It's a Matter of Tastes (20,000 of Them)

F. Paul Pacult rates spirits in a quarterly journal and a new book.
F. Paul Pacult rates spirits in a quarterly journal and a new book. (By Maryanne Russell)
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By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Taste is so subjective, so fickle and a source of so much insecurity. Anyone who's in the business of sipping or chewing and then passing judgment will inevitably face the question, "Why should we trust you?" After a particularly intense stretch of tastings recently, my palate seemingly on overload, I found myself asking the same question: Can I trust my own perceptions?

So I decided to pay a visit to a guy who has been doing this a lot longer than I have: F. Paul Pacult, publisher of the influential quarterly newsletter Spirit Journal. Over two decades, Pacult has emerged as a sort of Robert Parker of the spirits industry. This spring he released "Kindred Spirits 2," the follow-up to his seminal 1997 guide that rated 1,200 spirits on a five-star scale. In the new book, Pacult rates more than 2,400 spirits.

I had not met Pacult before, though I've regularly consulted my dog-eared copy of the first "Kindred Spirits" over the past 10 years. As I drove up to his home office in Wallkill, N.Y., I worried that I'd find the ultimate spirits snob: someone who would make me feel like a fraud. Or vice versa.

I found neither snob nor fraud. We sat on his patio and chatted a bit about what he called the "golden age of spirits." Pacult says spirits are at a place in the public's consciousness that is similar to where wine was in the early 1980s. "I think it's been a natural progression," he said. "As our collective palate has grown, suddenly we needed more challenge. And spirits are a bigger challenge."

We then went to his office, where I joined in tasting three cognacs from Martell: Cordon Bleu ($85), XO ($129) and Creation Grand Extra ($299). Pacult tastes only in the morning, usually beginning about 8:30, and never more than eight spirits in a session. He uses a spittoon and rarely swallows. (The idea of morning tastings and spitting runs completely counter to my own strategies.)

First, appearance. We held our glasses up to the light. Pacult found "impeccable purity" in the Cordon Bleu but was crestfallen by bits of sediment he detected in the XO and Creation Grand Extra. (They were so minuscule that it took me three inspections before I could finally spot one.)

Next came smell, the sense that Pacult insists is the most important in experiencing spirits. We started again with the Cordon Bleu. "Mmm. First whiff gives me nuts," he said. "Next, I smell dried flowers, almost like in a yearbook." He typed, "Sophisticated scent, mature."

We smelled the XO. Pacult said he got "pears, grapes and an oily, buttery scent" on his first sniff, then "cherries, dried strawberry, white chocolate and prunes." He typed, "Mature yet owns the promise of youthfulness."

By now, I was playing along and said that I was smelling dates. "Dates!" he shouted and typed, "my friend Jason who's tasting with me says 'dates.' "

Finally, we got to taste. Now Pacult rubbed his hands together, moaning in ecstasy. "Sexy, sexy stuff. I have to say, I would bathe in Cordon Bleu if I could afford it," he said.

Of the XO, he said: "This spirit is a little prickly. I like that. This is not Mountain Dew. This is supposed to have a little kickback."

At the end, he said the Cordon Bleu would receive five stars and the XO and Creation Grand Extra would receive four or five stars apiece, even with the sediment.

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