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

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.

I couldn't dispute those judgments, but a few days after I met him, when I opened his new book, I found myself often disagreeing vehemently with his reviews. Only three stars for Campari? Only two stars ("Not Recommended") for Pernod? I thought his assessment of Bluecoat gin -- a new gin I like very much -- was dead wrong and mean-spirited: "This one-car accident doesn't in the least resemble gin at any level." Ouch.

Some of his omissions also bothered me. Why, among 2,400 spirits, is there no Martini & Rossi among the vermouths? Why no Pampero among the rums or Patron among the tequilas? Even Martell is absent from the cognacs. Finally, when I saw he'd listed Absolut Pears -- one of the worst spirits I tasted in 2007, cloying and fake as a Jolly Rancher -- as one of his 111 best liquors in the world, I tossed the book across the room.

But a few days later, when I picked it up again, I found myself in complete agreement on nearly every other page, especially regarding his five-star ratings for some of my favorite spirits (Benedictine, Chartreuse, El Tesoro de Don Felipe Anejo tequila and Cointreau) and his assessments of many others. In the end, my agreements and disagreements serve to illustrate just how difficult this tasting business can be.

Pacult's judgments aren't static. In his Spirit Journal, he often shares the results of re-tastings, and those often ruffle feathers within the industry. For instance, in September 2007 he downgraded Grey Goose Vodka from the four stars ("Highly Recommended") he'd given it in 1997 to two stars.

How could the same spirit take that big a swing? When I asked him about that at our session, Pacult replied that he'd re-tasted against an unopened bottle in his basement from the late 1990s and that Grey Goose has changed its recipe (to kowtow to the sweeter American palate, he suspects). "I felt kind of sad when I re-tasted it," he said. "When a product goes sweet like that, I have to ask what they're masking."

Yet for all his feather-ruffling, Pacult admits to being closely tied to several liquor companies, doing consulting work on product development. Pacult says he will never review a specific product he consults on, yet he does review other products by the same brand. Though I am uncomfortable with that approach, I appreciate his candor on the issue.

He is also candid about when he has gotten things wrong. For instance, in the June 2007 issue, he upgraded his original 1995 review of Campari from two stars to three -- for a spirit that has had the same recipe since the 19th century. "That was me, my palate, changing," Pacult said. "The first go-round with Campari, I really didn't understand the bitter subcategory. I've learned a lot more since then."

I cannot imagine a major wine or restaurant critic admitting such a thing. But I think that is where Pacult's strength lies. All he is offering is one man's opinion. Of course, this one man has tasted more than 20,000 spirits over two decades.

"The only reason I can do this at all is that I've built up a library of impressions," he said. "Fifteen years of data is in my head. Anyone can do this, provided you're willing to put in the time."

For a recipe that uses cognac, try a Hoopla.

Jason Wilson can be reached at food@washpost.com.

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