My friends joke about getting The Call: “So, I’m wondering if you’re free tomorrow night, and interested in tasting some. . . .”
That’s when I try to round up a panel of friends to compare kinds of Armagnac, Irish whiskey, Spanish brandy, whatever. First-timers rarely realize what they are getting themselves into. Although these acquaintances might be whiskey lovers or brandy fans, they aren’t used to sipping, say, 12 bourbons or 15 Calvados, concentrating on each sip and then jotting down notes and opinions.
They usually feel overwhelmed at the start. Yet by the third or fourth sample, their smiles get a little wider, their voices get a little louder and their descriptions become more florid.
A spirits tasting is a much more raucous affair than a wine tasting. I’ve been teaching spirits courses at a wine school, and it is always the same: People look at the four flights and their eyes widen. But by the end of the second round, the sommelier in the class next door usually knocks on the door and asks us to settle down.
A recent tasting of aged rums among several friends got me thinking: Why don’t more people host spirits tastings? By now, wine tastings are pretty standard. Most people who love wines have probably opened a number of bottles to sip and compare across styles and grapes. But although you occasionally hear of an expensive Scotch, tequila or Cognac dinner at a nice restaurant, you rarely hear of people hosting more informal tasting parties at home.
Given the growing popularity of spirits, I feel
like it’s high time for enthusiasts to consider hosting a tasting party this summer. So I’m going to offer tips on how to do just that.
First, a major geek alert: An undertaking like this is for people who have been getting deeper and deeper into the world of spirits and cocktails. Maybe you’ve got a growing collection of bitters and foreign bottles, and have started making special cocktails at home. If this describes you — and there are definitely more and more of us — I can assure you there is no better way to ramp up your knowledge than a comparative tasting around a category or theme.
My most recent rum tasting was a great example. Over the past few years I have collected rums of varying ages, styles and geographic locations. I was interested in how aging affected different rums, so I put together several rounds of tastings, or flights, based on age. Four friends and I tasted from youngest to oldest, taking our time, writing notes and then discussing and debating our thoughts after each flight.
In the end, we all came away with a better understanding of how different rums age and how it affects tastes. More important, we learned our own preferences.
There are several key differences between a spirits tasting and a wine tasting. The first is how one actually tastes. Unlike at a wine event, where you vigorously swirl the liquid in your glass to release aromas and “open up” the wine, you don’t want to agitate spirits so much. If you vigorously swirl a 100-proof rum or bourbon, all you’re going to get is a face full of alcohol.
Instead, gently twirl the glass, allowing the liquor to coat its sides. For me, the ideal glass for whiskey or rum is a nosing glass that’s bulb-shaped and tapers to a narrow rim.
Next, it’s important to begin with a tiny sip that clears the palate. Follow up with a larger sip that coats the mouth.
This is key: Don’t spit.
The reason you shouldn’t spit is because the finish is so important. Fine spirits should have a long, pleasant, lingering finish — not a hot, kerosene-like burn. Because professional spirits tasters almost never spit, we always sample with much less liquid than we would with wine: about a half-ounce. A taste of wine would be about an ounce.
For that reason, you can’t possibly taste as many spirits in a sitting as you can wine. I can taste 50 or more wines in an afternoon, spitting them as I go, and I can still function critically. Once I taste about a dozen or so spirits, my palate starts to get overwhelmed. For a newbie, the number is more like eight.
Another issue with a fine spirits tasting is that the expense can be much greater than that of a wine tasting. To keep costs in check, I’ve chosen to focus on rum for our sample tasting, because rum is comparatively cheaper than whiskey, brandy or tequila.
For your enjoyment, I’ve mapped out an eight-rum tasting, divided into four flights. The cost to do this entire tasting is around $250. Not cheap. But if you organize a party with six to eight friends, no one should spend more than about $40. Alternatively, to keep costs down, you could taste four rums, one from each flight.
To make a tasting party even more festive, I always make some kind of punch, to serve either as everyone arrives or as a palate cleanser after the tasting. In this case, keeping with a rum theme, I choose the classic Jamaican Punch. Save the aged rums for the tasting, and use a good-value light rum, such as Chairman’s Reserve Silver, in this punch.
Good luck. Have fun. I’m always ready for The Call, should you need an extra mouth.
Wilson is the author of “Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits” (Ten Speed Press, 2011). Follow him on Twitter @boozecolumnist. He’ll join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.