all, is expressed in the absence - or in the least possible number - of faults that could compromise the perception and the appreciation of all the positive characteristics.

 The capacity of recognizing faults in distillates is essential as these negative qualities make mediocre and not very pleasing a product, a characteristic which is frequently found in many brandies. The art of distillation is a process whose result is determined by many factors, including the quality of raw matter and of its keeping, the distillation system, the skill and knowledge of the distiller, as well as the practices used for giving a distillate its typicality before bottling. Each one of these phases has critical phases which frequently compromise the whole quality of a distillate even though - for many faults developed during the processing - a new distillation can fix the problem or however make it less evident. Faults which are frequently found in low or mediocre quality distillates and therefore it is essential to be able to recognize them.

Balloon: a glass which excessively exalts
the ethereal pungency of alcohol
Balloon: a glass which excessively exalts the ethereal pungency of alcohol

 A fundamental premise should be done about the glass used for the evaluation of a distillate. One of the most frequent faults found in distillates is alcohol pungency which tends to cover all the other aromatic qualities. As opposed to other aromatic substances, alcohol is a highly volatile element and it does not certainly need any particular encouragement - by means of the shape of the glass - in order to express its ethereal and pungent aroma. As the excessive alcohol pungency is considered a fault, it should be remembered this characteristic is strongly influenced by the shape and the volume of a glass. In a glass having a large shape - such as the well known short stemmed balloon glass, frequently used for the service of distillates aged in wood - this quality is excessively exalted, whereas in a tulip glass - narrower and less wide - the same quality will be strongly attenuated. As an example it can be compared the aromatic impact of alcohol in a balloon glass and in a tulip glass: the difference will be evident and will immediately make this concept clear.

 Another fundamental characteristic for the right appreciation of distillates is temperature. If it is true a wrong glass can excessively exalt alcohol pungency, the same is true for high temperatures. At low temperatures alcohol pungency will be attenuated and more tolerable, however will also be attenuated all the other organoleptic qualities, including any possible fault. Ideal serving temperatures for distillates vary according to the type. For brandies non aged in wood, such as young grappa and fruit brandies, the temperature should be from 8°C to 12°C (46°F-54°F); distillates aged for a short time in wood casks, from 14 to 16°C (57°-61°F); whereas for brandies aged for a long time in wood casks the serving temperature should be of 18°C (65°F). Higher temperatures will excessively exalt the ethereal and pungent quality of alcohol, whereas temperatures lower than 6°C (43°F) will make distillates taste oily and fatty as well as attenuating - almost completely - the olfactory perception of aromas. Another practice to avoid is to warm the glass and the distillate by using a flame: in this way the pungency and ethereal quality of alcohol will be exalted, they will develop burnt faults and the distillate will lose its finesse.


Appearance Faults

 Every fresh distilled brandy - when it comes out from the alembic's cooler - is very limpid, crystalline and has no fault in the appearance, provided the distiller did a good job, of course. From this moment on, the appearance of distillate can only get worse because of mistakes made during the procedures required to obtain a brandy according to its typicality. Among the faults which can be found in a distillate, the ones concerning the appearance are to be considered very rare, also thanks to the many technologies which can eventually help to fix some mistakes. Producing a limpid and crystalline distillate - although this is an essential characteristic - does not require a particular skill, saved the correct use and the knowledge of practices which avoid the production of brandies with appearance faults. For this reason, a distillate showing faults in its aspect is to be considered of bad quality, as well as signaling the scarce capacity of the distiller in his or her job.


 A serious fault is a milky appearance which could compromise - even minimally - transparency. Distillates, as they are produced from the alembic, have pretty high alcoholic volumes - even up to 86% - therefore, in order to make them suitable for consumption, the alcohol volume is properly lowered. This operation - done by adding distilled water - makes the distillate turbid or milky and it will be necessary to eliminate this fault by means of a proper cooling followed by filtering. This operation gives the distillate its original transparency. As for color, young distillates non aged in wood will always be colorless and transparent like water: any yellow nuance or hue is to be considered a fault. Color in distillates aged in wood containers is so variable which is pretty hard - and disputable - talking about faults, as this quality could correspond to what the producer wanted. It is good to remember caramel can be used in order to deep the intensity of color in distillates and it is allowed in many cases, however a brandy aged for few months or few years in a cask and showing a pretty deep color could signal the use of an excessive quantity of caramel. Not really a fault, but certainly a disputable choice in order to make a distillate look older than what it really is.


Olfactory Faults

 If it is true it is hard to find a distillates having faults in the appearance, the same cannot be said for olfactory qualities. In fact it is in the aromas which faults are more frequently found in distillates, and it is thanks to the olfactory characteristics of a distillate which can be largely understood both the quality of the raw matter as well as the skill of the distiller. The art of distillation can be seen as a simple process: after all it is enough to heat a fermented raw matter and to wait for the distillate to come out from the alembic. Despite the simplicity with which the process of distillation can be summarized, indeed this is an extremely and delicate process in which all the knowledge and the skill of a talented distiller are required in order to obtain a high quality product, first of all, faultless. It is right from the capacity of producing a faultless distillate which makes distillation both a noble art and a complex process, in which by just neglecting one single detail means compromising the final result. An effect which is, first of all, detrimental for the most pleasing aspect of a distillate - the aromas - and, last but not the least, its taste.

 One of the most frequent faults in distillates is the excessive alcohol pungency, a characteristic that, besides covering other aromas, can also cause painful reactions during the olfactory evaluation. Concerning this aspect, it is appropriate to remember the quantity of ethyl alcohol in distillates can also represent about the half of the volume, therefore alcohol pungency will always be present, although with different intensities. Moreover, it must be remembered the pungency fault - besides being caused by alcohol - is also accentuated by other volatile substances. For this reason, the fault of pungency, unfortunately found in many distillates, it is the sign of a bad distillation as well as of a bad keeping of the raw matter. Among the main olfactory faults are mentioned:


  • Head Smell - it is the result of the wrong separation of the first part of distillation, called head. It can be recognized by the tendency of the distillate to develop aromas recalling vinegar because of the presence of acetic aldehyde and ethyl acetate
  • Vinegar - it is recognized by an evident and strong smell of vinegar because of an excessive presence of ethyl acetate and acetic aldehyde. Another cause of this fault is the use of a spoiled raw matter caused by acetic bacteria which have produced vinegar
  • Burnt - it is perceived as a clear and strong smell of burnt because of an excessive heating of the raw matter during distillation. In distillates aged in wood can also be the sign of the use of too much toasted casks. This fault can also recall the acrid smell of smoke, not to be confused with the pleasing aroma of smokey
  • Mold - the smell of mold can be caused by many factors, such as the use of a spoiled raw matter caused by mold, a dirty alembic, as well as dirty casks or affected by mold
  • Rotten Eggs - this fault can be perceived in grappa produced with pomace which underwent a faulty fermentation and in which have developed aromas of mercaptans and sulphur hydrogen
  • Goat - this fault is usually found in grappa whose pomace was altered during fermentation and developed butirric acid and ethyl butyrate, therefore producing an unpleasing smell similar to rancid
  • Sauerkraut - it can be sometimes perceived in grappa whose pomace was affected by protein spoilage before distillation
  • Wax, Sweat - when it is perceived in grappa it can be caused by a bad keeping of pomace, however this fault is also caused by a wrong distillation - in particular during the separation of the tail, that is the final part of the distillate - as well as a wrong cooling procedure during stabilization
  • Rancid - it is a fault which can be found in brandies produced with solid raw matters - such as grappa and fruit brandy - and are caused by an alteration of the pomace or raw matter
  • Oxidized - a fault which can be found in distillates aged in non completely filled casks, therefore leaving huge quantities of oxygen inside. This fault can also be found in distillates kept for a long time in open and non completely filled bottles


Gustatory Faults

 Faults in distillates are frequently found in their tastes as well and - just like for olfactory faults - they compromise the quality and agreeability of a brandy. Just like aromas, even in the taste the pungency of alcohol can compromise the quality of a distillate and, when excessive, it is considered a fault. Distillates contain high quantities of alcohol and therefore the burning effect which develops in the mouth after its introduction is normal. However the development of this tactile quality it is not the same in all distillates - also accentuated by other components - and in a good distillate the burning pungency of alcohol should be perceived in the beginning and then dissolve rapidly while allowing the other flavors to develop. Even in this case, the absence of gustatory faults is the sign of the skill and mastery of the distiller during the processing of the raw matter. Following is a list of the most frequent gustatory faults found in distillates.


  • Head Taste - it is caused by an excessive quantity of acetic aldehyde and ethyl acetate, it can be recognized to the taste by the vinegar sensation perceived in the mouth. It is the sign of a wrong separation of the head during distillation
  • Tail Taste - it can be recognized by a strong oily sensation of the distillate. Even in this case it is caused by a wrong separation of the final part of the distillate from the heart
  • Bitter - despite bitter taste is found in all distillates, it must however be in minimal quantities and however balanced to all the other flavors. When the bitter taste is excessive and compromises the harmony of a distillate, in particular after it has been swallowed, it is considered a fault. The causes can be many: excessive quantity of chemical compound with a bitter taste, excessive quantity of polyphenols passed from wood, bad quality of caramel used to deep the color
  • Acid - in distillates are found many substances having a sour taste, however the high quantity of alcohol balances their perception and makes the distillate taste with no sour or acid flavors. When the sour taste is clearly perceptible, it is the sign of a fault generally caused by a wrong separation of the tail from the heart of the distillate
  • Metallic - it is a fault which can be found in young grappa and which usually tends to disappear with aging. This fault is generally caused by copper passed from the alembic still during distillation
  • Woody - many distillates are being aged in cask, however the typical characters of wood must be balanced and harmonic with all the other organoleptic qualities. When the typical tastes of wood are found in excessive quantity, therefore compromising the perception of other aromas and flavors, it is considered a fault. This is caused by an excessive presence of polyphenols passed from wood and of coarse tannins, as well as by long aging period and casks constructed with wood not suitable for this purpose


 Events  Share this article     Summary of Corkscrew column Not Just Wine 
  Corkscrew Issue 31, June 2005   
Distillates' FaultsDistillates' Faults  Contents 
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