Taste them All, Taste them Twice
I write this posting a bit farther in advance of publication than usual, as the Nightclub and Bar Show arrival means most people involved with this newsletter and website are working overtime finishing final preparations for all to do with the Show, its events and educational activities, and, oh, yes, where to go for a post-show drink. But it's also just before the Ultimate Spirits Challenge, and the International Rum Fest, both of which I'm judging this year, and just after a big informal gin tasting I did last week in advance of a story I'm working on about the state of the juniper spirit. A busy time, but full of revelations.
New York bartender Toby Cecchini joined me in the gin tasting and, while we were focusing on where the gins landed in a juniper/citrus/herbaceous/textural spectrum I'm trying to develop, we also both noted how much some of the gins tasted differently than we expected, remembered and hoped for, causing consternation in some cases, pleased reevaluation in others. You'd expect gin, unlike spirits based on agricultural products (tequila, rum) with varying qualities, or others (whiskies and brandies) in which wood makes the difference, to remain pretty much the same. As a neutral grain spirit influenced primarily by the impact of various botanicals, gin's flavor should be predictable and consistent. And in the gins Toby and I sampled recently, they probably in most cases did meet the same recipe-based flavor profile for some time, though it appears a few of the smaller production gins haven't been treated as consistently in their production.
What may have changed was what we expect from a spirit, what we are using them for and what the trends are. The arrival of the New American Gin, with its heavy reliance on citrus and soft-touching of juniper, may have changed our expectations of what gin might deliver. Our palates may have changed. Or more likely, we may have fixed in our minds a product's place in the flavor and intensity spectrum and then moved on, without revisiting the field to question our palates and memories. Judging from what I learned in the gin tasting (namely that citrus has become a juniper-bashing club, and flowers and fruits - rose and raspberry, among others - are taking a stronger position in many new products), and what I expect to confront in the UBC coming up, I'm reminded how important tasting and retasting of a spirit can be, especially in an age when drinks are crafted based on such things as the rye or wheat content of a whiskey.
The learnings continued on the tequila front. The changing quality of various tequilas may be the most obvious reason bartenders need to keep more aware of what actually goes into the bottle more than they do about drink competitions or promotional campaigns. As the tequila boom goes on and producers struggle to manage their barrels with the same skills as are required in the whiskey world, many have failed to be consistent. Other companies have altered their basic production standards, and once-admired brands have been known to sink rapidly and obviously in quality, as owners roll the dice on lavish ad campaigns to sell their product through. Recent reports from bartenders and other industry folk about the decline in quality of a major brand of tequila only confirm what I learned in a tasting last fall, and remind me that if you think you know your favorite or popular bar product, sample it against some of its competitors every now and then, just to be safe. Bottom line: when building a new cocktail, be sure to taste the base spirit, even if it's one you've used time and again.