Put a little more effort and imagination into your tasting notes, and you and your guests will get a whole lot more out of your spirits list, argues Dave Broom
Ideal with chicken or pasta. How often my heart has sunk as I’ve read those words on a back label, or on a wine list. Instead of describing the wine properly – offering a well thought out option as to when, where and with what to drink it – you encounter this bland non-recommendation, this cop-out.
What kind of chicken, what type of pasta, and with what sauce? The lack of real engagement with the customer, not to mention the liquid itself, is positively breathtaking.
While things have not quite reached the level of ‘ideal with chicken or pasta’ with spirits, the language used in tasting notes is so often lacking in accuracy. Reading what should be an aid to buying a spirit ends up being no more than a list of meaningless and interchangeable words. Islay whiskies, for example, are ‘smoky’, while golden rums taste of ‘tropical fruit’. There’s little attempt made to differentiate between Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig, or to state the difference in flavour between Appleton, El Dorado or Flor de Caña.
The solution is learning how to write a tasting note, which itself means re-learning how to taste. It might sound overly technical, but tasting isn’t about enjoyment – drinking is – and the two need to be kept separate.
Step 1: Refresh your olfactory memory bank
Sadly, as we mature, we forget to consciously smell things. In order to refresh our memory banks, we need to start actually smelling once more and become engaged with the world.
Go to food markets; pick flowers, grasses, weeds and herbs; give your socks a quick once over; smell your armpits, or the kids’ rabbit hutch. Smells are all around us – rediscover them.
The scents in spirits (well most of ‘em) are natural. They belong to and come from the world. If you engage with the world, then the world will help you engage with the spirit.
Step 2: Taste comparatively
You taste in order to discern and assess the quality and character of a spirit. In doing so, the differences between one spirit and another will be revealed. When tasting, therefore, always have another glass (preferably two) of a comparable spirit to taste at the same time.
This will amplify the individual characteristics of each spirit, helping you to work out levels of sweetness, for example, or smoke, or types of fruit. What might seem full bodied on its own, may reveal itself to be light and dry when placed against spirits which are full bodied.
Step 3: Be specific
Start the note by asking simple questions: is this spirit light or heavy; is it dry or sweet; is it harsh or smooth; is it smoky? Then look deeper.
Let’s say we have three glasses of rum in front of us, all of which smell of ‘vanilla’ and ‘fruit’. Are you really going to use those two words in three different notes? Look again, look deeper. Is it really vanilla or is it butter, cream, ice cream, suntan lotion, coconut or fudge? What kind of fruit? Green, white, soft, berry, dried? If it’s ‘banana’ then is the banana unripe, ripe, over-ripe, black, fried or dried?
If it’s ‘floral’ then what kind of flowers? If it’s ‘citric’, is it orange, lemon, kumquat or grapefruit?
Don’t forget the mouthfeel or texture of the spirit, and what flavours appear at what times on your palate. Is it dry or sweet, heavy or light? What is the finish like? Do any new flavours emerge? Is it long or short?
Step 4: Be vivid – but not too personal
Aromas are scent molecules that are decoded in your olfactory system and then transmitted to the brain to be converted into pictures. You don’t just smell an aroma, you see it in your mind.
As you never forget a smell, there’s little surprise that they appear as visions and experiences from childhood. But there is a problem with simply splurging out all of the pictures in your head. If I were to write a tasting note talking of standing outside the Glasgow Underground smelling its distinctive aroma while eating a Scotch pie, the picture is 100% accurate as far as I am concerned, but ultimately gibberish to the reader/customer.
In other words, while your memories give you access to a huge data bank of aromatic images, you need to use them judiciously. At no point can that tasting note become too personal.
Step 5: Understand the significance of your notes
Anyone can smell that a spirit has an aroma of vanilla. The key is knowing what it means, and then spinning that information into a description. It’s a bit like reading allegorical art, where each item means something.
If a spirit has an aroma of vanilla or coconut, say, then it is likely to have been aged in American oak. If there is clove or dried fruit and higher tannins then it’s likely to have been aged in an ex-sherry cask made of European oak.
A high level of floral notes in cognac will suggest the spirit is young, but if it is more spicy it will be older. An aroma of leather, musk, blue cheese and wild mushrooms is called rancio, which only emerges after prolonged influence of wood.
When tasting bourbon, look for how intense the acidic spiciness is on the back of the palate; it will give an idea of the level of rye used in the mashbill. The more oily and deeply juicy an Irish whiskey is, the higher the level of traditional pot still used.
Step 6: Assemble your notes methodically
Now you have read the images in the mind and looked deeply into the glass, it’s time to start assembling your notes. Remember that your notes are there not just to help you and your colleagues but also to inform customers and give them confidence – and confidence means they’ll spend.
Let’s take those three fruity, vanilla rums as an example.
The first words which are used are the hook words; the terms that everyone understands. They seem simple but these are your way into giving the customer confidence – words like ‘sweet’, ‘soft’, ‘smoky’, ‘smooth’ or ‘dry’. Now throw in the main aromas, again keeping it simple, but accurate, always remembering to differentiate between them.
So, let’s say we start with:
Spirit 1: Sweet. Gentle. Mango. Coconut cream.
Spirit 2: Rich. Mature. Ripe banana. Vanilla pod.
Spirit 3: Clean. Soft. Passion fruit. Crème brûlée.
Now add in your hook words for the palate:
Spirit 1: Sweet. Gentle. Mango. Coconut cream. Smooth. Ripe. Long.
Spirit 2: Rich. Mature. Ripe banana. Vanilla pod. Toasted oak. Sweet spice.
Spirit 3: Clean. Soft. Passion fruit. Crème brûlée. Silky.
And there you have the framework for your notes. Now you can start embroidering with some of the terms you have found to differentiate each rum from its neighbours:
Spirit 1: A gentle rum whose sweet nose brings to mind ripe mango covered with a lick of coconut cream and whose long, smooth taste, with its touches of guava and hibiscus, lingers for an eternity. A distillation to sip over ice.
Spirit 2: This rich, mature rum mixes ripe banana, vanilla pod and a hint of tobacco on the nose. In the mouth there are autumnal notes of allspice and toasty oak. One for after dinner.
Spirit 3: A light, clean rum whose delicate nose has hints of passion fruit and crème brûlée. The palate is delicate, where citrus and pineapple lurk. Ideal in mixed drinks.
Step 7: Think about drinking occasions
Don’t just think of these liquids as being spirits but, as in two of the examples above, think of how the aromas and flavours may suggest a season.
Fragrant and floral single malts with their aromas of cut grass and blossom are spring whiskies for me. Those with soft vanilla and apricot accents are summery; berry fruits and nuts are autumnal; and dried fruit is winter.
Each of these styles will also give you an idea as to when they can best be enjoyed: spring whiskies are ideal aperitifs whereas autumn and winter ones are digestifs. By looking deeper into the nature of the liquid, you will find that the right occasion for drinking it will become more obvious.
Not only does this mean that you’ll deliver the information more vividly and effectively – it will also help you to devise a more balanced range of whiskies that covers all these areas.
The hook words also give you an opportunity to band spirits together not by terroir but by flavour. It’s more common these days for wine lists to do this and it makes perfect sense – your guests will more often than not choose a wine because of its taste, how it goes with food etc. Why not apply the same approach to spirits?
Step 8: When it comes to the menu, keep it short
Of course you can make it fun, but if you do that, make it short and don’t overdo it. If you compare one spirit to music then you had best make sure you can do the same with them all, and then ensure it doesn’t become contrived. In time, the notes will have the brevity but profundity of a great haiku. And there will be no mention of either chicken or pasta.